An efficient examination of the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”
As Nicholson, the scion of a genuine Kentucky horse-breeding family, points out, the Kentucky Derby is as much about colorful colonels, pretty ladies and mint juleps as it is about starting gates, furlongs and Thoroughbreds—maybe even more so. Since its inception in 1875, the great race run annually at Churchill Downs has been understood as an experience, a yearly celebration of a very particular time and place in the nation’s storied history. Whether or not that time or place ever truly existed, writes the author, is immaterial. In fact, it is the malleable nature of the Derby—perhaps best exemplified by the juxtaposition of its notoriously raucous infield and its extravagantly affluent grandstand—that is its greatest strength. Although rooted in a suspect antebellum tradition, the Derby still somehow manages to epitomize whatever the prevailing view of America happens to be at the time. “These values are not static; they evolve, disappear, and resurface at the whim of the pervading cultural, political, and social climate,” Nicholson writes. Keen observations like this prove to be consistently powerful throughout the book, as the author touches on everything from the scandalous demise of celebrated black jockeys to the heavy influence of powerful Middle-Eastern sheiks. The winning horses, of course, are never far from the spotlight. All the great Kentucky Derby champions are here, from Aristides to Secretariat to Smarty Jones. Despite their many heroic exploits on the track, Nicholson’s focus falls beyond the thundering hoof beats that speed past Churchill Downs’ iconic twin spires each spring.
A perceptive history of “Kentucky’s mythic past and modern society” and how the Derby has helped fans “experience Kentucky and…make meaning of themselves as Americans.”