Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Derby remains horse racing's beacon amid troubled times

Kentucky Derby infield fans are searched going into the 4th Street entrance to Churchill Downs Saturday May 5, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Flavell
Kentucky Derby infield fans are searched going into the 4th Street entrance to Churchill Downs Saturday May 5, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Flavell Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Thoroughbred racing is the sport of dark clouds.

Just this week, there is news of yet another New York Racing Association scandal, this time over improper takeouts.

This follows a deadlocked Kentucky racing commission on the issue of banning race-day drugs.

There was a congressional subcommittee hearing on racing safety that deteriorated into a referendum on a sport in decline and decay.

No one agrees on much of anything in this sport.

Except: This is the one day the clouds part.

The Derby is still The Derby.

The 138th running of the world's greatest race will commence at approximately 6:24 p.m. (NBC), and you can argue that the Kentucky Derby is more popular now than ever.

Despite the lack of an overwhelming favorite, last year's Derby attracted its fourth-best television rating in the last 22 years. It was the third straight year in which more than 14 million watched the greatest two minutes in sport.

The ensuing Preakness produced a 5 percent increase in TV viewership over the year before. The Belmont ended up with its best rating in the last six times it was contested without a possible Triple Crown on the line.

At the track, Churchill Downs set an all-time attendance record of 164,858 last Derby. You can expect that to be broken on Saturday.

This is the one day in which the outside world turns on the television, tunes into NBC and actually watches horse racing.

It saw when the little-horse-that-could Smarty Jones won in 2004, when the regal Barbaro flashed excellence (and then gut-wrenching heartbreak) in 2006, when Calvin Borel smartly rode Street Sense in 2007 and the long-shot Mine that Bird to victory in 2009.

There is no one dominant theme to this year's Derby, just a collection of many interesting backstories.

There is the white-haired trainer Bob Baffert, he of the three previous Derby wins and the recent heart attack. His horse, morning-line favorite Bodemeister, is named for Baffert's 7-year-old son, Bode.

There is Union Rags, trained by Michael Matz, who trained the star-crossed Barbaro. Better yet, Union Rags' owner is the 71-year-old Phyllis Wyeth, married to the son of the great painter Andrew Wyeth.

At age 20, Phyllis Wyeth suffered a broken neck in an automobile accident and currently makes her way around the barns of Chadd Ford Stable in a motorized chair.

There is Hansen, the nearly white 2-year-old champion who is named (not so bashfully) for the horse's owner. Dr. Kendall Hansen, he created a controversy by dying his horse's tail blue before the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, only to relent and return the tail to its original color.

There is the unbeaten Gemologist, who boasts the same connections — Win-Star Farm as owner, Todd Pletcher as trainer — that won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver.

There is Went the Day Well, who boasts the same connections — Team Valor as owner, Graham Motion as trainer — that won last year's Derby with Animal Kingdom. Connections have not repeated with Derby winners since Penny Chenery's Meadow Stable won the 1972 and 1973 Kentucky Derbys with Riva Ridge and Secretariat, both trained by Lucien Lauren.

"It was something that seemed unattainable before," said Motion this week on the Churchill backstretch.

And now?

"It's something that I think about every day," he said.

The general public doesn't think about horse racing every day. In fact, the numbers show it thinks of it less and less, and thinks less of it.

That's hardly surprising considering the constant drumbeat of scandal and drugs and safety concerns and the lack of any sort of centralized leadership.

On this one day, however, all that changes, and horse racing is at the center of the sporting universe once again.

The Derby is still The Derby.

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