The Kentucky Derby’s irreconcilable marketing problem was apparent just before the race started on Saturday evening.
The cameras panned up to former U.S. president Donald Trump holding court in the stands. You could hear the NBC announcers choking up on their mics as they tried to sound neither excited nor disapproving.
Then the cameras panned down to Drake-adjacent rapper Jack Harlow for the traditional “Riders up” greeting.
The only way for an entertainment property to survive America’s culture war is to pick a side. The NFL has staked out the right. The NBA is No. 1 comrade on the left. Horse racing is so far out of the loop it wants to hold tryouts before they make their choice.
Weirdly, the things keeping the Derby relevant are its anachronisms – the seersucker, the silly hats, the fin de siècle opulence.
To really reinforce this impression, the prerace broadcast ended with Kentucky furniture magnate Jim (Mattress Mack) McIngvale announcing he’d put this year’s million-dollar bet on Epicenter.
Nothing says “this is a sport for everyone” like some Southern plutocrat lighting a lifetime’s worth of earnings on fire while NBC applauds. What does Mack do for fun when the ponies aren’t running? Hunt the most dangerous game of all?
You half-expect the sans-culottes to come streaming onto the in-field mid-race to start the revolution.
But people who don’t care about the sport still tune in every year. They’re hoping to see something they know will not happen. Until it does.
Saturday’s Derby was won by the last kid picked in a 20-horse field – Rich Strike, an 80-to-1 underdog.
Rich Strike’s owners bought him last year for the cost of a used Subaru. A day before the Derby, he wasn’t on the start list. The animal was brought in as a (literal) last-minute replacement for another, ostensibly better, horse.
Rich Strike came from so far behind that the on-air announcer didn’t call his name for the first time until they were in the final hundred yards. The charge through the pack was so unlikely that Rich Strike’s trainer said later he’d passed out and didn’t remember anything about the finish.
Everybody who’s seen it – presumably, more of them via replay on Sunday morning than in real time on Saturday evening – remembers it now.
This Derby gave us what other sports are no longer capable of providing – a triumph that no one, and I mean no one, saw coming.
Horse racing’s far-more-popular competitors are desperate to manufacture this kind of storyline, but they can’t. Everyone’s too good and too famous to begin with.
Whenever they try, it always comes off tinny. How many times were we reminded that the Montreal Canadiens were shocking the world as they slugged their way into the Stanley Cup final last year? Based on the hype, you’d have thought these guys were all given their first pair of skates for Christmas the year before.
You can have parity or you can genuinely shock the world once a century. You don’t get to have both.
Blame the hyperprofessionalization of sport over the past 50 years. It’s raised the general quality of play enough that customers are willing to pay to watch six months of prelims before things get serious. But it also ensures that no one comes out of nowhere, ever. Never ever.
The athletes we watch today are sifted, scouted, drafted, developed, roundly admired and exorbitantly paid long before they get the chance to surprise anyone. So that by the time anyone cares, they are no longer capable of surprises.
This is the main reason the sports movie as a genre has fallen into such disrepair. You can’t have a good sports movie without an underdog. There are none of those any more. So you can’t do a non-fictional sports movie at all unless it’s about some dock worker who wins the heavyweight title during the Depression.
There has been one good North American sports movie over the past 10 years (Moneyball) and it was about a general manager. What’s next? The baseball groundskeeper who overcame the doubters to discover mowing grass on a diagonal?
This is why the sports documentary has such currency at the moment. Because in that milieu, you can squeeze a little juice out of a great child athlete who became a great adult athlete and then won a bunch of stuff.
This isn’t to say that it’s not fun watching gifted people do the things they’re gifted at. If you’re giving me a choice, I’d rather watch Picasso paint.
But nothing moves us in the same way as some shrimp reaching up to pop a gifted artist in the nose. It works better if we’ve never heard of the shrimp before he does it.
Big-time sports can’t give that to us any more, so we have to go truffle hunting through the lesser disciplines to find it: the Olympic outsider who sneaks through to win her first and only time; the occasional boxer who’s been installed as some champion’s punching bag, but doesn’t get the memo; the equipment guy who gets thrown in as an emergency goalie and shows up the pros.
This stuff is now so rare that whenever it happens, it’s global sports news. Why do people go so gaga for this stuff? It’s because they want to believe that, however unlikely it is, they might win the big one some day. Nobody expects it to happen. But they still like to think about it. Whenever someone else manages to do it, it renews their own hope. Even if it’s a horse.
As long as that’s true, people will tune in in May to watch the most expensive thoroughbreds on the planet race a bunch of no-hopers who don’t stand a chance, until one of them does.