BOZICH | Is the Kentucky Derby still one of America's Top 10 sports events?
Where does the Kentucky Derby rank among America's Top 10 sports events? Top Five? Top 10? Top 25?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- America's greatest sportswriters once composed love letters to the Kentucky Derby every spring.
They don't write love letters any more. They rarely tap out a paragraph or two of horse racing prose, not until the America's best 3-year-olds move to Belmont Park with a Triple Crown on the line.
The media culture has changed. America's greatest sportswriters traffic in snark more than love letters. But the Derby draws more shrugs than snark. Horse racing is not a Click Machine in the Internet market.
So every spring, I ask this question:
Where does the Kentucky Derby rank among America's premier sports moments?
At the top?
Hold your snickers. Give me the name of another event that inspires Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and their Patriots' Posse to navigate the Central Avenue mayhem year after year?
It's a short list of sports parties that have attracted more than 164,000 fans in five of the last six years, fans likely to hand over more than $35 million of their money at the betting windows Saturday.
OK, I'll get serious. The Kentucky Derby is not Number One.
I'm a baseball guy, but you don't have to hit me with the Neilsen numbers to put the Super Bowl on top.
Where would the Derby register?
Outside the Top 10?
In the Footnotes?
There is no right or wrong answer -- unless you cannot defend your selections.
Here's mine (and remember I said America's events, which eliminates the World Cup and Olympics among others):
1. Super Bowl -- Nothing to fuss about.
2. NCAA Final Four -- Semifinal Saturday is my favorite day in sports.
3. The World Series -- Especially if the Cubs, Red Sox or Yankees are involved.
4. NBA Finals -- Game Seven of the Cavs-Warriors' series last season was the most watched NBA game in 18 years. Basketball bias? Perhaps.
5. College Football National Championship Game -- Mature viewing numbers for a 3-year-old property. Growth stock.
6. Kentucky Derby -- TV ratings have been strong, attendance has been stronger.
7. The Masters -- The one golf event that remains Tiger-Proof.
8. Daytona 500 -- Imagine if there was pari-mutuel wagering.
9. NCAA Tournament First Weekend -- You do realize this list is Louisville-based.
10. 27-way Tie -- It's Derby Week. I choose not to offend your favorite event (I'm talking to you, Indianapolis).
I'd love to see your list. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top three. Top five. Top 100. Have fun with it.
All I know is there is certainly a different media snapshot surrounding the race. I remember my first Kentucky Derby. It was 1979, the year Spectacular Bid was supposed to follow Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) as a racing Triple Crown winner.
The guys who wrote sports as well as anybody that has written sports worked the Churchill Downs backstretch that year in pursuit of compelling stories. Red Smith of the New York Times was there, three years after he won the Pulitzer Prize.
This is the first paragraph of one column that Smith, the master, wrote advancing Spectacular Bid's Derby:
"This is the week when dear little old ladies in Shawano, Wis., get to know about sports figures named Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster. Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are thoroughbred race horses, and there are vast and sinless areas in this country where they and their like are regarded as instruments of Satan 51 weeks a year. Then comes the week of the Kentucky Derby, and sinless newspapers that wouldn’t mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are suddenly full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May. In cities all over the land stenographers invest their silver in office pools, in cities and towns and on farms the sinless old ladies study the entries and on Saturday almost everyone tunes in on television."
Good luck finding 146 fantastic words written like those about Derby 143.
Smith was not the only Pulitzer Prize winner drawn to Louisville every spring. Jim Murray wrote that Louisville "smelled like an old bar rag." He complained that the meters in Louisville taxi cabs jumped forward at every stop sign. He said the Derby was "a hard luck race in a hard luck town."
But Murray, like Smith, Edwin Pope, Furman Bisher, Blackie Sherrod, Hubert Mizell, Joe Falls, Dave Kindred and other press box legends, always returned to the Twin Spires.
Murray once wrote this about the Kentucky Derby:
"The Derby isn't just a horse race, any more than Elizabeth Taylor is just a woman, the Taj Mahal's a building or Mt. Everest a hill. The Derby is America's race. Everything else is Bridgeport."
Still reads like a love letter to me. The Kentucky Derby does not inspire as many love letters any more. But it has maintained its place on the list of Top 10 sports events in America.
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