Under normal circumstances, the world would be turning its attention to a horse race in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May.
This year, nothing is normal.
In other years, people from all over the world – rich horse owners, trainers and jockeys, gamblers and hustlers, once-a-year swells, young party people – congregate on the south side of Louisville in a throbbing spectacle of energy, the polar opposite of social distancing (particularly in the mosh pit of the infield.)
The ritual got to me. We lived in Kentucky for only two runnings of the Kentucky Derby, 1971 and 1972; I went to a Derby party of black professionals on the West End one year and my wife organized a Derby-night party the next year.
I took a cab home from the track in 1972 and the driver charged me some horrendous figure and when I protested that I was a resident, not a tourist, he told me “Derby rates, Chief.”
I think about that every first Saturday in May, back home on Long Island. When the grandkids were younger I would make them stand up for the playing of the official song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky: “My Old Kentucky Home,” and they shook their heads, as if to say, “What is it with Pop?”
It’s the spectacle -- women sporting colorful broad-brimmed hats with gaudy flowers, as if they dressed that way every day.
But this is one day a year – when Louisville emerges from the mists, like “Brigadoon” or Atlantis, some mystical civilization.
Yes, I know it’s only a horse race – the prime American event in an industry tarnished by copious deaths of horses in recent years.
And yes, I also know I am getting sentimental over a song – “My Old Kentucky Home,” by Stephen Foster, now scrubbed of overt words and nostalgia that seemed to glorify the very worst tradition of the South.
There is a legend that Foster, from Pittsburgh, never set foot in Kentucky but as a boy he visited an uncle who was president of tiny Augusta College, in northeast Kentucky. Quite likely, Foster heard blacks worshipping – singing -- at a church in the little town.
As an adult, Foster wrote a song about a slave who was sold down the Ohio River, saying farewell to all he knew. Although he used the worst words and stereotypes, Foster apparently meant the song as a criticism of slavery, taking his cue from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that sensitized the North to the evils of slavery. Both came out in 1852.
Long ago, Kentucky changed some of the lyrics about how happy the “darkies’” children were, rolling around on the cabin floor. Over recent decades, Kentucky maneuvered the song into the sentimental remembrance people have for their home towns, their home states, the goods and the bads.
I was a news reporter based in Kentucky, with no illusions. When all the Derby celebrants in blue jeans or expensive frocks stand up for the state song, I always think about the coal-camp shacks in some gritty bottom land, or modest farmhouses in the western part of the state.
The wind whistling across Long Island on Thursday reminded me of the tornado I covered in 1972 that impaled a boy on a tree branch while he slept in his own bed, only an hour southeast of Louisville, or the killer tornado in 1974 that blew through our old neighborhood on the East End, blowing the roof off the grade school our children had attended, before doing much worse just north in Xenia, Ohio. ("I knew it was coming," my wife said, now back home.)
When they play the state song on the first Saturday in May, I think of Dec. 30, 1970, after the “shot man” had employed illegal outdoor sparking fuses in the gaseous mine, a violation of rules and common sense, causing 38 miners to be blown to Kingdom Come.
For all that, I celebrate the spectacle on TV – don’t bet, don’t drink juleps or anything else, but I do love to watch.
I don’t pay attention to racing now that I am retired, but I love the pre-race program when NBC educates instant Derby fans.
Last year, alone with my wife, I stood for the anthem, then watched several thoroughbreds veer dangerously close to each other. “Hold on! I shouted at the gallant jockeys, inches from danger. Nobody fell, but I was not at all surprised when stewards took down the winner (can't remember the names) because he had been the most blatant factor in the near collision.
Nothing will happen on Saturday. Nothing at all. Theoretically they have pushed the Derby back to Sept. 5, but I have major doubts we are going to see sports crowds any time soon.
By-and-by hard times will come a-knocking at my door
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight
* * *
About Stephen Foster:
One of my greatest sports thrills came the day after the Derby in 1989:
In honor of the Kentucky roots of John Prine, who passed from Covid-19 recently, here is his recording of “My Old Kentucky Home.”