THE KENTUCKY DERBY IS TRULY A UNIQUE SLICE OF AMERICANA

THE KENTUCKY DERBY IS TRULY A UNIQUE SLICE OF AMERICANA

–Kenny Rice

This Saturday, as with the first Saturday in May every year, the Kentucky Derby will be run. It is a bucket list event for thousands of sports fans. There are others on the lists: Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, The Masters. But except possibly the Indianapolis 500, these others have a year long following leading up to the biggest day.

No one just throws a Super Bowl party barely knowing who the teams are, yet doing the same for the Derby is a Rite of Spring. It’s a big race, actually a major happening that doesn’t require the loyalty of a following on a regular basis as with the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR series.

There is no sport that has more days filled on the calendar, you can find a horse race every single day of the year somewhere in the U.S.

Statistics show that the sport has declined steadily in on track attendance over the decades from the peak times of the 1940’s and 50’s when next to baseball, horse racing was the most followed sport in the country. Still, when May rolls around in Louisville, that city will be packed with tourists from all over the world. There to see a two minute horse race. Actually there to see how everyone is dressed; to hear concerts; watch a steamboat race; a hot air balloon race; a spectacular fireworks show over the Ohio River. Yes, all these things and more happen for three entire weeks leading up to the race. 

Over 150,000 will likely be at Churchill Downs, a true icon of sports venues, and somewhere around 12-14 million will tune in to watch the race on NBC. Surveys show the majority of these “fans” are only interested in the Derby. If a horse wins in impressive fashion they will follow it to the Preakness, and on to the Belmont if there is a Triple Crown possibility, which hasn’t been achieved since 1978.

For the most part it will only be the Kentucky Derby these watchers in person or on TV will take interest in, regardless of the other 364 days of racing this year. It is a marketing stroke of genius to bring so much attention to so many that the Derby is woven so prominently into the Americana fabric.  That first thread in 1875 that has weaved its way through the Great Depression and two World Wars, countless other conflicts and many celebrations reflecting our heritage. Through it all there has been that consistency of the “Run for the Roses” on the first Saturday in May.

The fastest horse, not always the best, but fastest on that day–wins. And since it is limited to only 3 year old horses, there is only one chance ever for them to win the most famous race in the world. Perhaps that simplicity of beating the odds for that one brief flash into sports lore is the real attraction.  There is something special about it and whether you like horse racing or not there is a good bet you will watch the race or certainly a stretch run highlight to know the winner of this 139th edition.

It’s the Derby after all. It is part of our sports culture.

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The Derby is widely known as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” One of the problems with boxing for several years was all the big fights– the title defenses, the trash talking challenger trying for the huge upset against the reigning champ–ended so quickly. Few of those first round wins were great or memorable. If it wasn’t  for a gnarly broken toe that didn’t even faze him, Jon Jones dominate, quick work in defending his UFC light heavyweight crown wouldn’t hang around even this long in our memory. But that he won with a broken toe only adds to his mystique and makes this the only reason the fight is more than a, yes it begs– footnote.

It will be interesting to see how the future pay-per-view buys go with mismatched UFC match ups, or “The Most So-So Few Minutes in the Octagon.”

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Never to embarrass the MMA fighter who once saw Tim Tebow working out in the same gym and asked him what position he played, yet couldn’t help but think of that moment after the Jets released the QB. While it was a funny story that the fighter wasn’t all that sure who Tebow was yet alone what he played, it is understandable with the size of the former Heisman Trophy winner that he could be mistaken for say a tight end. Which might be the only way he can stay in the NFL.

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Not that MMA invented the tattoo but it does seem that sport raised the ink level all over the place. In the one of the last people on Earth you’d expect to get a tattoo but has–Hall of Fame basketball coach Rick Pitino. He promised his Louisville Cardinals if they won the NCAA Tournament the 60-year old was having needle put to skin. True to his word, Pitino unveiled an impressive “L” on his shoulder in the red and black team colors with “2013” inside to commemorate the achievement.

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino shows off his new ink after honoring his vow to the Cardinals basketball team that he would get a tattoo if they won the NCAA tournament. (University of Louisville / April 26, 2013)

(University of Louisville / April 26, 2013)

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It was fun to have ring announcer Joe Antonacci on our Inside MMA show live from New York a couple of weeks back. He brought insight to the anti-MMA situation in New York. Antonacci is a sports guy first and foremost. He is best know for his work in the boxing ring but has announced at MMA events. He also brought back the Joe Palooka comic book.

Joe Palooka was introduced to the nation in 1930. A comic strip about a boxing champion who also watched out for the little guy, those downtrodden, not appreciated. He was tough but smart with a heart as strong as his punch. Palooka became synomous with boxing, and those looking out for the underdogs, for decades. The comic spawned radio shows, movies and a variety of collectibles, from lunch boxes to trading cards all through the 1940’s and 50’s .

Antonacci loved the comic, and also was well aware of the changing pop cultural when he reintroduced Joe Palooka as an MMA fighter. His friend Phil Ross, a master trainer, consults on the stories, and the graphic novel look brings a whole new compliment to updating an almost forgotten comic legend.

Perfect to re-image Palooka in the cage.

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Watch Kenny Rice along with Bas Rutten LIVE every Friday night on Inside MMA, and check out Kenny’s new book “Not Hit Yet” an insider look at the MMA world, available at Amazon now

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