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The 2020 Kentucky Derby brought us anticipated thrills, phenomenal equine athleticism, hall of fame jockeys, and a peek at a 150 year old tradition that has long been a crown jewel of thoroughbred racing. But 2020 was different: no fans, no hats, no mint juleps, and a September date after both the Travers and the Belmont Stakes races, giving some horses different preparation opportunities. Other major sporting events took place at the same time: baseball, hockey, cycling, and golf. It’s a sure bet that private parties with fancy hats and drinks took place all over the world even though Churchill Downs was empty of fans. 

The most successful three year old thoroughbreds who have earned the honor of an invitation to compete in the Derby have already won many challenging races including Grade I stakes races like the Haskell at Monmouth Park or the Travers at Saratoga to mention only a few. First and foremost, the Kentucky Derby is a horse race, yet the venue, storied Churchill Downs in Louisville, always conjures up memories and emotions associated with the greatest horses of all time like Kelso, Man’o War, Secretariat and most recently, American Pharoah whose offspring raced on Derby day. The whole city shuts down for the race as it is a vital part of Louisville culture, but also of Kentucky culture where many famous breeding farms like Ashford Stud and the Vinery as well as training centers cover hundreds of acres of magnificent pasture. 

Even in Louisville, where Derby day is a revered celebration filled with pride for all, more was at stake this year. The recent lynching of Brianna Taylor brought protesters out to demand social justice and equity for all while the races went on. At the track, African American history past and present were celebrated as they should be. First time African American trainer and owner duo entered Necker Island in the big race. Mr. Hurlbut, the owner, is the grandson of Secretariat’s famous groom who had a very special relationship with one of the greatest race horses of all time. In fact, there is a rich African American history to horse racing. The first fifteen winners of the derby had African American jockeys. When the bugler played the national anthem before the first post time, horses walked over to the paddock, protesters marched, millions watched, and I marveled at the way our equine friends brought us all together to celebrate relationships and a great national and international event. I remember my father telling me how Seabiscuit, a horse of humble means who rose to greatness and won the triple crown, brought the country together at a time of economic depression and post-war angst when the country really needed hope. Every horse can rise to be a star, just like every American citizen. 

On this Derby day, there were upsets as always. Disappointment, fury, elation, and dreams belong to every race, graded or not. Authentic won the race, one of Bob Baffert’s two entries. His strongest contender, Thousand Words, got nervous, acted up, reared, and was scratched by the track veterinarians following protocol. All that preparation and build up to the big day dashed in a few short minutes. Tiz the Law, the favorite who has the worst post position, did not prevail. I remember hall of fame jockey Jerry Bailey saying something to the effect of not needing the best horse to win a race, but rather, the best horse on that day. 

Two important nature writers from Kentucky, one white, Wendell Berry, one African American, bell hooks, have written about the land where they grew up and the rich agricultural heritage of 

the state. Berry wrote about the “peace of wild things” as solace in a world where there seems to be none. hooks wrote about ‘belonging” to the earth and the freedom it brought her as a writer and an activist. 

All Kentucky residents are part of Derby day and even more key people, jockeys, trainers, grooms, owners have played roles in the thoroughbred racing industry. My hope is that those magnificent equines and the farms where they come into this world and often end their careers will sustain us with their strength, willingness, beauty, and sense of awe and hope that bring people together. Derby day both belongs to, and depends upon, us all and may we keep that in mind in all areas of our lives.

Katharine MacCornack
Published on 09-09-2020
I started riding as a child and have always loved everything equine. I've been involved in training, breeding, and several disciplines over the years. I live on a small farm with my horses. I am a teacher and a writer.