An empty Churchill Downs speaks volumes about today’s America

Horse Racing

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A friendly security guard checked my temperature and pointed toward an opening in an unmarked green fence, and just like that, I was alone in Churchill Downs. It was Derby week, and yet everything was so quiet I could hear the cicadas. That’s what the world’s most famous racetrack sounds like when you take away all the people. Cicadas, a clicking metallic electric drone, like someone plugged a rattlesnake into a wall socket. Normally if you’re in a stadium or arena before a big event, the dominant noises are the piercing beep of service vehicles backing up in a concourse and the bang and echo of beer kegs being rolled into concession stands. Now there were only the sounds of nature, which felt somehow appropriate, as if the place were tapping back into the roots of a rural sport that was a celebration of agribusiness before it was a seersucker bro-fest fueled by sugary drinks and tacky hats.

I wandered through the grounds and underneath the grandstands. I’ve been here a lot of times but always in total chaos, either on deadline for work or with a drink in one hand and a handful of tickets in the other — obviously not immune to the bro-fest myself. This time I took it in. The self-service betting machines had canvas waterproof covers on them. The huge mint julep cups were rolled into corners. I walked into a long tunnel leading to the first turn and Sections 112 and 113. The floor is made of old bricks, and even though the track has been renovated and modernized over and over since it was built in 1875, there are still old and peeling steel girders, with inch-wide rivets holding them in place, down in the bowels of the place.

I walked out to a sunrise, throwing arcing lines of yellow light across the shadows and dirt. The huge banks of man-made lights atop the grandstand on towering poles in the infield were all switched on but felt useless and puny. The only other person I saw was a cameraman waiting on the horses to take the track. He stared up at the blue sky, with sun flares cutting through periwinkle clouds, a little breeze, 68 degrees, perfect. The reality of our lives flapped on display in front of the infield scoreboard, the U.S. and Kentucky state flags flying at half-mast for, well, everything.

Churchill slowly came to life in front of us. Three John Deere 6120M tractors turned onto the track pulling what looked like plows. Two of the tractors were Vineyard Vines-themed, like rolling silk neckties, one purple and one pink. So much for the roots. Even in the healthiest of times, there is a duality to the Kentucky Derby — animals and farms and pre-dawn wake-up calls forming the muscle and bone, covered by preening, branded, celebrity pastel skin; hooves on dirt and grass at odds with the low rumble of engines and the high-pitched treble of drunken screaming and strutting.

One of the tractor drivers stopped at the first turn and got out to check on something. He left the door to the cab open — modern tractors have lumbar support and frigid AC and really nice stereos — and I could hear the music coming out of his speakers, not loud enough to make out the words but loud enough to know it was old soul, Motown or more likely Stax, those Memphis horns serenading the handful of people who could hear them. The music settled me, helped filter out my anxiety about being on my first reporting trip since March and soothed for a moment my general malaise about the direction of the country. As the tractor driver closed the cab door and shifted into gear, far away on the backside where people had been working in the barns since before sunrise, I heard an old tinny speaker crackle to life. I couldn’t make out the words, but looking at my watch I knew what the announcer was saying: The track is now open to Derby horses only. I followed the noise around the turn and felt my feet sink into the soil as I crossed the track and walked toward the barns.

I walked the length of the backstretch, past a dozen barns, until I got to Track Kitchen, the little track café wedged in between the parking lot and the rail. I ordered a bacon-and-egg burrito with this nuclear-hot salsa verde that I always think about as the Kentucky Derby approaches. I sat down to eat. On the other side of an evergreen hedge I could hear the hard exhales of the thoroughbreds running down the backstretch. At a picnic table, holding a steaming cup of coffee, reading another news story about the violence rocking America, I wondered who had won the Derby in 1968, a year that has felt like 2020’s analogue in so many ways. It turns out the winner that year, Dancer’s Image, was disqualified for a failed drug test, the first ever DQ in a Derby. Even five decades later, the descendants of the man who owned the horse believe he was framed. In the lead-up to that Derby, Peter Fuller, a New Englander, had donated some of the horse’s previous race winnings to Coretta Scott King, whose husband had just been killed. Fuller received death threats, and somebody set one of his stables on fire. His daughter told The Washington Post two years ago that she had “no doubt” that her father’s support of the King family led to the failed drug test. I’d never read any of that before, but it wasn’t surprising. Horse racing has always been a kind of mirror held up to American civic, cultural and political life, which is the animating idea of my new “Bloodlines” podcast, being released today on a new feed called ESPN Investigates.

I’ve spent the past year thinking about the fragility of racing — about the way it can seem to underscore what divides us even as it brings us together — and how that fragility reflects a larger national fragility, so to arrive here at this place during civil unrest and a viral pandemic made the morning feel strange and loaded. The central conflict of the first episode of “Bloodlines” is between the front side of a racetrack and the backside, between the rich and the poor, the polished and the earnest, and so for a while I just leaned back in a chair in a track-side box seat, which would normally cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and tried to sort out what all of this means — to have a race go on, to have no one in the stands, to root for a horse and hold out hope for the race itself. Reporting the podcast has taught me that by understanding how this specific sport is positioned in a given moment, we can catch a glimpse of ourselves. The examples are endless. In racing, and in the podcast, we can see and even predict the birth of the gilded age, and its end, the rise of celebrity culture, the buried history of how the Nazis were looking to American horse breeders for the philosophical underpinnings of the Nuremberg Laws, the transformation of the American economy from manufacturing to hard-to-understand financial instruments, the creep of suburbia, the cleaving of one country into two.

The podcast explores this sport’s ability to embody and even predict large cultural trends, a fact that has been true for a century and remains true now. The state of horse racing right now, in September of 2020, reveals a lot. There’s a reason the podcast is about horse racing instead of baseball or golf, and there’s a reason an empty Churchill Downs on the week of the Derby feels different from an empty Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge or Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The Rolling Stones sang about Derby Day. It exists in the popular imagination in a way that far exceeds the sports market share of horse racing or the fame of any of the participants. The star of the Kentucky Derby is always Churchill Downs itself, so the empty seats ring a bell of warning for the people who govern the sport. It’s under siege — mostly because of a protest movement that followed in the wake of a recent wave of horses dying at Santa Anita Park in California. Activists are calling for a ban on the sport. The fundamentals of the business, from money wagered to attendance, is following a trend line down.

Racing people, meanwhile, point out that racing has never been safer for the animals and that the industry provides jobs and self-worth to a massive working class that really makes the equine world turn. Anti-racing people say that no animal should die for human entertainment, and since racing can never have zero fatalities, it should no longer have a place in a modern world. That’s hard to argue with. Pro-racing people say the opponents are confusing livestock for pets and that rich people care more about horses than they do poor human beings. And, without racing, there would be hundreds of thousands of horses who would no longer have grass to roam and food to eat. That’s hard to argue with too.

This divide is just another example of how Americans who live in urban and suburban areas too often fail to see, much less empathize with and understand, Americans who live on or near farms. And the other way around. Nearly every problem facing our country right now flows from a lack of empathy that knows no political or ideological divide. There are those too who have argued this week that even having this event in the same town where police killed Breonna Taylor in her own home shows a profound lack of empathy. That makes a ton of sense. Nothing feels empty of meaning right now, maybe especially not a blank cultural canvas like the Kentucky Derby with no fans in the stands.

I’ve thought a lot about that in these past months of lockdown. ESPN has asked me to write multiple television essays about what we miss most in the absence of games to watch and attend together. I keep coming back to community. To the ephemeral and increasingly fragile idea of us. The most valuable thing sports contribute to our society, perhaps the only valuable thing they contribute, is the power to create a civic communion, to build a tribe out of many different kinds of people, to remind us in the midst of mass euphoria, because of the mass euphoria, that we can connect. Those ideas were close to the surface as I ducked beneath the rail on the week of the strangest Kentucky Derby ever.

The backside at Churchill Downs felt like nothing had changed at all. Except for the face masks and the hand-sanitizing stations positioned everywhere, people kept up the old rhythms that define this world. To answer Willie Nelson and Neil Young’s question, yes there are real cowboys left, and cowgirls, and in America they are most likely to be found on ranches and farms, yes, but also on racetracks. The horses need to run, and be fed tubs of hay, to be led by the halter in slow laps around the shed row, to be washed down and scrubbed with soap and cold water, then lovingly massaged and dried. I stopped and watched the water run away from the barns toward drains, listened to the chatter of Spanish as the horses’ dirty leg wraps were cleaned and dried and fresh ones were put on.

The simple act of going on is the thing I wanted to see — to be shown that there are forces in nature that have resisted the cataclysm we feel everywhere else, that love and work and craft are durable, that differences between us can be palpable and material and demanding of our healing attention and that still something can persist. I watched the horses hot walk in patient circles, the way I had dozens of times before, but differently too. This time, I wondered if it was fair to find comfort and proof of life in the understanding that the horses don’t know that the streets are burning, that there is a pandemic, that our politics are now disgracing the memories of our grandfathers who went to the Pacific and to Europe to fight some of the same forces that now threaten our experiment. My drive to the track that morning had taken me past Oprah Winfrey’s billboards demanding justice for the killing of Breonna Taylor, past the still boarded-up downtown of Louisville steeling itself for another spasm of anger. Muhammad Ali Boulevard remained a canyon of plywood.

So these little details of horse farm life mattered to me more than they might have. An exercise rider adjusted his stirrups. The sun rose higher in the air and the breeze faded away and the nearby Louisville airport came to life with huge jets rumbling in the air on their climb out from the field or on final approach. A cowboy walked across the dirt with his spurs shining in the heat. Dozens of riders rode dozens of horses out onto the track and leaned in as the animals accelerated around the turns and into the straights. A siren went off in the distance. I heard the sound of a metal rake scraping on the pavement outside a barn.

Horse racing feels like it’s at its lowest ebb when it shows us as we really are — the 1968 race, for instance, or the protests at Santa Anita. But horse racing is at its best — and at its most relevant — when a horse or the sport comes to simply embody complex ideas and hopes we have about our future — Citation in the aftermath of World War II, Secretariat in the same year the U.S. finally admitted defeat in Vietnam, or the blue-collar Funny Cide and Smarty Jones Triple Crown attempts in the face of growing economic disparity and the gutting of the mechanisms of the American Dream. That’s what I went looking for at Churchill Downs, I think, no matter how silly it would seem to type later. A spark of an idea, something that we could nurture into a sustainable flame of hope, something to show a way into a future that feels different from this half-mast present. Looking for signs is one of the silliest things a human can do, perhaps the clearest window into our helplessness against the big tectonic forces that govern our lives, and yet that’s exactly what I was doing as I made my way around the backside of Churchill Downs.

A big redheaded bantam rooster strutted around and pecked at the dirt and gravel outside another barn.

Good luck.

A black cat stretched its back in the shade of a barn.

Bad luck.

Steam rose from a big pile of freshly mucked stall hay, coming from the heat of the manure hidden below, and church bells rang and people stood on the clocker’s stand and timed horses who will soon run in front of no fans at all. It was time to leave. The walk back across the track, around the empty grandstands and paddock, and past the friendly security guards took no time at all. I turned onto Central Avenue. A long drive awaited, but I was glad I came.

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