Three mares have won in the Kentucky Derby’s history — Genuine Risk, Winning Colors, and Regret. Coincidentally, you can experience all three of these things in your first minute at Churchill Downs.
The Derby is the longest-running American sporting event ever, and there’s your first hint that it shouldn’t still exist. One hundred and forty-eight years of anything is ugly.
“The taxi line we usually use here is blocked by about, uh, 60 or 70 private jets,” the Spirit Airlines pilot laughs on the overhead microphone. I’m in the middle seat because I have not been chosen by God. Churchill Downs is a ten-minute drive in a city that’s only about four times the size of the crowd that shoves their way into the racetrack once a year to see short kings abuse animals that could and should kill them. Women on both sides of me scroll through push notifications about how the entire row’s reproductive rights will be nuked sometime in the next eight weeks.
Today I want to get very drunk. Today I want to see every societal ill hanging out of the side of an ugly cutout dress from a strip mall and every moral catastrophe spattered across the cuffs of a rich drunk on his way to a Trump fundraiser. Today I want to see Jack Harlow press himself against the side of a trolley as it lurches through a crowd of thousands of dirty cups and people. Today I am collecting every infinity stone of American ugliness and going to the Big American Horse Race.
In another timeline, I could be a third-generation dog park employee. My grandfather was the head cashier at Wonderland Dog Park in Revere, Massachusetts, and drove a Wonder Bread truck on the side, leaving my dad to sell and cash tickets for bettors on greyhound dogs as a teenager. As with virtually any animal racing operation, the whole thing was eventually ruled unconscionable, and the state outlawed the races altogether by the time I was in high school. In this timeline, I am covering the mother of all motorless races, still legal on nostalgic grounds, where the remnants of the American middle-ish class go to bet their money on losing beasts.
Any time you find a custom that doesn’t quite feel right, it can probably be traced back to eugenics. Horse bettors live for eugenics, lick their lips reading which former champion horse sired another, “sired” whispered from mouths putting money on mammal-fucking like they’re breeding 17th-century royals. This year’s choice to win, Epicenter, was made in a genetic blender with his daddy Not This Time and mama Silent Candy to build a guaranteed champion.
Any time you find a custom that doesn’t quite feel right, it can probably be traced back to eugenics.
At Churchill Downs, it all comes down to vantage points and chairs and money. Just as the little scrap of filthy fabric separating Spirit first-class passengers from the families and amateur DJs comprising the rest of the flight, actual bleacher seats on the outer track can set you back anywhere between $300 for the nosebleeds to $6,000 on Millionaire’s Row. In exchange, those willing to invest get a view of both the race and the bourbon-soaked millionaires ruining their lives in real time. Where I’m standing in the infield — the general admission section sometimes called the Derby Party, and with good reason — you can knock back juleps for a $75 admission fee and hope your legs don’t give out, or buy a lawn chair to plant in the mud. Your view will be mostly people doing the same thing you are. The infield is debaucherous, yes, but sweetly tinged with the illusionary relief that things are back to normal.
Churchill Downs is in Louisville’s 15th district, where families in starter houses live in the shadow of the racetrack that won’t stop expanding, slowly edging the lower class out of neighborhoods in which they’ve lived for generations. For now, the racetrack is capitalizing on their city’s day of pride and shame with cops on every corner.
“$25 DERBY PARKING,” handwritten signs read as locals gesture Honda Civics and Teslas alike to park on their lawn to shorten the walk. Cash only — neighbors of the ever-expanding Downs plan their own viewing parties while they watch the shitty cars of out-of-towners. The roar of a billion lost dollars can be heard a quarter-mile away.
You don’t need the “Arms of the Angel” activists by the infield entrance to know how compromised horse racing is. Last year’s Derby winner, a scrappy, dark-brown colt named Medina Spirit, was stripped of his title after legendary trainer Bob Baffert was caught juicing his stable for the fifth time in 13 months. Baffert was banned from Churchill Downs for two years, but only after Medina Spirit dropped dead of an alleged heart attack mere months after his Derby win and subsequent dethroning. The horse’s gravestone reads the amount of money he won his owners in his three years of life — some $3.5 million — before bothering to mention he was a “Noble and Cherished Champion.”
Congress passed a law that regulated doping and implemented safety protocols in late 2020, before Medina Spirit was raced to explosion — all of which will be in practice by the next derby.
I make the mistake of scanning my ticket on the wrong side of Churchill Downs after trailing a herd of rich men in bowler hats loudly spoiling the new Doctor Strange — “he was Grinch too, dude, Cumberbatch was Grinch.”
“It ain’t Sunday, bro,” they heckle at the religious fundamentalists dutifully reminding us through megaphones that we’re all going to hell. I am redirected with my fellow attendees who brought sandwiches from home to the infield from the scenic front spires, around the corner and through a dark tunnel beside a bunch of teenage Navy midshipmen and a man in a “Don’t Tread on Me” vest pushing another man in a “Don’t Tread on Me” vest in a wheelchair, and we get burped out into the mess of tarmac and mud where you can see exactly one second of some of today’s 14 horse races if you position yourself just right.
I got here way too early, I realize as the old folks whip their hats off for the first of far too many soundings of the national anthem. A veteran eyes me suspiciously through the smog of cigar smoke and hot-dog air until I respectfully remove my derby hat, a black baseball cap with “HELLO TO HORSE” stitched on the front.
My day is 11 hours of slowly losing my grip on reality. I loop the same half-mile circle in my Sunday Crocs, alternatively pounding Red Bull-vodkas and corndogs as the lot gets fuller and drunker and muddier. This is the first maskless and full-capacity Derby after the COVID lockdowns, and some people seem to cough into my mouth just to make a point. A drunk girl tosses back a julep and shrieks that “it tastes like TOOTHPASTE, Cameron, I HATE toothpaste!” before confirming her horse pick was Messier, “like me, right, Cameron?”
“This is a fun job,” one staff leader tells his underling as we catch the horses running by, sticking our phones through the chain link fence into the overcast wet wind to make it seem like we’re having a better time than we are. The cameras whizz past the horses on well-lubricated cables hanging above the track, then zoom backwards as the race continues for the sixteen million viewers at home. “This is a fun job.” His employee, a younger woman with a Looney Tunes hoodie beneath her uniform, sucks air in through her teeth, but she’s smiling.
The energy at the infield jerks sharply upward with each Kentucky-fried ritual — a red-jacketed bugle player warbles out a “God Bless America” as nine people take their oath as American citizens one hour, nine soldiers enlist into the army the next.
The Red Bull DJ tent has swapped out two sexy disc-spinning corpses with two others and as the12th race, the big one, lurches closer, the garbage puddles turn into garbage reservoirs, the line to the only three ATMs winds to the fences, “This is How We Do It” is playing for the 40th time, and I get a grilled cheese to see if it’s me, the Red Bull vodkas, the man that slams into me and asks, “Well, who did you bet on?!” or the glow of the screen that’s making me feel sick.
I can’t get too drunk because I am a woman alone. You can watch the documentary about your own murder just by closing your eyes, and in the right mood it becomes a fantasy. There are my parents, filmed in the home I grew up in, my mom asks for “a minute, please” while my dad puts his hand on her shoulder and the camera really lingers through her ragged sniffles before cutting to footage of me hunting for Easter eggs on a sloppy, haunted VHS tape from 1999. “First-time director Annabelle Cheetofinger really makes you sit in the loss,” reads the Washington Post review.
My daydream is interrupted by a teenage boy having the best or worst day of his life heaving on my Crocs. I tell him it’s okay as the undigested chicken tender falls through the rubber hole and settles between my toes.
My dad, the former dog racing ticket-taker, texts c’mon Jame, you went all the way to the Derby and you’re not gonna bet on a horse? I’m about to tell him no, I’m bad at math and it makes me nervous, but looking at the last $12 I pulled from the ATM that morning, I figure he’s right. “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism!” I hear a coworker from 100 years ago chirp across another dimension, not realizing her gums were bleeding from lack of dental insurance while she said it. She might have been me, I’m not sure.
Here is how you bet on a horse. First, compartmentalize your moral core. Then, open your wet Derby catalog you forgot was shoved into your hands and choose the name that’s the funniest. Then, tip-toe up to the barred window and yell “CYBERKNIFE TO SHOW, FIVE BUCKS,” and if Cyberknife places in the top three then you are guaranteed entry to heaven. I hate that I like the ticket in my hands, and I head back to my favorite puddle of mud below the God-screen as the first notes of the Kentucky state anthem sends everyone into a foaming fervor.
Civilians in their clearance rack dresses howl “My Old Kentucky Home” at the full-moon Jumbotron showing women in Louis Vuitton versions that cost ten times as much but look exactly the same.
“By’n’by hard times will come a’knockin at my door, then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.”
Written by Stephen Foster, a white composer known as the father of American pop music, the lyrics pull from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and tell the story of an enslaved person sold by his long-time enslaver. The slurs that once appeared in the song, which has been sung at the Derby every year since its inception, were removed in 1967 for Derby purposes, and in 1986 from its official lyrics as Kentucky’s state song. In 2020, the only year the race took place at an empty Churchill Downs, the bugle still played the song while Black Lives Matter protesters chanted “No Justice, No Derby” at the gates. This year, the CEO of the track insists that the song must stay, and so the crowd once again sings of their nation’s original sin.
I talk to a small group of women my age as the song ends. They’re all in on Messier, a joke everyone thinks is their idea.
“Hold on!” one slurs at the screen. “Hold on!”
Then Donald Trump stands a million feet tall on the God screen and and I release a half-hungover “what the fuck” that chafes with the Messier Girls joining in with the crowd of impassioned cheers. Only a few boos cut through from a handful of the people that made Louisville one of the only districts in the state to vote blue no mah-tter who two years prior, but you’d never know it. One of the Messiers turns to me with daggers in her dilated pupils — I’ve made the wrong noise.
As the footage on the screen changes back to race 12, the Kentucky Derby, something in the infield has changed. A few cross their arms, furious at the people who cheered, the cheerers raise their eyebrows beneath $10 hats, and a horse race in Kentucky is never going to be a place of healing.
Not that there's time for it; now they're “out the gate” and we’re screaming. I am told that a thoroughbred named Rich Strike beat the odds 80 to 1, that that is a big deal, did I know I witnessed history, but it doesn’t feel like it’s my business. May the poor boy’s heart never explode, I think, and the infield flushes out at a snail’s pace, dehydrated, cash-poor and planning afterparties while throwing up in each other’s hair.
Behind us, a 13th race no one gives a shit about begins.
RICH STRIKE (OR, REGRET, PART 2)
After he won, Rich Strike bit a pony over and over, taking what any underdog believes should be their reward, the flesh of their competitors and oppressors served raw. Instead, he got a slap to the face and a rumbling on Twitter, one almost immediately buried by Mother’s Day photos, which got buried by essays about How We Discuss Abuse, which got buried by news of three mass shootings.
There is a strong argument, one I’m inclined to agree with, that horse racing shouldn’t exist at all. I hear deflections in line for plushie toys that “thoroughbreds are born wanting to run,” as if that makes it a human right to throw a man on their backs and throw money at them until they die. Plenty have said there is a way to race horses ethically, but all of them rely on a fundamental goodness in people on whom I haven’t seen enough evidence to stake another creature’s life. I can say that with certainty, because I, a person, was not incurious enough to stand in a pit of thousands of gamblers for 11 hours without eventually tossing $5 on a losing horse named Cyberknife.
Rich Strike has won the Triple Crown of horse-racing clickbait already — he passed his drug test, his jockey got suspended for careless riding, and his trainer was canceled for tweeting something repulsive about the Vice President. They will keep racing him, and if he’s lucky he will sire and grandsire other thoroughbreds with stupid names and die with a dollar amount on his headstone.
The next morning I wake up in a cold sweat in a hotel bed that smells like cigarettes and reach for my phone. Push notifications: “How will I get an abortion after Roe? A guide”; “Russia’s Grave Miscalculation”; “Rich Strike, Kentucky Derby Long Shot, Wins in Stunning Upset.”
I watch the video. It’s pretty cool. I wish I could have seen it.
Jamie Loftus is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and creator of podcasts like My Year in Mensa, Lolita Podcast, and Ghost Church. Her history of hot dogs, Raw Dog, will come out with Macmillian Publishers next year.