I had just finished adjusting my fascinator to the properly impractical angle and was taking in the scene of the festooned and foolish with satisfaction, eager to join in. The 145th Kentucky Derby had all the makings of the fine affair Hunter S. Thompson so memorably described in 1970 as “decadent and depraved.”
Suddenly, through the blue veil of my cockeyed millinery, an energetic street salesman came into view. I actually heard him before I saw him. He was hocking T-shirts that said, “Donald F*cking Trump,” and “I’m the F*cking President.”
“You won’t find these at Walmart!” the man exclaimed.
And thus the tone of the day was set.
The Kentucky Derby, you see, as my companions and I determined days after our bodies were filtered enough of race-day libations to cease being flammable, is the perfect illustration of capitalism and America being great. Conversely, the absence of a Derby—heaven forbid!—would be the exemplar of socialism and the type of intolerably tedious existence to which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and friends would have us all subjected.
Consider that our general admission tickets, the most “economically friendly” ones available, were themselves $70 a piece (and more if you bought them at the door). Basic necessities—juleps, champagne, etc.—ranged from $15 to $25. Hot dogs weren’t much cheaper. Gas to drive to the race cost us some clams, as did snacks, parking, wagered bets, a mediocre Tex-Mex dinner in Bowling Green, and so forth.
In sum, it’s not a cheap day. Yet hundreds of thousands of people gleefully shill out what we spent and more to partake in this uber-rich man’s sport. In 2015, 170,513 people came to the Derby, setting a new attendance record. Most of them don’t get a cut of the $3 million purse, divided among the top three race finishers, nor are they involved in the auctioning of prize Derby steeds, one of which recently fetched $4 million. Reuters reported in 2016 that Triple Crown winner American Pharoah “reportedly impregnated close to 100 mares, at a cost for each breeding session of $200,000.” A huge majority of Derby devotees are not among the stakeholders profiting from thoroughbred horse breeding.
Many, many Derby attendees will, however, participate in the glugging of 127,000 mint juleps served over the Kentucky Derby weekend. A lot of them will also contribute to the $225,671,089 bet on Derby day (a new record set in 2018). Heaps of peeps will be responsible for the $400 million economic impact the Derby has on the region. “Statewide,” Reuters reports, “the equine industry has a $4 billion impact, generating over 55,000 jobs.”
Reuters refers to the Derby as a place “where revenue flows like aged Bourbon.” The Courier-Journal published a piece this year reporting that “for Louisville-based firms, such big-ticket hosting at the Kentucky Derby is good for business and great for spreading around rewards to employees. The Kentucky Derby ‘is one of our biggest events,’ and some guests have been coming for 30 years. And they love it, said GE spokeswoman Julie Wood.
“‘The hats, the horses…it’s a great asset for showing off the city,’ she said.”
The Derby trophy alone, with its 18-karat gold horse and rider, rubies, and emeralds, is worth an estimated $200,000. More than 500 red roses adorn the horse that wins the “fastest two minutes in sports,” and any man who’s ever made a last-minute Valentine’s Day purchase at CVS knows red roses are no bargain.
Simply put, the Kentucky Derby is a huge economic boon that benefits (and thrills!) the entire nation. The lives of the “whiskey gentry” filling “Millionaire’s Row” collide with those of the infield—together, all at once, in Kentucky of all places, where the governor still has to take an oath upon his swearing-in that he’s never fought in a duel.
It’s a beautiful thing, this collision of the classes.
The day before descending on the Derby, my friends and I perused the Mellon Collection of Art at the Frist Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. There were pieces by Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas, along with an abundance of British sporting art—apropos as all-get-out for the weekend’s festivities.
The exhibition included depictions of steeplechases, point-to-points, fox hunts, and all manner of adventures that befell the landed British gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries, including John E. Ferneley’s “satirical sketches of the ignominious accidents experienced by a nobleman renowned for his reckless riding.”
A sign at the start of the exhibit informed us that the Mellons were “philanthropists as well as collectors” and gave gifts of art away to several “distinguished institutions” for millions of people to enjoy.
“In building their collection of French art,” the sign said, “the Mellons liked ‘to wander down the byways of art.’ They spoke of ‘looking for something that catches our eye or for minor works that nonetheless recall happy memories or otherwise appeal to our hearts.’”
Sigh. Something that “recalls happy memories or otherwise appeals to our hearts.” How sentimental! How enchanting! How human! How lovely! And how impossible in a world where every person, by mandate, earns a $15 hourly wage—the price of a single Derby cocktail.
Just before the horses lined up for the big race, my brother, whilst comparing seersucker styles with a man in a fedora smoking a cigar, made the acquaintance of a young couple from Cleveland. It was their first time to the Derby, but their family had a tradition of hosting a party every year, which they’d done for decades now. Over the past few years, the tradition had fallen to them, and this was the first year the Derby party hadn’t taken place. The couple told us that at least 60 people usually attended their get-togethers, and their regular guests were at a loss of what to do at the prospect of a party-less year.
We also befriended two elderly brothers, one of whom hadn’t missed a Derby in 45 years. They came down from Michigan, and despite being octogenarians, trudged through the mud and the beer with the best of us.
The Kentucky Derby is essentially a huge frat party, only everyone’s invited. It’s definitely decadent, and while there’s an enormous gulf between how the 1 percent experience the race—in temperature-controlled suites with premium amenities—and how the 99 percent slop around in the chilly rain, standing in endless lines for the porta-potty, it’s still true that everyone gets to enjoy rich people stuff, even if by extension.
If it weren’t for the elite, after all, there’d be no Derby parties in Cleveland. No trip on the first Saturday in May for the elderly gentlemen from Michigan to look forward to. No more pageantry. No excuse to polish up the silver mint julep cups or harvest a thousand pounds of fresh mint. (So much for the Green New Deal!) The entire cottage industry of absurd hat-making would be obliterated, and with it, so much frenzied, feminine joy.
The Kentucky Derby will be just one of sundry delightful traditions to get the ax under an AOC-racy. Can you imagine what the socialist equivalent of a Derby would look like? Dutiful citizens leaving their identical, cube-shaped, ticky-tacky houses, dressed in androgynous, greb-colored garb to watch the beleaguered, communal donkey walk in a parade honoring the state?
For now, let us be thankful there are still people with such absurd amounts of wealth that they can do ridiculous and superfluous things with it to amuse the rest of us. That includes endow the arts and spend millions of dollars so we can watch midgets sit on testosterone-fueled, roided-up beasts that run in a circle.
Let us cherish the glory of horses whose names are more moods than monikers (“Intense Holiday,” “Decisive Moment,” “Went the Day Well,” and one simply named “Hence” are past favorites). And let us also revel in the memory of a rich count who could and did pay good money to have a series painted of himself falling off his horse.
Let us hope socialism in America is a long shot, with a million-to-one odds, because life is better through azure-tinted fascinators.
Teresa Mull is editor of GunpowderMagazine.com. Contact her at [email protected].