The Real Sport at the Kentucky Derby: Gambling

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The 136th Kentucky Derby takes place tomorrow, and racing fans are analyzing every element of the competition, from which horse is likely to win to what clothes to wear and what food to eat on the sidelines.

But historically, The Atlantic has focused on one particular element of the Derby: gambling. A 1925 article from the magazine lamented betting's influence on the event:

When the object is primarily to beat the bookmaker rather than the other horse, then the entire color changes. Sport becomes a sordid business, and the sportsman becomes only a sport. It is then that the horseman begins to compare so unfavorably with his horse.

Several decades later, Robert F. Kennedy wrote an essay bemoaning the state of gambling in the country as a whole, and singled out horse-racing as part of the problem. He chastised gamblers for contributing to a range of societal ills in a 1962 article called "The Baleful Influence of Gambling":

They are pouring dimes and dollars day by day into a vast stream of cash which finances most illegal underworld activities. The housewife, the factory worker, and the businessman will tell you that they are against such things as narcotics, bootlegging, prostitution, gang murders, the corruption of public officials and police, and, the bribery of college athletes. And yet this is where their money goes.

Despite Kennedy's protests, gambling remains a central part of the Kentucky Derby, though it is on the decline. According to the New York Times, bets were down 5.3 percent at last year's run. Still, the total handle was $155,969,770—a whole lot of "dimes and dollars."

For an overview of The Atlantic's coverage of the Derby over the years, click here.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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