The Dark Side of the Kentucky Derby

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Horse racing puts animals and jockeys at risk for injury and death. Should that diminish a fan's enjoyment of the sport?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the Derby.


Hey, guys,

There are good reasons to watch Saturday's 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. You can see multicolored silks fluttering under the spires of Churchill Downs and hear "My Old Kentucky Home." The Louisville passion for absurd headwear is hysterical, even spawning a hat museum.

The Derby Day parties are great, too. I've some old friends with deep Kentucky roots who haven't let moving to Budapest get in the way of their annual soiree. They may not have okra for the burgoo, but they'll have bourbon, mint leaf, and sugar for mint juleps. Surely no other sporting event on earth is so closely associated with a specific cocktail, or so charmingly decadent and depraved.

But there are also good reasons not to watch. Some of that decadence and depravity isn't so charming.

Media focus will likely center on Bob Baffert—a super-successful trainer coming back from a heart attack barely a month ago. But rooting for a wealthy trainer, or his very wealthy owner, isn't as much fun as rooting for athletes. In this sport, though, at least if you believe the New York Times, athletes are getting hurt and killed at appalling rates—much higher than at equivalent racetracks overseas, for instance. Not. Cool.

It's one thing for jockeys to get hurt. It's awful, certainly, but at least those men and women choose to compete. Horses don't want to run until they snap a foreleg. They sure don't choose an instant on-track death because of it. Don't worry. I'm not going all PETA on you. But lately we've used this space to discuss athletes in hockey and football who get hurt after making a choice to play their dangerous game. For me, it makes more sense to worry about cleaning up a sport where the athletes don't get a choice.

–Hampton

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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