Damn, guys. I'm gonna need another mint julep now that you two have thoroughly bummed me out.
Yes, the Derby is a horse racing event, and the sport is cruel to horses and riders alike, and it's nearly a 100-percent-white event in terms of consumers, and it's Decadent and Depraved... I get it. Taking potshots at the Kentucky Derby is one of the easiest things to do in all of social-mores-sportswriting (apologies to Hunter's ashes floating around in space, but it's true). A much harder task is explicating the intangibles that make the event a unique and strangely beautiful landmark of spring in America.
Bill Nack did a good job of illustrating the bond between human and horse—more specifically, sportswriter and horse—in his seminal Sports Illustrated piece on the death of Secretariat. The event itself is one of the happiest scenes in sports, unless of course I was just buzzed for the whole day when I attended the '06 Derby. Bemoan the class-warfare dichotomy between the hat-wearing patrician classes and the plebians on the infield holding wet T-shirt contests if you must. But the beauty of the Derby is that it's a Saturday in early May, spring finally having arrived in force for the northern U.S., for people to gather outside, drink, and make merry in the same way they have for 100 years. The horse race is just the medium.