Flashbacks May 2006

The Sport of Kings

As the Kentucky Derby approaches, a look back at Atlantic writings paying tribute to the exhilarating heights and seedy depths of horse racing

This Saturday marks the 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby, the traditional commencement of the Triple Crown, horse racing’s pinnacle series. As in all great contests, the heroes of the thoroughbred track square off in a world of thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. Yet on the racing turf, a baser element comes into play: for the ever-present gambler, winning or losing matters less than the odds—and every contest can yield wild new riches or break the bank. Perhaps as a result, thoroughbred racing lends itself as easily to bold tabloid drama as to literary appropriation. Taken together, the articles below capture this tension—the tumult and the majesty, the animal sublimity and the human profanity—unique to the sport of kings.

In 1925, the year the Derby first aired over American radio, the sports writer Peter Burnaugh, a longtime chronicler of “affairs of the turf,” considered the many invitations to corruption the sport presented—from inhumane expedients, like the riding crop, to outright fraud, as in doping—and wondered if the sport’s fallible adherents could ever approach the dignity of the animals they cheered. In “Thoroughbreds and Blackguards,” Burnaugh argues that the sport’s great competitive impediment, and the temptation that renders it uniquely capricious, is the influence of gambling. “When the object is primarily to beat the bookmaker rather than the other horse,” he writes, “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.”

Four years later, MacGregor Jenkins, a young and canny business manager for The Atlantic, penned an award-winning short story about a mysterious horse called Alcantara. The narrator submits helplessly to the inexorable lure of the sport, infected by the “the deadliest virus known to man,” one that “may lead the most virtuous… perilously near the rocks of moral turpitude.” Yet even understanding these risks, he delves ever deeper into his obsession, purchasing a horse of questionable discipline and vitality and financing its training—all on the advice of a peculiar and persistent middleman. Throughout, the writer finds himself both repulsed and attracted by the racing world’s contradictions. “There is no human interest that leads a man in stranger or more fascinating paths,” he writes. “It is not alone the noble beast that allures; it is far more the followers in his train—men and women, rich and poor, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, all actuated by motives ranging from the noblest and purest to the most sordid and unworthy.”

In 1937, legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens found in horse racing both an epiphany and a metaphor suitable for his memoir, “The Influence of My Father on My Son.” In it, he explained how his father, the sort partial to self-reliance, presented him with a pony early in his life “to widen my range.” His range soon widened to the local track, and he became a jockey. His father quietly approved of the occupation. “He talked about horses and horse racing,” Steffens wrote,  “which he named the king of sports and the sport of kings. What struck me was that he knew all about the turf, as he knew all about everything.”

As it happened, his father’s omniscience stopped at turf level and couldn’t penetrate the sport’s corrupted underbelly. The author soon quit jockeying when he learned “that horse racing wasn’t on the level.” And he found himself ashamed one day to see his father among the “suckers” in the bleachers, unaware that the races on which they were betting had predetermined outcomes. “The tragedy of this little comedy,” Steffens wrote, “repeated in other departments of life as I was seeing it, was the discovery that my father did not know everything; he was not always right.”

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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