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
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Later in the century, Robert F. Kennedy, then the United States Attorney General, listed horse racing among a litany of speculative indulgences luring the wayward public. In “The Baleful Influence of Gambling,” published in 1962, Kennedy lamented the social acceptance and pervasiveness of the vice, and estimated the market for illegal gambling at $7 billion annually, “more than the American people spend each year on bread.” His fears would have been all the more pressing today: with the huge book-making potential unleashed by the Internet and the explosion of wager-heavy sporting events like the Super Bowl and March Madness, conservative estimates place that figure at more than $100 billion.

At the time, perhaps the biggest illegal outlay went to bookies taking extra action on horse races. But, Kennedy warned, the housewives and businessmen who looked on horse wagering as a harmless game of chance were deceiving themselves. “Their dimes, quarters and dollars do not stay in the pockets of the big-time gamblers and racketeers. Just as legitimate businessmen invest their profits in other businesses, so do the capitalists of crime use their gambling profits to invest in other criminal businesses”—notably narcotics and the Mafia. He concluded, “The fundamental strength of our democracy, which is based on respect for the law, is at stake.”

In 1999, in “Lulu, Queen of the Camels,” Cullen Murphy investigated how Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Emirati prince who has been a dominant force in thoroughbred racing for many years, has pioneered the resurgence of another ancient sport, this one featuring Camelus dromedarius—camel racing, the sport of sheikhs. In the last few years, the sport has boomed in popularity and new tracks now dot the deserts of the Middle East. “During the month of March,” Murphy writes, “camel racing is to Arabian television what basketball is to American.” The pursuit, backed by extensive money from the sheikhs, has led to great advances in camel biology and to some innovative reproductive technology, developed to encourage more efficient breeding. Like horses in certain quarters of America, camels are singularly esteemed in the Arab world. And while the two sports hold much in common, the sheikhs abide none of the moral hazards attendant to the American version: “No betting is permitted, because Islam frowns on gambling,” Murphy writes. “But a lottery dispenses door prizes among the spectators, and the prizes carry the names Lexus and Range Rover.”

Finally, in a 2002 poem entitled “The Horses Run Back to Their Stalls,” Linda Gregerson tells the story of Reigh Count, the famous Kentucky Derby winner of 1928. Gregerson uses racing’s inherent moral tension and stark social backdrop to tell “another sorry tale about class in America.” It is a story of privilege and poverty, but also one of violence and waste. “Mr. Hertz,” the renowned horse breeder and founder of Yellow Cab and Hertz Rent-A-Car, is juxtaposed with the nameless trainer sleeping in the stall with the “Count,” much as the washtubs filled with French champagne contrast with overdue mortgage payments and doctors’ bills. The modes of conveyance—the horse and the taxi—suggest the two worlds that collide viciously in the harrowing final stanza.

In 1929, Hertz was offered a million dollars for Reigh Count, whom Gregerson immortalized as “this perfect horse, our hundred and thirty seconds of flat-out earth-borne bliss.” He turned it down.

—Timothy Lavin
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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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