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.”

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