Campbell: Should The Derby Be Cancelled? It Depends On Who You Ask

Tradition is a fickle thing to unpack. It provides comfort and regularity, yet it also reflects cultural events or moments that are mired in the past and unwilling to change. Like anything, tradition is in the eye of the beholder, especially in an age of judgement and cancel culture. The Kentucky Derby continues to straddle a line where tradition both assists and hinders the perception of it.

This is crystallized in 2020, considering the current political and social situation in Louisville, Ky., where people are asking: Should the Kentucky Derby tradition be interrupted in light of racial unrest there? Should Churchill Downs bend to pressure by cancelling next week’s most well-known event in Thoroughbred racing?

For those on both sides of the question, the decision might seem uncomplicated. Fans of the sport, bettors, and members of the industry have weathered cancelations and economic hardship, and the desire to see their signature event go off without a hitch would be a bright spot in a tough year. The Derby was pushed back in May due to COVID-19, so they argue it needs to proceed as planned. Churchill Downs (CDI), whose bread and butter is its share price, relies on the race taking place. For owners of horses competing in stakes races next weekend, there is a lot of economic value tied up in the results of those races. This is a must for them.

On the flip side, there are activists who think it’s just too much pomp and circumstance. For them, the race is part of Louisville’s prejudiced past, starting as it did just after the Civil War. Tensions over race relations recently caught up to the city, not for the first time, with protests over the no-knock warrant that led to the death of Breonna Taylor back in March at the hands of the Louisville Police Department. Organizations like Black Lives Matter view events like the Derby as ill-timed, considering that Taylor’s case remains unresolved and no arrests have been made of the officers responsible for her killing.

Some see a society that is still grappling with pain, suffering, and traditions (like the Derby) that are infused with white privilege. Others argue that these maladies have nothing to do with horses racing around a track, and the American people deserve to have an escape from the pressures of the politics of race. It is Labor Day weekend after all, they say.

The event itself is a party related to opulence, and although it is an economic juggernaut for the town, some think that there is not much to celebrate. That is understandable, and certainly, when it comes to civil liberties, their right to protest is not constitutionally unfounded. Groups like Justice and Freedom Coalition in Louisville want answers. They are tired of the status quo and see the brutal murder of Breonna Taylor as just another example of racial injustice — unchecked police power. For them, another Derby is part of Louisville’s attempt to preserve its “status quo.”

From the standpoint of Thoroughbred racing and the engine that makes this sport go, the argument on the other side of the rail is clear. The Derby is necessary because of the handle it generates, the purses doled out, the effects on breeding operations, and in a year when Grade 1 races are scarce, the chance to improve one’s stock beyond the day. Maybe more importantly, is the employment it generates for people of all colors who are linked to the Derby and its undercard.

Another major concern is that if the Derby runs, will it elicit the opportunity for undue violence? Churchill Downs has pledged major security around the track, and this will certainly include Louisville Metro Police. Increased police presence could dissuade violence or it could be more apt to spark it. This situation has all the makings for a chaotic scene like those we have already seen in Minneapolis, the Pacific Northwest, and more recently, in Wisconsin.

Both sides remain in their corners, with little dialogue seeking to illuminate the other’s position. Based on these divisions, maybe what we really need is some perspective. After all, this isn’t the first time that an aspect of the Kentucky Derby has meant drastically different things to different people. Let’s not forget that “My Old Kentucky Home,” which is played during the post parade at the Derby. The song was introduced to Derby tradition by Matt Winn back in the 1930s, and while it may come from a highly racialized past, it was initially inspired by one of the most important pieces of literature in American History—Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852).

Stephen Foster, who wrote the lyrics (and who now has a stakes race named for him at Churchill Downs), sought to evoke the idea of redemption from the slaves’ perspective. The song (with words “Good Night!,” added to the end) became an anthem for abolitionism, but it was also co-opted by racist organizations long after the Civil War. The all-white Kentucky Legislature made it the state song in the late 1920s, and the word “darkies” continued to be a part of it well into the 1980s. Listeners in the modern age receive the lyrics differently, depending upon what they know or believe about the origin of the words, and often conferring their own feelings onto the symbolism of the song.

When it comes to the way opponents and proponents are thinking of this year’s Derby, I would counsel both sides to exercise caution. It is not too late for CDI to broker some type of compromise with the protestors that have marched this week outside their gates. Maybe they should have considered such a move instead of the deafening sound of silence? If overtures were offered by CDI, they were not publicized. CDI chief executive officer Bill Carstanjen appeared earlier this week on national television to assert that the local community “overwhelmingly” supports holding the Derby, but if there’s a dialogue between CDI and the protest groups or plans to formally observe Louisville’s struggles or Taylor’s death during Saturday’s events, Churchill is not telling the public about it. All we can hope for is that a peaceful demonstration will not spill over into something violent.

In the interim, no matter what position we take on this question, remembering the past can be fruitful. Understanding that tradition is in the eye of the beholder can only help in these fragmented times.

J.N. Campbell is a turfwriter based in Houston.

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