- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Americans' love affair with horse racing resumes today, if only for a few minutes, with the 128th Kentucky Derby.

NASCAR has replaced horses as America's favorite racing, but nearly 14 million nationwide will watch the Run for the Roses. More than 150,000 will pack Churchill Downs, lifting mint juleps and singing "My Old Kentucky Home" like a forgotten torch song.

Nineteen 3-year-old colts will race for two minutes over 1¼ miles trying to win the rose blanket. The winner will prove to be far more lucrative in the breeding shed than the immediate $890,000 payoff he gets for finishing first.

Harlan's Holiday is the 9-2 favorite for today's race, but the co-second choice Buddha (5-1) was scratched because of a injury to his front left hoof.

Regardless of which horse wins, the victor will continue a Triple Crown run in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and Belmont Stakes in coming weeks, but far fewer will care. The Derby is one of the few races most Americans go out of their way to view.

"America is a big-event culture like the Academy Awards or Masters golf tournament," said equine artist Michael Geraghty, who has painted many major races. "If you don't follow one of these events you're missing something that everyone else knows about."

Created as a rivalry between Kentucky and New York horsemen, the Derby has blossomed into a national event. Celebrities flock to the weeklong parties. The U.S. bobsled team, Miss America, one of the Survivors and weatherman Willard Scott are a cross section of the celebrities attending the race. The Preakness can't get a "B list" celeb to come.

Indeed, the Derby is a must-see event even if it's shorter than most Super Bowl commercial breaks. Those who don't know a furlong from a foreleg are suddenly yelling for a horse.

Maybe Danthebluegrassman is the favorite today of those named Dan or who like country music. Perhaps Wild Horses, Ocean Sound or Lusty Latin will capture the romantic's imagination. Patriots may like Proud Citizen, while lawyers could back Request for Parole. Then again, perhaps the color or number proves intriguing. The Derby offers an opportunity to interact with a sporting event without knowing the rules or investing several hours. It's quick, easy and traditional.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, "There's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man." Indeed, only college basketball rivals horse racing for Kentuckians' passion. A racehorse is featured on the state's newly issued quarters.

"There is something magical about horses," breeder Mike Pons said. "People are immediately attracted to them. The Mustang is one of the best-selling cars Ford ever made."

Horse racing gained a boost by District author Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," which spent more than seven months on the New York Times best-seller list last year. Seabiscuit was eligible for the 1937 Derby but didn't compete. That didn't keep him from developing into one of the leading horses of the Depression era. Fifteen percent of the people polled during the 2001 Triple Crown said Hillenbrand's book, which is being made into a movie, was the reason they attended the races.

"The Derby is a singular phenomenon," Hillenbrand said. "I think its enduring allure stems from its long and storied history, the traditions surrounding it and the fact that its ingenious design makes it tremendously dramatic and unpredictable. To many Americans who don't follow the sport throughout the year, the Derby is a rite of spring."

Ah, spring. The Derby is the rite of passage in Louisville, and the Preakness kicks off the summer season with Baltimore's version of an outdoor frat party. The Derby signals winter's end and merits the same curiosity Punxsutawney Phil gains each Groundhog Day.

"Spring is the rebirth, and the Derby is part of that," Churchill chairman Tom Meeker said. "It's a mixture in the world of colors the tulips, hats, crowds, horses breaking from the gate. The pictures are embedded in the eyes of everyone."

But they're simply snapshots. NBC's telecast drew 13.4 million viewers last year in its debut up 5.5 million from 2000 when it moved post time closer to an NBA playoff game, but only 8.7 million watched the Preakness and 6.8 million saw the Belmont Stakes. The curiosity fades quickly.

"We only have 15 minutes of fame in horse racing," four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said, "and we get it here and if we have a Triple Crown candidate."

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