The Kentucky Derby mystique

The Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade looked the part of superstar Derby goer in 2008. Jeff Gentner/Getty Images

By late afternoon, the shadows lengthened, 20 horses appear at the gap above the first turn on the Churchill Downs backstretch, gleaming, face to face at last with the moment in their young lives that will either define them forever in history or leave them little more than footnotes among thousands in the Kentucky Derby's ether.

The ritual begins with the walkover, the procession every owner of a thoroughbred aspires to experience. For the moment, the playing field is level and the attention of an assemblage of humanity in all its forms that spans at least three time zones becomes fixed upon the combatants. At the track, cheers of encouragement ebb and flow, a reflection of status in the betting pools and success in races that began in January and, furlong upon furlong, are now at their backs on the "Road to the Derby," a thoroughfare with far more egress than access.

By then, Churchill Downs quivers in electric anticipation, a communal, even tribal preparation for what will follow. The field, accompanied with solemn humans aware of the magnitude of what will come within the hour, is led into the tight saddling enclosure, packed with the connected and those in the entourage, encircled by those who that morning had claimed a vantage point from which to view the Derby horses and exercised the timeless right of squatters. Once led through the tunnel and onto the racetrack, jockeys astride, they are gone from sight to most without very expensive seating accommodations -- into the noise. Even for those so privileged, watching the unfolding scene unencumbered is a stretch of concentration.

Whether the epidemic, well-documented weeping that underscores the chorus of "My Old Kentucky Home" that accompanies the parade to the post is the product of nostalgia, bourbon, beer or random emotion is a matter of speculation, but it happens as anticipation gathers momentum, spreads through the crowd and ripples over an infield packed cheek to jowl with besotted revelers who arrived at first light, have not seen a horse race all day and will have no view of the Derby. Who cares? We're here!

The first Saturday of March is yet at hand, its springtime counterpart two full months away, and already the search has begun. Snow covers much of Arizona, a blizzard rages in the Midwest and tornados threaten the South. Distractions will not deter the search for a Derby horse, the gem plucked from a thicket. More than 350 3-year-old thoroughbreds, most yet unknown, remain eligible. Several will have raced in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, where Orb raised his profile in a very big way, or in the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans, which deepened the confusion in the South on Saturday last, revealing something perhaps or perhaps not. This is, after all, the point at which confusion becomes part of the equation.

Then, turn to the to-do list. Make reservations for a weekend in May in Louisville -- travel, hotels, restaurants, all at three times the usual price. Women shop for elegant hats they will not wear twice. The less ambitious, affluent, locale or duty-bound plan parties in their homes, and these, too, have become traditions at once raucous, solemn and mandatory. From Saratoga Springs to San Diego, there is a celebration, it seems, on every block.

It is not quite clear exactly the point at which the Kentucky Derby became an American icon rather than merely a big day in a niche sport, but it has been so longer than any of us have walked the earth. Perhaps, though, it is a singular enduring vestige of a time when racing was much more than a niche sport, when its giants were superstars on a greater stage. Those days long gone, the Derby remains part of the American tapestry, a cultural anomaly in these times but nevertheless eternal.

"This is the week when dear ladies in Shawano, Wis., get to know about sports figures named Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster," the legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote in 1979. "Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are thoroughbred race horses and there are vast and sinless areas in this country where they and their like are regarded as instruments of Satan 51 weeks a year. Then comes the week of the Kentucky Derby, and sinless newspapers that wouldn't mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May."

The aura of the Derby has outlasted the useful print media and the racing writer is all but extinct in the realm of the American daily newspaper, the gap filled nowadays by television and online sources. Smith likely never heard words such as blog and Twitter. The Derby, however, remains undoubtedly -- stubbornly -- the most anticipated two minutes in American sport, part of the culture. But no one has ever fully explained how the Derby became the most popular and high-profile horse race run in the Western Hemisphere, with interest that has been expanded to Europe and even Asia.

"This is a day for anyone involved with horses," said Bill Turner, who trained the undefeated 1977 Derby and Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. "There's nothing like it."

But it is much more than a day for anyone involved with horses. For them, it is Christmas in May, the focus of all existence. For the rest of the nation, it is Mardi Gras in springtime.

Explaining the Derby's enduring and in fact growing popularity is a matter of conjecture. Many, human and equine, have contributed to its evolution. But the most durable explanation is that Col. Matt Winn, who operated Churchill Downs for a half century, was a master showman who took the Derby from local celebration to the national stage by luring the most prominent sports journalists of the era to Louisville, paying expenses and supplying entertainment that endeared the river town, the racetrack and its leader to the ink-stained wretches who availed themselves unabashedly to the copious largesse and spread the word to those in the nation's largest cities, where racing fans lived.

The truth is that Wynn was a Louisville tailor who before taking the leadership of Churchill Downs promoted racing at Empire City in Yonkers, N.Y., a harness track, and Juarez in Mexico -- a skilled promoter and student of human nature both consumptive and carnal, but perhaps not the visionary that stands embellished in time and Derby lore, a work still in progress. Undoubtedly, Winn never envisioned the 21st century fruit of the seeds he had sewn.

Winn, however, cannot be denied a singular success pivotal to the Derby's ascent in the national sporting conscience. He lured the connections of celebrated champion 2-year-old filly Regret, who was based in the East and had yet to race as a 3-year-old, to the Derby of 1915.

When jockey Joe Notter brought Regret home a two-length winner and she became the first filly to triumph in the Derby, it brought a floodtide of national attention to the race. Even then, truly great fillies held a special place in the public heart.

"The race needed only a victory by Regret to create some more coast-to-coast publicity to really put it over," Winn said after Regret's popular triumph. "She did not fail us. Regret made the Kentucky Derby an American institution."

And so it remains.

Racing's burgeoning transcontinental popularity during the Great Depression and into the post World War II era, when it competed for public attention only with baseball and boxing, contributed mightily to the Derby's entrenchment in the sporting landscape, a period during which Omaha, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation would win the big race in Louisville and Triple Crown long before that designation was imparted to the sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Television, still in its infancy during the 1950s, played a huge role in expanding the Derby's sphere, bringing to American homes not only the race itself, but introducing the significant players during broadcasts of preliminary races to winter-bound cities with no more than one or two stations. The emerging technology of the time failed to fully convey the experience and still fails in the present age of the high-definition flat-screen and surround sound.

John Steinbeck, the novelist, wrote this after attending the Derby for the first time and experiencing Needles' win in 1956:

"By the time this is written, there will be few people in the nation who will not have seen the race on television or heard it on radio, and they will all have felt to some extent the bursting emotion at Churchill Downs. Every step of the great Needles will have been discussed -- how he dawdled along trailing the field for two-thirds of the course, then fired himself like a torpedo past the screaming stands and the straining horses to win while the balloon of tension swelled and burst and it was all over.

"Now there is a languor. Over a hundred thousand hearts are more spent than Needles' heart, and some of them split and their owners on the way to the hospital or the morgue.

"I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is -- a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion -- is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it.

"What an experience. I am glad I have seen and felt it at last."

Steinbeck's experience is shared and understood fully by anyone who has been at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of any May and was still sober at post time. The place during that two minutes engulfs the consciousness, overwhelms the senses, making it all but impossible to hear anything except a building roar or remain fully aware of what transpires on the racetrack until the horses are in direct view. It is possible to identify the animal about to be enshrined in the Louisville pantheon, and even then you wait to watch the replay before you are certain of the outcome. Literally, the building if not the ground beneath shakes. The experience is enveloping, every witness immersed entirely, a rapture two minutes long that reaches crescendo as the leader enters the final furlong, screams to the heavens and fades slowly in an almost languorous sweetness.

At some point, the leaders of Churchill Downs, a group during most of the track's long history far less straight-backed and corporate than the one that has come to power, discovered that celebrity sells an image. What the late seminal gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson depicted as decadent in an early '70s account of the Derby lives today, represented by Millionaires' Row, where celebrities, entertainers, athletes and titans of industry celebrate the day apart from the merely wealthy and sufficiently affluent who have secured less exclusive dining options. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, no American sporting event attracts a wider array of famous and beautiful people lured from Hollywood and Broadway not only by the race and ritual ribaldry, but also by the largesse that in another time, at Col. Winn's behest, lured prominent media figures to cover the Derby and spread its gospel. Priority and the Derby's public face have been transformed, but not the eventual result.

The cognoscenti began the search for the 2013 Derby winner last year, at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita, hoping to identify true 10-furlong-in-May talent in eight furlongs of September. Others take up the quest in January in hope of placing an ante-post wager that will produce a handsome profit. Sometimes, being the smartest person at the neighborhood Derby party is sufficient.

Whatever the vantage point or accommodation in various weathers, they have witnessed unforgettable performances by truly great thoroughbreds -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Barbaro -- horses they will never forget at their best on unforgettable afternoons in Kentucky. At its very heart, the Derby is about the breed and the place.

The eternal pursuit of the nearly impossible, for those involved with horses, is no less a siren now than it has ever been. For them, every thoroughbred foal is three years from a destiny realized by only one. For others, the Derby endures because it is eight months of speculation leading to a moment of truth; two minutes of a year shared by a nation and much of the world; attention undivided by global tensions, politics or the financial markets. It is true purity of competition among horses born to this moment with all odds against, a purity to which we all aspire but few capture, something somehow beyond full human understanding.

Or even, perhaps, explanation.