John Clay is a sound and entertaining sports columnist in Kentucky. Bluegrass country. Where thoroughbreds reign. The first Saturday in May, just coming up, the greatest horse race in the land goes to the post each year. John Clay has been covering those races for years, knows the "sport of kings" and doesn't deal with it carelessly.
But in the Lexington Herald-Leader, he let his readers have a shocker, and a lot of the rest of us out here on the fruits plain. John predicted that the Kentucky Derby will soon be run at night. At night? When all well-trained thoroughbreds should be resting peacefully in their stalls?
Come on, John, surely you jest.
"Inevitable," he wrote. That was his clear-cut prediction, and he was joined by an alarming voice from the barns.
"Just a matter of time," D. Wayne Lukas, the noted trainer, winner of a few Derbies himself, said, and there was more. "Television rules the world," and Lukas was on a roll. "Ratings would probably quadruple," and this is a point that does rule in sports these days.
But the Kentucky Derby being run under lights at Churchill Downs? With all those ladies in their glorious haberdashery, the pageantry, the wealthy and the celebrated stars on Millions Row lost in the shadows. And what about "the sun shining bright on the old Kentucky Home?" How does it shine at night and don't tell me the moon is any substitute. And the horses, do they look at things in the night as they do under the sun's rays?
Thoroughbred racing was once the biggest draw in sports in the U.S.
True as can be. Horse races from coast to coast drew more spectators than any other sport in the land. Next was basketball, mainly because basketball included every game from high school to the NCAA level. But Major League Baseball and the NFL spread their wings; and stock car racing, and tournament golf, and ESPN came into being. Race tracks began turning to slot machines and televising race programs from other tracks to survive.
However, the Keeneland track in Kentucky just closed on a record-breaking meet. Record gate, record wagering and two events that broke track records, including the Blue Grass Stakes. That's in Clay's hometown, and on the heels of this he foresees the Derby moving to after-sundown racing? Churchill Downs has already been turned into a glossy castle, and fattened the Derby name to "The Kentucky Derby, presented by Yum Brands."
The Kentucky Derby has to be "presented" by any kind of brand?
At a time like this, Clay concedes. Gives in. "Just a matter of time."
Tell you one guy he hasn't convinced. Bob Baffert, the California trainer. "I don't think it would be a good idea. What makes the Derby is the daytime and the show ... something you can't catch at night."
Never been a Baffert man myself, but I'm beginning to turn the corner.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The long-time Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.