Kentucky Derby features tradition but safety first

Caution against terrorism as we enjoy America's greatest horse race. Photo: The Kentucky Derby

NEW YORK, April 30, 2013 - Will it be another Secretariat or Affirmed to gallop into legend? For sure the race will be thrilling – but with a difference.

Caution is the word, and attendees are being alerted to “say something” if they “see something.”

Large purses, coolers and bottles are among the carry-in items that are being banned for the first time, as Churchill Downs steps up (airport-type) security for Saturday’s running of the 139th Kentucky Derby. Backpacks were forbidden in previous years, even before the terror in Boston.

More than 160,000 fans are expected to attend, and everyone will be subject to electronic scanning. The official precautionary details are available here.

So it’s come to this!

Islamic terrorism has us hiding behind walls, and make no mistake, whether it’s an actual brick wall, an electronic fence, or any other device that keeps us from entering and exiting freely – is a wall. They keep coming after us, so we have no choice but to become radicalized ourselves; only in our case it is to keep ourselves and our kids safe from harm.

We’ve become extremists for safety. We know what happens when we relax. Our enemies never relax. They’re always busy.

Along with the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Boston Marathon, the Kentucky Derby is one of the few times when America becomes a single neighborhood. We’re all in it together. We love horses. We love competition, and we’re hooked on anything that lets us forget our troubles and lets us remember that we are a nation that works hard and plays hard.

Often enough it’s a horse that illustrates tenacity and courage – like those heart-thumping battles between Alydar and Affirmed back in 1978.

Or Secretariat running the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown with such grace as if the rest of the world were standing still

(The autopsy on Secretariat showed his heart to be twice the normal size.)

Every first Saturday in May, this is when we take part in a tradition that started in 1875, and we keep it going because it is part of the American fabric…and because there is nothing more thrilling than watching your horse zoom to the finish line before all the others. 

People who don’t know a horse’s head from a horse’s tail suddenly become Jimmy the Greek, even if they put their two dollars on a horse simply because of its name.

The race is being broadcast live on NBC beginning at 4 p.m. eastern time.

Rumors to the contrary, thoroughbred racing is alive, even if the sport is running wobbly due to a decline in attendance. However, last year’s on-track attendance for the Derby in Louisville, Ky., drew the largest crowd ever, 165,307. Meanwhile, 14.8 million of us watched last year’s Derby on TV, the highest figure in 23 years.

Even more of us throughout the nation will be visiting racetracks and horseracing parlors, and some for the first time.

First some tears for the traditional singing of My Old Kentucky Home as the champion three-year-olds are paraded onto the track, magnificent in their colors and their purposeful strides, and then the rousing cheers as they’re gunned from the game, each one carrying a jockey and a dream.

My Old Kentucky Home is Kentucky’s official state song. It was composed in 1852 by Stephen Foster.

But on every first Saturday in May, it is the entire nation’s official song.

We call that tradition. We call that America…and we recall the prophet who sought a day when each of us can recline in peace, “and none shall make us afraid.”


Jack Engelhard, a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist, Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, brings his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior and reaches around the globe.

Read more Jack Engelhard, A Novelist’s View of the World

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Jack Engelhard

Jack Engelhard enjoys international fame as a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, which was turned into film starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His memoir Escape From Mount Moriah has been acclaimed for excellence and a movie version was an official selection at CANNES. Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer. Engelhard’s journalism covers all topics, with special focus on  the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe. He can be contacted at


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