Missing the Run for the Roses Saturday

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I’m especially melancholy this week.

On a macro level, we are universally experiencing the cascading effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The news is difficult to watch and the recurring uncertainty regarding a return to what we consider “normal” life is exhausting on the soul.

While not losing sight of the larger issues of the day, my heightened sadness this week is due to the fact that there won’t be a Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

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This will not occur in May at iconic Churchill Downs for the first time in 146 years (other than World War II in 1945). It’s a great American tradition, first run 10 years after the end of the Civil War.

It’s actually the culmination of a trifecta of sports that I love so much about spring — March Madness, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby.  At least two of these events are scheduled for later this year.

Closer to home, the Derby has had special meaning in Las Vegas for many years. With the advent of modern race and sports books in the early to middle 1980’s, Vegas became a hot destination for the big race. Parties. Handicapping seminars. Giveaways. It was all part of Derby Day in our city.

Before you disparage horse racing and plan its funeral, let’s get a few things straight. The actual race is the main attraction, but it’s just a cog in an enormous machine. Both the track operators and NBC have seized the opportunity to capture a whole new demographic in recent years.

The Derby has become a “who’s who” of celebrities and star athletes who aren’t necessarily there to see horse racing. And that comes with a chance for them to show off their most expensive threads. But this Saturday we’ll miss the red carpet, the mint juleps, the wild hats and the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses parade onto the track.

As I’ve gotten older, I have placed more stock in tradition and nostalgia. Maybe it’s the case for most of us? There’s a bigger inventory of memories stored away.

For instance, my father would take me to Pimlico on Derby Day. We’d bet a few races, and obviously the Derby, then retreat home to watch on ABC.

Talk about tradition on television. Commentating giants Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker would beautifully describe the pageantry against the backdrop of the Twin Spires.

It was the climax of a great runup to the race. The iconic event actually starts in greater Louisville a month before the first Saturday in May. There are a variety of luncheons, winefests, youth orchestra concerts and parades that mostly have a charitable component associated with them. Many corporations that make Louisville their home, including Humana and Yum Brands, are also quite active during this process.

Here’s the irony in all of this. The entire month’s program of Derby festivities is centered around social interaction. And that culminates with a card of America’s best thoroughbreds competing in front of more than 150,000 fans packed into both the stands and the track’s infield.

Millions more watch at tracks, simulcast centers and off-track betting parlors across the world. I arrived here in the early 1990s and worked in the restaurant industry. Our company had locations in several hotels, including the MGM Grand.

This particular outlet was adjacent to the race book. Derby Day was not quite as busy as the first weekend of March Madness, but certainly much more active than a typical football Sunday. As the day wore on, and post time loomed, the crowd packed the sportsbook spaces like a can of sardines.

I vividly remember two of my friends visiting from the east coast during one of those Derby Saturdays. Neither of them could care less about horse racing, or the marquee event for that matter. I had to work that afternoon but convinced them to come over to the MGM and watch the race.

They did so reluctantly. Fortunately, I was able to secure them good seats in the race and sportsbook. As the horses turned for home, there was an indescribable surge of energy in the room. The crescendo of screams was near deafening. My friends were absolutely exhilarated and didn’t have a nickel on the race.

Another interesting phenomenon began to occur in Las Vegas during these particular years. The sports and entertainment executives in town devised a plan to have championship boxing matches over the Cinco de Mayo holiday weekend. This happened to coincide with the Kentucky Derby every year.

It was absolutely brilliant. In those early days, the fights would involve Mexican boxing legend Julio Caesar Chavez. Through the years, we’d see Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Canelo Alvarez and Shane Mosley.

But the pinnacle of these blockbuster matches was that of Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather in 2015. The fight had gate revenue of $72 million and received 4.6 million Pay Per View buys. Ironically, it was also the highest attendance ever at the Derby on the day American Pharoah was victorious.

My profound lack of Derby sadness is rooted in several different areas. First, I love how we treat the event at Gaming Today. We launched our publication back in 1976 for the Derby. Each year, we produce a special edition with expanded coverage on the race. It’s also a terrific promotional opportunity for our advertising partners who host Derby seminars, parties and offer special betting options.

Secondly, I certainly enjoy wagering on the race. It’s such a unique race to handicap as the field size is nearly double that of a race on any given day. There’s also a huge value component to this particular race. Basically if you wager right on this day you’re getting handsomely paid. I’ve had a few of those days.

Finally on a more personal note, my younger child was born on Derby weekend. His mom had a difficult time delivering this one. It was quite distressing for a period of time, but they made it to the finish line in pretty good shape. This is an eternal happy feeling whether there’s a race or not.

Let’s cross our fingers that both me and my GT colleagues will have Kentucky Derby selections in our Sept. 2nd issue .

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