The Kentucky Derby: Derby Fever, Derby Day, And The Run For The Roses, by Bill Doolittle
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Carpe Diem Books in exchange for an honest review.]
Those of us who are not likely ever to be fortunate enough to be invited to Churchill Downs for any of the Kentucky Derby events to enjoy the company while sipping a mint julep, and who are interested in horse racing  or horses in general , will find much to love about this book. Reading this book is the next best thing to being able to enjoy the two-week derby season in person. This book manages to succeed on every level possible–it is written about America’s most important horse race, manages to provide an exhaustive but not exhausting look at the Kentucky Derby, and contains both text and artistic photography that must be read and seen to be believed. The author, a noted historian of the Kentucky Derby, has written the sort of text that sounds like it could be found in a Ken Burns-like documentary on the Derby , and the photographs have the sort of artistry that will lead many a reader of this book to turn to them again and again. In addition, the book itself is enriched with multimedia from digimarc that allow smart phones to scan the book for additional video material, including a rousing rendition of the National Anthem by LeAnn Rimes and Kenzie Kapp’s beautiful headwear for the elegant ladies of Churchill Downs, as well as some video footage of some of the best Derbies in history, including wins by such notable horses as Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah and historical horses like I’ll Have Another and long-shot winner Giacomo.
The contents of this book are quite impressive. The book is organized in a chronological as well as topical manner that manages to combine several different approaches to the Kentucky Derby that ought to be of great interest to those with equestrian interests. Intermixed with a historical look at the Kentucky Derby from its beginnings in 1875 through the tough times that helped push Derby founder Merriweather Lewis Clark into suicide and almost led to bankruptcy for the Kentucky Derby before Colonel Winn rescued the run for the roses from threatened oblivion, in part through an insistence on class, elegance, and integrity, as well as the savvy appeal of contributing to the state budget and cutting out the bookies through pari-mutuel gambling. Aside from discussing the technical details of breeding and training and racing horses, the author manages to discuss the culture of Derby Week, the preliminary parties and lead-up races, and pays a great deal of attention to the bloodline and appeal of the noble stallions, fillies, and geldings who have raced and won the Kentucky Derby. The author even manages to include some thoughtful suggestions for reading and viewing material at the end of the book, as well as a statistical table of the horses who have won, placed, or shown at the Kentucky Derby through its entire history, which ought to serve as a reference material to settle debates about the derby among aficionados of the sport.
It cannot be emphasized enough how much this book is a work of beauty. It contains striking insights about the psychology of horse racing, the lure of betters to profit and gain bragging rights in picking a winner, the social aspects of watching horse racing, the elite circle of bloodlines, trainers, and jockeys, many of whom win over and over again. There are thoughtful discussions of regional distinctions in racing as well as issues of race and class as well, for those who wish to think deeply about racing, and even discussion about the phoenix-like rebirth of Kentucky breeding after the horrors of the Civil War. What is likely to stay with the reader of this book longest, though, is the beauty of this book’s text and photos, of the elegance of the horses themselves in their racing and in their frolicking. Such a work of beauty ought to make everyone who is involved in this book, from its author, its photographers, the trainers, owners, jockeys, fans, and the people who run Churchill Downs, for whom this book is a fitting and worthy tribute to a beautiful and significant race. For fans of the Kentucky Derby and its larger context, this is a book worth reading, and rereading towards the beginning of May as the Derby approaches, to remind oneself of what it means to care about horses and horse racing.
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“Unlike the taciturn trainers of yesteryear, Lukas is garrulous and eminently quotable. Even when he doesn’t have a Derby horse, the media seek him out at Barn 44 to get his thoughts on the race. Nobody has ever left Lukas with an empty notebook (54).” – Bill Doolittle
“I’ve known what’s going to happen in every Derby since my first. It’s going to be a three-alarm fire drill (117).” – Gary Stevens, jockey
A fitting horse burial: “He was buried with his favorite blanket and a bag of peppermints (145).”