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The Kentucky Derby through English eyes

When it comes to racing, whatever country you’re in, it’s all about the horses

To head straight to Churchill Downs on the first weekend in May really is to dive in at the deep end. As an Englishwoman in Kentucky, I feel lost. At the Oaks yesterday, I found myself saying the same phrase time and time again. ‘We don’t do it like that in England’. Ponying the racehorses down to the start; we don’t do that in England. Racing on a ‘dirt’ track; we don’t do that in England. The fanfare as the horses enter the track. And even the betting; I’m used to placing an each way or a win bet. Here most people seems to be putting money on a trifecta. Win, place, show? What’s that?

Perhaps the biggest difference is my pronunciation. ‘What are you doing in the States?’, people ask me. ‘I’m going to Kentucky for the “dah-bee”’, I explain, and am met with blank looks. ‘Why do you say “dah-bee”?’, someone asked. I had to stop myself from saying, ‘because that’s what it’s called’. I’ve learnt now to say “der-bee”, but I still feel like I’m putting on an accent when I say it. Oh well, at least people understand me.

But for all the differences between racing here and at home, the central tenets are the same. The hats are the same. The paddock is the same. And the name of the game is the same. After all, when it comes to racing, whatever country you’re in, it’s all about the horses.

Last night, at the Governor’s Derby Eve Gala, VP Mike Pence told the story of how, on a visit to the Coolmore Stud in Lexington, he met triple crown winner American Pharoah. ‘He bit me so hard, it left a mark and I show it to people the whole time.’ But he also spoke of his admiration for the people who work with and train the horses running today – and the horses themselves. ‘[Running a horse in the Derby] represents a lifetime of commitment’, and that’s the same all over the world. Horse racing has its critics both in the states and in the UK, but the dedication that trainers, owners, grooms and everyone who works in racing have to their horses is certainly something to be proud of. The Kentucky Derby is known as ‘the greatest two minutes in sport’. But it takes years, patience, and a huge amount of work to get to this point.

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