Wednesday January 27th, 2010

A Selection

k-derbyFrom This Was Racing by Joe H. Palmer (1953), the subject of the next Backlist feature, which will be published in the near future:

A thin file of racers was stepping slowly out from beneath the crowded stands at Churchill Downs. A band was playing “My Old Kentucky Home” with intense feeling and a trumpet which was a half-tone flat. A hundred thousand people, give or take a half dozen, were straining for a glimpse of the Derby parade. There were flashes of crimson and gold and purple silk under a watery May sunshine, as a dozen or so jockeys tried to ride to the post with what they hoped was nonchalance.

At the moment a dozen or so horses held the nation’s sporting interest, the pick of a crop of perhaps 8,000 foals. A quarter-hour later one would stand garlanded and restive in the presentation enclosure, as the others went back beaten to their barns. The winner might be 5 to 2 in the mutuels, but he was 8,000 to 1 on a spring night three years earlier, when his dam heaved up from a straw-filled stall and had a look at him.

Outside the race track there was a tense, expectant world, waiting crouched over its radios, and occasionally sending one of the children down to the drug store for razor blades. Men paused over their lobster pots on off-shore Maine to adjust the portable. For that fleeting instant, no one cared what Rita or Princess Elizabeth was doing. It was, you understand, a very solemn moment.

“I wonder,” remarked John McNulty, of the New Yorker, “what would happen if a convention were ever held in Mecca. How would you write a lead?”

The band had got to “bye and bye hard times come a-knockin’” before this was figured out. Mr. McNulty had evidently worked on a copy desk somewhere, and under his recoiling fingers had come many a story beginning, “Indianapolis was the Mecca of auto-racing enthusiasts today when—”; “Philadelphia became the Mecca of the services today when Army and Navy—”; “Oberammergau became the Mecca of Southern Bavaria today when—” and others of what is called an ilk.

All the same, and with all proper apologies, Louisville, Ky., is about to become the Mecca of. The Gateway to the South (it says on the bridges) will brace itself against successive waves of visitors with no noticeable gift for quietude, and the tempo will rise until late on the afternoon of the first Saturday in May. On the following afternoon Louisville could be grouped around St. Anthony’s hut in the Thebaid without disturbing his devotions. This tourist often stays over an extra day, just to listen to the silence.