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The Day the Derby Magic Died

The Kentucky Derby – An event for everyone who’s ever even thought they could love a horse, the first Saturday in May has always been sacred. From trailer parks in tiny towns to penthouses in New York and Los Angeles, ceremonial Mint Juleps flow, women wear hats and the starry, sometimes emotionally tearful eyes of the nation and world are on Churchill Downs.

For years, under the direction of Bob Costas, NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby brought racing into our homes and hearts by not just televising the machine that grinds on 24/7 at tracks around the world. We’re treated to the imagery of babies and broodmares on gorgeous, horse-heaven farms surrounded by people who care so deeply about the horses that we can’t tell where their horses stop and they begin.

By the time an impossibly huge field of the top 3-year-old Thoroughbreds from the horsemen all over the world step into the starting gates, we feel real ownership for at least one of them. It’s OUR horse we’ve just sent into the battle for excellence over a mile and a quarter course on the sports biggest stage to run their race. Emotions run high, grown men choke back tears and women scream, normally sedate people jump around like monkeys as the horses approach the finish line.

No matter what the outcome of the race (so long as the horses all pulled up healthy) we’re all thrilled for the winners and want to hug those who make that long walk back to the shedrows alone. We’re grateful for the grooms who won’t tell their tired warriors they’ve been beaten, but pat and rub them instead, promising they did well, that oats and tons of TLC are still their rightful rewards. That they’ll live to know themselves victors on another day.

This year was different.

No spectator or participant walked away feeling good about the way the Kentucky Derby was decided. This year, the dedicated racing media failed us by allowing mainstream media to feed us a story that didn’t represent the actual chain of events that led to the disqualification of Maximum Security. Instead, after running a brilliant race to earn second, we heard Country House’s jockey lie to us during an inquiry saying his horse was hit so hard by Maximum Security that they were turned sideways.

Nobody saw it then – no one has seen evidence of it since. It was at the top of the homestretch that a talented horse with humble beginnings and only five races under his belt stepped off the rail nearly taking War Of Will’s front end out from under him and causing the horse trailing him, Long Range Toddy’s rider to take back. The objection by J.K, Court (Long Range Toddy’s rider) was legit. An objection by War Of Will’s connections never happened. The objection by the un-fouled F. Prat (with the blessing of Country House’s trainer, William Mott) is what we’ll all remember as the bizarre, snow-flaky, fake-news stain on the most hallowed day in racing at a time that’s critical to the sport’s future, the horses, the people who devote their lives to them and to us – the people who thrill to see a horse bred for speed and competition do his thing.

Horse racing is on the national hot seat due to a series of inexplicable, tragic events centering around Los Angeles’ home track, Santa Anita. Lawyers, politicians and richly funded groups like PETA (who only exist by playing on the emotions of animal lovers for billions in contributions) smell blood and the opportunity for gain for their mission to destroy the sports that are based on the animal-human relationship.

Photo Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Facebook PageHere’s what’s clear. When people who don’t know the horse or the sport are taking advantage of the hype to author new legislation that will surely be detrimental to the animal we love, no good can come of it. We’re all hurt that our feel-good story didn’t happen, but would we be AS hurt if the information we were fed had been professional and factual and not just an NBC air guy with a microphone finding any face to stick it in to fill dead air?

Would we have been as disappointed if instead, we’d have been immediately taken to the stewards’ room as the objections rolled in? If we knew what the stewards were studying on the big, high-tech video consoles they depend on to rule on every race run on the continent, wouldn’t we have understood? Would we have not been offended to the level of dismissing our bucket list dream of attending the Kentucky Derby?

If we had seen the process narrated by one of Churchill Downs’ communication staffers who showed us the rule and reality of what judgment would depend on instead of hearing a jockey spout obvious lies and see, given the weak information existing TV coverage provided, the ruling goes his way, would we be so righteously offended?

It’s way past time for racing, rodeo, bull riding, dog shows and people who care to demand that our fate is in the hands of good industry professionals with the best interests of the horse in mind. It’s time to not only seek the big platforms to tell our stories but to demand that those stories be told by people who understand them and can communicate clearly to effectively teach the people who don’t know the story.

It’s time for the dedicated, professional industry media to take the reins (and microphones and cameras) and do their jobs. What we love is at stake. Every major association in the ‘animal entertainment’ industry is seeking a larger audience share, larger network platforms and to generate interest and buzz across the social media platforms. Exposure is good! We have nothing to hide and everything to be proud of. What we cannot afford is to use that exposure in uneducated ways that cheapen what we do.

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Lori O'Harver is a woman on a mission to tell the stories of the world without borders known as Bronc Riding Nation. From the vast grasslands the great bucking horses call home to the bright lights of Las Vegas, where good ones buck and the people called to ride them come to make their high flying dreams come true, she writes about the horses and people who feel the spirit of freedom and devote their lives to keeping the legends alive.

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