DERBY DELIGHT This Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, close to 20 thoroughbred racehorses will explode from a gate and battle one another over a mile-and-a-quarter for the most famous and gorgeous blanket of roses on earth. Which had me considering the following five reasons the Kentucky Derby may just be the greatest sporting event in America.

Time is of the essence . . . all two minutes. Think about the things you enjoy most in life. Close your eyes if it helps. For 99 percent of those things, the ideal would be to extend the experience as long as possible. America is all about volume, and the more we have of something we love, in general, the better. Not so at the Derby. In almost precisely 120 seconds, we are given a glimpse of greatness, and only a glimpse. ItÕs like looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without peripheral vision. Which makes the glimpse so fruitful, so heart-poundingly intense. And itÕs why the culmination is, yes, rapture.

Four-legged athletes donÕt talk . . . or cheat. There has yet to be a Kentucky Derby champion who has gloated, trash-talked, done a victory dance, pulled a Sharpie out from under its saddle, thanked God for its ability, said ÒHi MomÓ to millions who arenÕt its mom, or demanded a contract renewal upon its victory. And while seedy trainers keep doping an issue in horse racing, itÕs a hundred furlongs from the scandals that tire us so in human athletics. Steroids, amphetamines, alcohol, crack . . . words you wonÕt hear in this SaturdayÕs televised broadcast.

Room for the little guy. Whatever your childhood dreams may have been, odds are youÕre closer to being the next Willie Shoemaker than the next Willie Mays. How ironic and lovely that aboard these gigantic, muscle-bound, bred-for-power-and-speed animals we find men (and women) who weigh no more than 130 pounds, usually stand no taller than five-and-a-half feet. And with the exception of the sportÕs very best -- men like the late Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Pat Day, or Jerry Bailey -- jockeys are nowhere near the tax bracket of A-Rod, Kobe, or Peyton. They spend 12 months traveling from track to track, taking a mount wherever they can find one, risking their lives every time a gate opens, and with the same dream prancing through every last one of them: the first Saturday in May.

Stars are born. With every passing year in which it doesnÕt happen, horse racingÕs Triple Crown earns another stripe as the single hardest achievement in American sport. And it all starts with the Derby. Win the run for the roses, and EVERYONE is rooting for you two weeks later at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. The Triple Crown is for all of us, the fan who waits in line at off-track betting sites as well as the Joe Six-Pack who skips his Saturday 18-hole foursome three times a year to see if (maybe?) weÕll see the next Secretariat. In more than 125 years, exactly 11 horses have won the Triple Crown. (For some perspective, 16 baseball players have won a Òtriple crown,Ó leading their league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs in the same season.) The current 26-year drought since the last winner (Affirmed in 1978) is the longest since Sir Barton finished the first sweep at the 1919 Belmont.

Sport as art. IÕll grant that Michael Jordan flying to the basket from the foul line -- filmed in slow motion -- is ballet in sneakers and shorts. And a pretty baseball swing will make my head tilt as it will when gazing at a meadow by Monet. But even these images donÕt match the muscle-shaking, four-legged symphony that is a thoroughbred in full flight. Perhaps itÕs seeing 2,000 pounds speeding by on such thin supports (my wife holds her breath the entire two minutes). Maybe itÕs the yearning we see in the bobbing of the beastÕs beautifully extended head, its nose being the first claim to victory and immortality. Together as a whole, the Kentucky Derby is artwork. The only sporting event all year I record, rewind, and replay in its entirety. Twice.

My pick for the 131st winner? Sun King.


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