"The Derby is more than just a horse race," James C. Nicholson succinctly sums up the premise of his work (p. 7). Nicholson's book chronicles the history of the Kentucky Derby. It also assesses what has made the Derby not only America's greatest race but also an iconic [End Page 123] national event, even for people who do not know a fetlock from a forelock. This carefully researched, lavishly illustrated, and clearly cited study is a welcome addition to the field of racing history. It also makes a compelling case for the importance of examining popular events like the Derby and considering what their significance tells us about American culture.
Nicholson details the birth of the Derby in 1875, follows its rise to national significance in the 1910s and the creation of the Triple Crown in the 1930s, chronicles the impact of superstars from Citation to Secretariat, and culminates with the present-day Derby, to which global money and talent flock. Along the way, he makes abundant use of what can seem like "all periodicals published in the month of May in the last 135 years" (p. 221). But he also includes the thoughts and words of a wide variety of great American writers, from William Faulkner to Hunter S. Thompson, on the subject of the persistent fascination of the Derby.
Nicholson argues that the endurance of the Derby as a cultural event comes from its capacity to take on multiple meanings simultaneously or successively. The Derby, he posits, has benefited from its association with border-state Kentucky; it has been identified both as a specifically southern event and as a completely American one. Nicholson builds here on Maryjean Wall's recent analysis of the connections between the Kentucky postbellum assumption of a Confederate identity and its emergence as the cradle of the thoroughbred. The state established itself in the late nineteenth century as a crossroads of the New South and continued to give generations of white audiences a comfortable sense of racial order free of troubling associations with the plantations of the Deep South. This capacity, Nicholson argues, was a decisive factor in anchoring the popularity of the Derby, particularly in its first fifty years.
In considering the continuing centrality of the Derby in American culture, Nicholson pursues a number of well-taken points, including its symbolic place in twentieth-century debates over class and race. He focuses in particular on Derby Day protests during both the Great Depression and the civil rights movement. His examination of the [End Page 124] relationship between Reagan-era wealth polarization and contemporary fascination with Derby long shots is particularly insightful.
Tackling more than a century of history is a formidable task. Making Nicholson's work more difficult are the irresistibly colorful anecdotes that inevitably emerge in his material. He recounts many of these anecdotes, which is great fun for both writer and reader. As a result, the book takes on an episodic quality. Each chapter seems more as if it has a broad central concept than a unifying argument, and Nicholson sometimes moves too easily away from potentially rich explorations of his points. For instance, Nicholson seems about to expand a significant discussion about the importance of race in the popular appeal of the figure of the Kentucky Colonel, then reminds his readers that no Kentucky Colonel is complete without a glass of bourbon and follows with several paragraphs about the importance of bourbon to the image of Kentucky. Such shifts are occasionally frustrating, but Nicholson's smooth prose and clear passion for his subject make his book genuinely entertaining to read.
Katherine Mooney is a postdoctoral fellow in history with the program in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is presently working on a manuscript about African Americans in thoroughbred racing.