Thursday, May 1, 1997
Boats, horses and bragging
in Kentucky

The Cincinnati Enquirer

No wonder Kentucky loves itself so much.

It does, you know. People who live in Kentucky have a pride in their state citizenship unequaled anywhere in the country except, perhaps, for Texas. Of course, Texas was settled by Kentuckians, so that's probably just habitual, genetic Kentucky pride in a western location.

Like Texans, Kentuckians tend to brag just a little. OK, a lot. But you can understand why it would be more fun to talk about an economic history based on the speed of a well-bred horse, rather than, say, the tallow of a well-fed pig. Or the transmission of a well-oiled Ford.

A gentle introduction

If you live on the north side of the Ohio River, you can see what Kentucky is all about at Lexington's Keeneland, which just finished its spring meeting and will open again Oct. 4-25.

It is a gentle, elegant, horsey experience, dressed up and slightly muffled. A stone grandstand, green-jacketed ushers and spectators' boxes bearing the names of blue bloods of the Bluegrass State. Asbury. Chandler. Farish. Headley. Haggin.

You'll drive past four-rail white Kentucky fencing, a fine distinction. It takes only three rails to confine the average horse. The fourth rail serves notice that the owner of the farm does not have - or need to have - a frugal nature.

The Lexington track, home of the famed yearling sales, is a lovely start to appreciating Kentucky's thoroughbred racing traditions. But if you want the crash course, now is the time, and Louisville is the place.

Some historians - even those not from Kentucky - claim that horse racing as a major sport in this country dates from the opening of Churchill Downs in 1875 when a small chestnut colt named Aristides galloped home to win the first Kentucky Derby and nearly $3,000 before 10,000 people.

This Saturday's winner will collect $700,000 before a crowd of about 150,000. Their picture hats and juleps will contrast nicely with Armani and cigars, not to mention the infield's UK Wildcats T-shirts and contraband beer.

It's pure Kentucky.

Respect for history

And Wednesday night was another piece of add-on history, the steamboat race between the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville. Every year since 1963, except for 1967 when they were flooded out, the race has been a highlight of the two-week Derby Festival.

Think of it. The horse race still lasts about two minutes, and the foreplay now lasts two weeks.

The steamboat race starts and ends under downtown Louisville's Clark Memorial Bridge. It takes the big old boats about an hour and a half to navigate the 14 miles. The Queen has 2,000 horsepower engines. The Belle produces maybe 450 horses from its century-old steam engine, but it is lighter and smaller.

They're a handicapper's dream, as the wins have been almost evenly split during the past 34 years. The captain of the Belle expects to win this year. So does the captain of the Queen. In this respect, it is much like professional wrestling.

Mark Twain wrote:

''When the Eclipse and the A.L. Shotwell ran their great race, it was said that pains were taken to scrape the gilding off the fanciful device which hung between the Eclipse's chimneys, and that the captain off his kid gloves and had his head shaved. But I always doubted these things.''

This was very reassuring news to me as I boarded the Delta Queen on Wednesday afternoon before the race. I wasn't worried about kid gloves or gilt, but I did kind of want to keep my hair.

Apparently they have relaxed their rules considerably, because they didn't even weigh my luggage. Or me.

I was rooting for the glorious Delta Queen. She is Cincinnati's boat - it says so right on the stern - and it was her birthday, No. 70. She won, but it didn't really matter. Especially not to Kentucky.

The important thing is that the race was run. And will be again next year.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.