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Derby 101: William Faulkner’s Timeless Kentucky Derby Account

The race one crowd at the 1955 Derby from the Bettman Archive, Getty Images

The race one crowd at the 1955 Kentucky Derby from the Bettman Archive, Getty Images

One of the most celebrated American authors put his pen to paper at the Kentucky Derby.  In 1955, William Faulkner traveled to Churchill Downs on behalf of Sports Illustrated.  He left Louisville with a timeless account of the fastest two minutes in sports.

It was the iconic magazine’s first year of publication, and the same year Faulkner won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for A Fable.  The South’s preeminent literary voice wrote two pieces for SI.  “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is considered on of the best articles ever featured in America’s sports magazine.

The 1955 Kentucky Derby was filled with drama.  The heavily-favored Nashua, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, could not hold off Swaps and future Kentucky Derby legend Bill Shoemaker.  It spawned a rivalry between the East Coast (Nashua, who won the Preakness and Belmont) and the West Coast (Swaps) that culminated with a match race a year later.

(I’m sure all our female readers will appreciate the, “ladies, wait your turn,” in this cinematic review of the 81st Kentucky Derby.)

Even though there were plenty of tantalizing storylines in play, Faulkner did not mention one of them by name in his article.  Faulkner’s Kentucky Derby account is a transcendent masterpiece because the eloquent descriptions and articulate themes are still true in some form today.

“Kentucky: May: Saturday” describes the three days leadings into the 81st Kentucky Derby.  Beginning with a scene-setter that features the names of Lincoln and Foster, Faulkner dedicates more time dissecting a horse’s pre-Derby workout than the actual Derby race.  The feeling of the air during backside morning workouts is hard to describe, but of course, Faulkner nails it.

Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.

Faulkner captures the thrill of horse racing that’s in the veins of every fan.  He also has a way justifying the degenerate gambler in a way that no other could.

So it is not just betting, the chance to prove with money your luck or what you call your judgment, that draws people to horse races. It is much deeper than that. It is a sublimation, a transference: man, with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent — the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal because the brutality of the prize fight is absent, as well as the attenuation of football or baseball — the long time needed for the orgasm of victory to occur, where in the horse race it is a matter of minutes, never over two or three, repeated six or eight or 10 times in one afternoon.

Faulkner’s Kentucky Derby account is the ying to Hunter S. Thompson’s yang.  What makes the Kentucky Derby beautiful is that it encapsulates it all — the powerful, beautiful horses owned by the filthy rich, down to the poor backside stableboy and the drunken infield debauchery.

William Fulkner: Kentucky: May: Saturday

Faulkner (right) speaks to jockey Eddie Arcaro, via Bettman Archive, Getty Images.

Read more in the Derby 101 Series: Cocktails, New Gates and Traffic Patterns

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Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR