Numerous books about the Kentucky Derby have been published over the years. Consequently, when I saw another one titled The Kentucky Derby (by James C. Nicholson), I wondered how it could provide sufficiently fresh insights. After reading of Nicholson’s background, the answer became clearer.

Nicholson hails from a Kentucky family prominent in the racing industry, grew up on a Thoroughbred farm, and worked in the industry. He is also a recently minted doctoral graduate in history from the University of Kentucky. Thus his work is a hybrid of sorts, a fusion of his equine and academic life experiences.

Nicholson provides the reader with stories of the fast horses and often colorful people who have been involved with America’s most famous race, but does so within the context of the times, such as during the two world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the tumultuous 1960s. For example, horse racing was shut down by the federal government on January 3, 1945 because of the war effort; a postponed Derby was run on June 9 after the ban was lifted owing to the German surrender in May. Nicholson’s Derby-within-the larger-culture approach is what makes the book noticeably different from others.

In one illustration of how prevailing culture has affected the Derby, Nicholson makes a case that the increasingly rowdy behavior of the infield crowd in the 1960s and 1970s was reflective of what was occurring in the United States, as the younger generation rebelled against establishment mores. The conduct of the infield crowd stood in stark contrast to the traditional old order behavior in the Churchill Downs Clubhouse, and the contrast was a metaphor for the young versus old divisions in the greater society.

Another example: Nicholson explains how the carefully cultivated Old South image of the Kentucky Derby gradually gave way to changing sensibilities about race. Nicholson’s chapter “A Stage for Social Protest and a Site for National Healing, 1960-1980” describes how the Civil Rights movement spilled over to the Derby in 1967. Protestors threatened to hold Derby week festivities hostage in order to advance the cause of open housing in Louisville. Threats turned to action when the Derby Trial was disrupted and the Derby Festival Parade was cancelled. Protestors intended to unsettle or shut down the Derby itself. Civil rights leaders in the end called off a Derby-Day confrontation at Churchill Downs, but, Nicholson writes: “Despite these assurances…twenty-five hundred National Guardsmen, state troopers, and local law enforcement officers were at the track, which resembled an armed camp.”

Nicholson’s method of telling the Derby story is revealed in statements like “Because the Derby is such an important piece of American culture, people want their Derby champions to ‘deserve’ the title and to reflect the salient ‘American values’ of their time. These values are not static; they evolve, disappear, and resurface at the whim of the pervading cultural, social, and political climate.” For instance, he says, “Americans rallied [in 2003] behind ‘America’s horse,’ winner of America’s race, at a time when patriotism was at a fever pitch” due to the horrific events of 9-11-2001.

Nicholson’s book will appeal to aficionados of horse racing in general and the Kentucky Derby in particular, even if one does not live in the United States. However, this is not your garden-variety horse racing book, as it has an intellectual overlay that one would expect from a person who cares enough about history to get a doctorate in the subject. Moreover, it is extensively documented. Yet the book is very readable and entertaining.

James C. Nicholson, The Kentucky Derby (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012). List price, $24.95.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

Postscript: Reading James Nicholson’s account of Derby Day 1967 brought back a flood of memories. I was part of the “armed camp” he references that made sure the race was run without interruption. My Kentucky Army National Guard unit was positioned in a location very near to the racetrack waiting to be called on should a riot erupt. Fortunately, that did not occur. However, a year later, in May 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., my unit was part of a large Kentucky Army National Guard contingent activated for about a week, by the governor, to quell what one publication ranked as number 21 on the list of “The 25 Worst Riots of All Time.” The 1967 and 1968 editions of the Run for the Roses are forever etched in my mind, not because of the actual races, but rather because of their proximity to the societal upheaval in which I had a front-row seat.