Derby weekend is the time which shows all the glamour and glory of the Bluegrass State. The eyes of the world were focused on Louisville and Churchill Downs.
As some who may have followed this column over the years likely realize I have mixed feelings about The Derby. But then, The Derby is full of paradox itself. It’s a very poor state’s version of Mardi Gras, a weekend bacchanal which some party-goers stretch through an entire week.
The rich, those pretending to be and those scrabbling and scratching and hoping to be will all be there in their finest hats and spring jackets and dresses. Before Stephen Foster does his part, some of us of will recall the beautiful song is about a slave being sold south.
Politicians and civic leaders will be hosting a bunch of well to do business prospects, hoping to lure them to Kentucky — and if the pageantry of the Derby isn’t enough, well there are tax dollars handed out rather than spending them on education or health care.
Don’t get me wrong: Saturday I plan to be in front of a television to watch “the two most exciting minutes in sports.” Perhaps by then I’ll even know the names of some of the horses and have picked a favorite. But that doesn’t really matter: what matters is hearing more than 100,000 people sing “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses leave the Paddock for the track. I’ll be proud of showing off Kentucky at its most glorious to the rest of the world.
But we might be wise to pause for just a moment in our pride and pleasure and recall all those other Kentuckians for whom a trip to The Derby and Millionaires’ Row is as remote as a glass slipper left behind at the ball. Those who scrabble and scratch not to become rich and rub shoulders with the socially elite at The Derby but who scrabble and scratch simply to get by.
There will be among the affluent at Churchill Downs Saturday some who contend the plight of the less fortunate has more to do with their personal choices and failures than with the whims of fortune, or public policy or the lack of charity (in its original meaning) in society. That makes it easier to look away. Nor is it just the rich and fortunate who engage in such rationalization to allow us to look away.
Oh maybe a few will shake off the hangover long enough Sunday to attend church and ask forgiveness for the excesses of Saturday. Or perhaps they’ll use their presence for worship as another means of rationalization.
But it might be best to look directly at how Kentucky got here and what it will take to get somewhere better.
Writing about the election of Kentucky Gov. Bert Combs, John Ed Pearce wrote:
“Kentucky was caught Then as now, in its historic bind: it was a poor state; its people had incomes below the national average and were consequently reluctant to support programs that cost new taxes, no matter how much they were needed,” Pearce wrote in his book “Divide and Dissent.”
“This cycle of despond — a poor people keeping poor a government that helped to keep them poor — produced repeated pleas for more progressive government, But progressive government means more money for such things as schools; that meant higher taxes; and the voters had long ago gotten into the habit of baying along behind politicians who promised to ‘cut the waste,’ trim the state payroll, and produce honest government — all of which would miraculously improve their lot without raising taxes.”
So take some time to enjoy The Derby. I hope you manage big winnings and small hangovers. But remind yourself, Derby Day is not reality in Kentucky and if you truly want to change that reality, you’re going to have to pay for it.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.