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John Clay: Why the Kentucky Derby still matters while its sport declines

LOUISVILLE — Horse racing is in decline. Crowds are down. Betting is down. Sale prices have dropped. Tracks are closing. Farms are on the market. The future looks grim.

And yet the Kentucky Derby remains as popular as ever.

"Seems to me, it's picking up more steam every year now," said Tom Hammond, the Lexingtonian who is the host to NBC's Triple Crown coverage. "It's become an event that transcends horse racing."

The question: Why?

When the sport itself is more of an afterthought, why does the Kentucky Derby keep the nation's attention, and why are there still so many people out there so eager to spend time, effort and especially money to try and win it?

"I think the two are kind of tied (together)," said Randy Moss, who covers horse racing for ABC, ESPN and the Daily Racing Form. "Right now, obviously, sports has never been more popular than it is now in America. Because of the proliferation of sports on television, we've all become a nation of big events."

Much of the general public doesn't bother with golf unless the tournament is the Masters or the U.S. Open. Some pay scant attention to the NBA until the playoffs, or baseball unless it's the World Series. Outside of these parts, the same is true of college basketball until the NCAA Tournament.

"So even though horse racing overall is in sort of a free fall in popularity, when you get to the Kentucky Derby, it's that big event," Moss said. "There's not much else on the sports calendar the first Saturday in May. So people are really accustomed to focusing in on the Kentucky Derby."

The attention only feeds the fire of those inside the sport.

"Wherever I go, whomever I meet," said Ruben Sierra, the owner of Derby entrant Decisive Moment, "when I tell them that I own racehorses, the first question they always ask me, always, is, 'Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?'"

John Henry was a tremendous horse that won 39 races, but he never made the cover of Time magazine, was never the subject of a movie a la Secretariat, who won the Kentucky Derby.

"It's our Super Bowl in the horse racing industry," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer for Soldat. "It's the biggest race in the world. All eyes are watching this race, from all around the world."

So horsemen want to win the race that everyone watches?

"Even if they don't say it, in the back of their minds that's what they're thinking," said McLaughlin of when he meets a new client. "Everybody's in it to try and win the Derby."

Or just be in the Derby. Mike Repole, the 42-year-old owner of Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, has said repeatedly this week that since the age of 13 his dream has been to own a horse in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

"In the so-called old days, you had a lot more old-school owners, old-time breeders, the real traditional types," said Moss, "and with them it was almost like they would lose face if they ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby that didn't have a chance to win."

The late Charlie Whittingham was one of the greatest trainers in the history of the sport. Yet he nearly went his entire career before even running a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Whittingham was 73 when he entered his first Derby with the eventual winner Sunday Silence.

That line of thinking is practically gone. This is the seventh straight year that a full field of 20 horses has been entered for the Derby.

"Now you have owners who are not old-school, they are businessmen or fans of the sport who have gotten involved and they want to have a horse in the Derby," Moss said.

Better still, they want to win the Kentucky Derby. Take Robert LaPenta, for example. The owner of morning-line Derby favorite Dialed In has had many excellent horses.

"But this is what he lives for, basically," said Dialed In's trainer, Nick Zito on Thursday. "He got into horse racing for one thing, to do this, because it's special. He keeps trying every year, because this is what he wants to do."

And what makes the Derby special?

"You're here, aren't you," said Zito, smiling. "Later in the year, I'm up in New York and it's the day before a big race, and none of you guys are around. People aren't paying attention then. They're paying attention now."

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