The Sport of Kings

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The Sport of Kings

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

When I first started working for ABC Sports as an announcer back in 1980, they sent me to the Indianapolis 500 to get to know the senior announcers. And I remember distinctly the reverence in my boss- voice when he said, -Trust me, Diana. You-ve been to Olympic Games, Wimbledons, Super Bowls. But the morning of the Indy 500, when you sense the history and see the pageantry of the Brickyard-when you hear the announcer-s stately words, -Gentlemen, start your engines,- you will be witness to the greatest moment in all of sports.-

Well, I went to Indy, had a great time with my new colleagues, and was duly keyed up the morning of the race. The smell of high-octane gas and the roar of both the crowd and the engines were in the air. The place went quiet for the announcer-s famous words and, at that moment-and actually for the next five hours of the race-I was (what-s the antonym of reverent?). I was underwhelmed.

Eight years later I went to my first Kentucky Derby. Royalty from around the world had been coming to Louisville since the late 1800-s and their pictures lined the storied walls of the twin-spired club house, Churchill Downs. Celebrities, too. John Wayne, Walter Cronkite, Mohammed Ali. All rubbing elbows in an area called millionaire-s row. Whoever calls the tight t-shirts and beer coolers of Indy pageantry hasn-t seen the oversized Southern ladies- hats and searsucker suits of the Derby. And when the announcer-s voice came to a boil and you heard him nearly scream -AND DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME-, I knew I was watching something special.

Maybe I-m attracted to the horses, or ponies, as they say, because my father was a professional gambler. Poker, craps, the track. And I think he enjoyed all the jargon, the insiders- talk, as much as he loved winning. Well, nothing beats winning. But he was Egyptian and his Arabian background meant a love and respect for the magnificent equine. When they call thoroughbred racing the &quotsport; of kings," along with European and Russian royalty, they are referring to the sheiks of the Arab world who have bred, owned and championed many of the greats of all time.

So many eccentric details of the thoroughbred horse game are fascinating. Tiny athletes, many of whom resort to bulimia and a life of diuretics to maintain a weight of under 120 pounds, guide huge, two-ton animals at a speed and danger threshold that-s impossible for us to understand.

It-s also intriguing that horses basically haven-t run any faster over the last 60 years. The great Whirlaway that romped to the Derby crown by 8 lengths in 1941 crossed the wire in 2 minutes, 1 second. In 2002, War Emblem won the Race for the Roses in 2 minutes, 1 second-Whirlaway-s same time. The evolution of human performance over that stretch has been mind-boggling, with human athletes running circles around their predecessors. Is this a commentary on drug use? That we will eventually discover that horses are in fact the only drug-free athletes on today-s playing field? In any case, the finest specimens on the turf for decades now-Northern Dancer, Citation, Seattle Slew-they have all (and are all still) running the same times on the same track.

And there-s always the intangible, compelling factor of heart. That was the Seabiscuit story. There-s a horse in this year-s field with a similar, unlikely, pedigree but supposedly the heart of a lion. His name-s Smarty Jones. I-d like to be on the infield at Churchill Downs this Saturday, sipping a mint julep, for the 130th Running of the Kentucky Derby. I-d get on my cell phone and call my old ABC boss. Tell him that a machine coming down the straightaway doesn-t move me like a horse-s eyes, brimming with desire to reach the finish line first. Now that-s one of the greatest moments in all of sports.

I-m Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that-s The Score.



Diana Nyad