Franklin: Inside the Thrill (and Torture) of Sweating the Kentucky Derby

Franklin: Inside the Thrill (and Torture) of Sweating the Kentucky Derby article feature image

Kramer Caswell/Louisville Courier-Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK.

Betting on the Kentucky Derby is unlike anything else in sports gambling.

In only two lightning-quick minutes — “The Fastest Two Minutes In Sports” — bettors will experience a wide range of emotions.

In my many experiences over the years, it usually ends in a profanity-laced reaction, followed by the ceremonial crumbling and punting of my stack of betting tickets, all losers, if the tickets even survive until the end of the race. Some years, they’re torn to shreds before the first turn and I’m back in the beer line before a winner crosses the finish line.

For the lucky ones, the winning tickets are clutched with a death grip while jumping up as high as one can possibly jump in a linen suit or a colorful spring dress, and hugging the closest spectator who is doing the same — Mint Julep spills be damned.

Win or lose, the Derby gives us an uninterrupted adrenaline rush that the other major sports simply can’t provide. One minute you are anxious, excited, and confident in your picks. You give a pep talk to the horses and jockeys, knowing full well they can’t hear you.

Whether you’re one of 150,000-plus people at Churchill Downs or one of 16 million-plus watching at home, everyone eagerly awaits the same words: “And they’re off!”

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: A general view of fans in the paddock area before the 2017 Kentucky Derby.

The gun goes off. The thoroughbreds race from the gates.

Within seconds, you know where you stand as the contenders move to the front of the crowd; others fall behind, caught up on the wrong side of the bunched-up pack. Unlike the Super Bowl, there is no time for a 25-point New England Patriots comeback if you start slow.

This is the Kentucky Derby.

Each split-second matters because it will be over before you know it. In about 20 seconds, less than two possessions in a Warriors-Rockets NBA playoff game, the pack hits the first turn. If your horse isn’t in the front half or named Mine That Bird in 2009, you can probably kiss your bet goodbye. Sorry.

Like I said, this is fast-paced action here. There is time for no live betting or any false sense of optimism if you go down early.

You know that mental math we all do when chasing an over or under? It doesn’t exist.

There are no meaningless backdoor covers at the Kentucky Derby.

In another 20 seconds or so, the race hits the half-mile mark of the 1.25-mile run, going into the backstretch. If your horse has held the lead up until this point, you begin to worry about its endurance and those patient horses trailing close behind.

Leading from the gate is fun, until you remember there have only been 32 wire-to-wire winners since 1875. In the last 30 years, only two. Patience is key.

The noise picks up as they enter the far turn. It is getting serious and only a little more than a minute and three-quarters of a mile have gone by. They hit the top of the stretch. If your horse is going to make a move, now is the time.

“And down the stretch they come!”

At this point you are yelling at the top of your lungs, as is Larry Collmus, the voice of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

The louder you yell, the faster your horse runs. It’s science. Or at least we believe it to be true in that moment. It helps to put your arm around someone or slap the rail or table in front of you like you are going to the whip.

It is getting all kinds of crazy as they sprint down the final straightaway. Keep in mind, if this were any other sporting event, say, football or baseball, the score would still be 0-0 with very little excitement so far.

At the Kentucky Derby, though, you have already lost your voice, your mind, and maybe even your entire bet in the amount of time it takes to watch three Super Bowl commercials.

The Derby is a different beast, and it almost always comes down to the wire.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Mike Smith aboard Justify (7) during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

The finish line is a few lengths away. Are you close to finishing in the money? If so, you yell with everything you have left.

Remember, your noise is fueling the horse’s engine. If you lay off the gas, the horse lays off the gas and it takes full speed to finish this thing.

“_______ has won the Kentucky Derby!!!”

And just like that, it’s over. Hopefully, the name of your horse fills in the blank. If so, it’s going to be a wild night. Pour up another Kentucky bourbon and wait for the results to become official. You did it. If not, you’ll get ‘em next year.

Whether you won big or lost it all, everyone was even and equally confident only two minutes ago. It may have felt like an eternity from the sound of the gun to the crossing of the finish line, but only two real-life minutes went by… The Fastest Two Minutes In Sports.