The Richmond Register

May 3, 2013

Derby a break from reality in Kentucky

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — The state capitol isn’t exactly a ghost town during Derby Week, but it’s close.

The rich and powerful, the office holders and politicians who run Kentucky are all in Louisville, doing backside interviews and attending Derby parties.

A lot of my colleagues are also absent from Frankfort, busy from dawn to dusk covering every detail at the Derby.

I’ve been to the Derby and I thoroughly enjoyed it each time, although I know little enough about horses, betting odds and bloodlines.

This year, like most years, I’ll watch on television. There is always a moment when I wish I were there. I get chills when the horses come on the track and the crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home.

Perhaps because I spent some time as a newspaper photographer, I love the women’s Derby hats. I always look forward to seeing those photographs in the Sunday editions.

I love the spectacle and suspense of the backstretch. But you are welcome to the mint juleps, the crowds, the traffic, the infield and the drunkenness. I’m proud it happens in Kentucky, and I’m mostly glad the world watches us at our most glamorous.

What the world sees during Derby Week, however, isn’t the Kentucky most of us witness the rest of the year.

For all the wealth and glamour that gathers in Louisville for the Derby, our state can’t afford a little money for a social work program operated by the Department of Public Advocacy that can alter the despair of drug addiction and save the state millions.

And lawmakers can’t find money to buy textbooks for school children or help pay for day care for working single mothers who will likely have to resort to welfare.

There will be a lot of wealthy industrialists and mining executives at Churchill Downs today. Many of them hobnobbing with the governor and lawmakers, watching from high atop the grandstand in Millionaire’s Row.

But you won’t see many of the little people left to live in the wake of the pollution and poverty their profits leave behind. The people those politicians are supposed to represent and whose lives they promise to improve during campaign season (when they’re not on the phone to those industrialists, horse owners and mining executives begging for money to run their television ads) won’t be seen or remembered..

Children whose lives were cut short by abuse even while they were supposedly under the protection of the state won’t watch the Derby this year, either. But a lot of those people who were elected to protect them will be dancing and drinking at the elegant parties.

If there are any at the Derby who are among the 600,000 or so Kentuckians without health insurance, they surely will be waiting tables, serving drinks or mucking out the barns. But I’m sure the lawmakers who don’t want to extend Medicaid coverage to them and those who “stand up against Obama’s bad ideas for Kentucky” will have a great time.

Still, the more I think about it, the more I think the Derby extravagance is just what we need. Lord knows, we all need a little break from reality. So I hope everyone has a great time, and I hope the hangover isn’t too painful.

But I hope we’ll spend the other 51 weeks of the year trying to help those other folks who live here, the ones too busy trying to stay afloat or just stay alive to enjoy the Derby.

Remember, some think Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” from the perspective of a slave about to be sold down the river.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at