Kentucky Derby: Will mighty white steed ride to rescue of struggling sport?
A white horse has never won the Kentucky Derby, so the entry of nearly pure white Hansen makes for a good story. But it likely won't be enough to bring horse racing back into the mainstream.
MintÂ juleps andÂ outrageous flowered hats aside,Â horse racingÂ only pops up on the mainstream radar a few times a year. Fans and TV network executives behind Saturdayâs Kentucky Derby are always on the lookout for an angle to draw theÂ general viewer back into what has become a niche sport of wealthy owners andÂ weekend handicappers.
This yearâs novelty is a doozy, appearing as quite literally the mighty white steed. This guilty pleasure for the casual viewer is Hansen, a nearly pureÂ white two-year-oldÂ whose owner wears a T-shirtÂ that says, âThe Great White Hope.â
White horses are rare amongÂ thoroughbreds,Â accounting for less than 8 percent of foals per year. But what makes HansenÂ even more unique is that he is technically a gray with dark skin as opposed to the pink skin of an albino. Grays often whiten up asÂ they mature, but it isÂ extremely rare for a horse this young to turnÂ more than 90 percent white as Hansen has done.
Fans are clearly hoping that the mystique of the dazzling white competitor will turn more eyes on the sport.
âAnything that gets people more interested in the sport is good for it overall,â says Dan Collins, a Baltimore PR professional whose family trained thoroughbredsÂ and who became a lifelong handicapper.
White horses are a very popular cultural reference, he notes. âAs the media puts out its stories, theyâll keep mentioning Hansen, âthe white horse,â and all these past references will come flooding into peopleâs minds,â he says.
While white horses may be rare on the track, they are common inÂ mythology and scripture. From Pegasus, the Greeksâ mythical winged horse, to the first horse inÂ the Bibleâs Book of Revelation, to the mount of St. James who came riding to the aid of early Christians, and on up to Lady Godivaâs ride and Shadowfax from the âLord of the Ringsâ trilogy. And of course,Â TVâs Silver, faithful companion to the Lone Ranger.
Portraits of both George Washington andÂ NapoleonÂ Bonaparte depict them astrideÂ white horses. These steeds are often associated with fertility and endowed with magical powersÂ and purity, as with theÂ unicorn, which can only be captured by a virgin. Herodotus wrote in his book âThe Persian Warsâ that milk-white steeds were considered sacred in the court of Xerxes the Great.
However, itâs doubtful thatÂ this impressive culturalÂ baggage can carry this particular white horse to triumph, or for that matter give the saggingÂ sport a meaningful boost, saysÂ Tim Joyce, columnist for Real Clear Sports.
Consider that in the 1940's and 1950's thoroughbred racing was one of the most popular spectator sports in the country, he says. âThoroughbred racing had a presence, be it in movies or advertising,â he adds via email.
Adding to the sportâs woes today, he says, is the recent negative publicity about the deaths of three horses on the set of HBOâs now-cancelled âLuck,â a series aboutÂ horse racing.
Until racing can rid itself of these issues, he says, âincluding jockeysâ eating disorders, the sport will continue to fade.âÂ
While a white horse will add an interesting visual to the race, he adds, âit likely won't add any viewers just on this fact alone.âÂ