Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Louisville is a sports-loving city, well, two sports in particular: horse racing and boxing. One represents all the wealth and excesses the city can offer, and the other is a showcase of the working class struggle. One thing the two sports have in common? Grit.

I. CHURCHILL DOWNS, site of the annual Kentucky Derby, is twenty-minute bus ride from downtown.

Churchill Downs was built in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (Hmmm...wonder where his parents got his name?) on land given to him by his uncles. Born into the upper class, M. L. Clark (known to family and friends by the rather embarrassing nickname of "Lutie") was also the founder of the Louisville Jockey Club and had a life-long interest in horse racing and breeding.
Aristides, the winner of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875

There was a festive feeling at the track. I don't think I've ever seen a man willing to be painted like this before. I guess it's a safer way to make money than betting on the races.
Horses are brought to these paddocks to be saddled and readied for the race.

. . . and to be joined by their riders, Lilliputian men and one woman, seen here in the red silks:

Winners of past Derbys are listed under the balcony. Hey, I remember the year Secretariat won the Triple Crown:

The stands can seat 50,000--the size of many football stadiums--but crowds for Derby Day can be as large as 150,000. It really didn't feel even close to that big.

We found an empty seat next to some friendly people in a box near the track. When it was time for a race, the little man in the red coat that I've seen in TV shows really did come out and blow his trumpet:
Jumbo-tron screens make it easy for anyone to see what is going on as the horses race around the mile-long oval track, usually at speeds somewhere between 36 and 38 mph.

We enjoyed watching a few races.
It's a good thing I only made my bet in my head. My choice, Almost Famous, didn't win.
The lady jockey won! Here she is being led into the winners circle right next to our seats:
Exhausted, sweaty horses are cooled down with buckets of cold water after a race before they are taken away from the track:

We just happened to be there for the presentation of the Kentucky Derby trophy to the owners of California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Derby. It's easy to pick out a jockey in the crowd. I think this guy was actually the brother of the actual jockey in the race, who couldn't be there for some reason.
There were two trophies, and I can't remember why--maybe one for the jockey and one for the owner? Note that the presenters are handling the trophies (literally) with kid gloves:

Lots of fun--worth the drive out to the track and a few hours of gawking, even for non-race fans.

2. The other important sporting venue in town is the MUHAMMAD ALI CENTER, a museum dedicated to the life of America's most famous boxer. I have to admit that it took until my third year in Louisville to get to this place.  However, if I were recommending places to go for a first-time visitor, this would be near the top of my list. I loved it.
Photo from here
It is (no surprise) a large, showy building, beginning with this star fountain near the entrance:
Portraits of Ali at various times in his life are posted everywhere. I really liked these two:
And I loved the art Ali himself created. This is just a sampling (drawn when he was twenty-six years old), but it gives you a good idea of what the man was like
The caption reads "This is how it looks when I look out of a boxing ring after a victory. I see a few
smiles, but most of the people are angry that it ended so quick."  (January 1968)
"A lot of people ask me how do I feel after winning a fight and what do I think about after
the man is lying down and the referee is counting over him, as you see here in the picture.
All I think about is running to the bank and collecting my money." (January 1968)
"This is a picture of the starving children of Mississippi crying and saying they're hungry.
I just wanted to fight a few more times so I could donate all the money to feed them,
which I offered to do. But the boxing commissioners and judges completely turned me
down. A big ball is holding me down with chains with 'USA' written on it." (January 1968)
"This is a comparison of the two religions and what they offer us here in America. The moon and star
in the flag of Islam represents freedom and justice. This is what we get once we orphans come into
the religion of Islam. On the other side I have what past religions has offered the Negro: slavery,
suffering, and death. The Christian so-called Negro is being lynched." (January 1968)
In addition to being an artist and philosopher, Ali was a poet, and many of his poems are displayed in the museum:
As you would expect, there is a lot here about boxing:

But this is far more than a boxing museum; it's also a civil rights museum, and it does a fantastic job of placing Ali in the context of his times in a way that was both enlightening and extremely painful:
The displays are extremely well done, and the arrangement and design encourage contemplation, not something I would have expected in a museum about a boxer known for his bombastic speechifying:
Displays highlight Ali's struggles during and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement:

He emerges as a fascinating, admirable, and courageous man:

In his later years, Ali became an international ambassador for human rights and peace, somewhat ironic for a retired fighter, don't you think?
"All of my boxing, all of my running around, all of my publicity was just the start of my life. Now my life is
really starting. Fighting injustice, fighting racism, righting crime, fighting illiteracy, fighting poverty--
using this face the world knows so well and going out and fighting for truth." (1991)
Many of Ali's humanitarian awards are on display, including a photo of his award from the UN proclaiming him a Messenger of Peace.
In 2005, Ali was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, who called him "The Greatest of All Time" and "a man of peace." And anyone who is a fan of the Olympics will remember the 1996 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in Atlanta when Ali lit the Olympic flame:
Muhammad Ali, now seventy-two-years old, continues his fight with Parkinson's, likely a result of the head trauma that came during his boxing career. 

I came away from his museum with new respect for Ali, a man of many surprises.

Never in a million years would I have thought I'd be reading a biography of Muhammad Ali, but I really enjoyed this one, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers.  

This biography for middle school and high school readers covers Ali's life from his childhood as Cassius Clay through the year when the book was written, 2001.

Myers is an award-winning author of young adult literature who has focused on the African-American experience and has won the Coretta Scott King Award for African America authors FIVE times.

He tells how Cassius Clay got involved in boxing in his local neighborhood, how he entered the professional arena, and why he chose to become Muslim. The effect of that last decision was enormous, and Ali, as he came to be called after his conversion, never backed down from his it.

The book is especially good for providing accurate descriptions of what it is like to be in the ring being pummeled by an opponent. Myers points out that the goal is to inflict brain damage so that the other person cannot continue fighting. Honestly, I'm surprised this is a legal sport.

I was impressed by Ali's media savvy. He would have been great with social media. He had a sense of what to do and say in order to best promote himself, and the world loved him.

Myers focuses on Ali as a role model, someone who refused to be less than what he was, no matter what messages society was sending him. 


  1. I was surprised to read of the Clark family connection to Churchill Downs. I had no idea!

    Ali is fascinating. Much to admire there.

  2. In addition to horse racing and boxing, Louisville regularly has a good college basketball team and sometimes has a respectable football team.