Faulkner at Churchill Downs

That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly  examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.

The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.

James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original ’55 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable. “It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.

Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.” During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.

Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”

As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.

“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.

“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky:​ home.”

“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”

“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, “Big Red” to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”

“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesized, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”

“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”

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