What Does a Horse Race Teach Us About Ourselves

Growing up in West Virginia, if you asked me to name one thing about Kentucky, I would have quickly shouted out the words “home of the Kentucky Derby.” I can still remember the sounds of Jim McKay welcoming viewers of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” to the Derby each first Saturday of May. For me, it was Sunday Silence in 1989 that got me hooked on the race.

When I moved to Kentucky in 2007, the first thing that stood out to me was that there was more to the horse racing industry than just Louisville and Churchill Downs. There was Keeneland in Lexington, which fills the area of Versailles Road each spring and fall with race fans. There was the all-day coverage in the Louisville and Lexington television markets that focused on the undercard to the Derby, which only recently has NBC started to broadcast.

You cannot get more entrenched in the culture and customs of Kentucky than with horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.

Which is probably why many of us were shocked at the outcome of Saturday’s race. On a sloppy track that looked more like the infield of Woodstock than a credible racing surface, Maximum Security burst through a crowded field to seemingly win the 149th Kentucky Derby. Chaos and controversy soon dominated the conversation after two jockeys filed an objection to the outcome – essentially calling foul on Maximum Security – for interference.

Stewards immediately looked into the objection and, 20-plus minutes later, ruled that Maximum Security had, in fact, interfered with War of Will. This led to Maximum Security being disqualified, becoming the first presumptive derby winner to be disqualified and only the second to cross the line first and not to be declared the official winner. The first came in 1968 when Dancer’s Image apparent win was thrown out after a drug test found illegal drugs in the horse’s system, which gave the win to Forward Pass.

Because Maximum Security’s disqualification, and subsequent win by Country House, came in the social media era, it became the latest hot topic to discuss. Within minutes, “horse racing” experts from across the nation posted comments – some filled with anger and vitriol – of what they believed was right or not right about the actions, disqualification, and win by Country House. This has continued this week as Country House’s camp has announced the horse will not run in the Preakness next week.

For the sake of transparency, I did post on social media some sarcastic comments during the review and aftermath. The comments amounted to a bad dad joke that in professional wrestling a champion cannot lose their title by way of disqualification. Trust me, I know a bad joke when I see it, and I have a hard time running away from them,

I wonder, though, what does all of this say about us? Maximum Security’s disqualification is just the latest in a long example of a modern thirst to want to speak without knowledge, to jump to conclusions without context, to yell and scream without listening. It is a systematic issue that is destroying our ability to understand and appreciate the complexities of life, or even to hear from opposing view points or to wait for things to play out. We believe we have to speak and be quick about it. We even believe we have to speak with anger.

This isn’t just happening in society. I’m seeing this play out across the church today as we wrestle with the important issues facing us in our work of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We reflect the means of communication we see from society in our conversations about the future of the church, whether the United Methodist Church should break up, or even what it means to do ministry together. We respond in anger more than we listen to one another.

In doing so, I wonder if we are missing out on two important verses of reflection from James. In James 1:19, James writes that we “must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” These are words that we ignore in our desire to have a quick and impassioned response. If we need more clarification on what James means, he writes later that the tongue “is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire.” (James 2:5b-6a, NLT) Our words can do as much damage to society and one another as they can to lift up and inspire.

What limits our ability to stop, listen, and slow the anger is that we get caught up in the ground swell of anger and conversation, which creates within us a desire to speak. Social media is just one avenue where this takes place. We see this at the tables of McDonald’s, our conversations around the kitchen table, and in discussions among friends. Our desire to be seen as knowledgeable and quick with a response is not because of social media, but part of our own vanity in wanting to be seen and heard.

Our society is filled with people who believe they have to have something to say, even if we do not know anything about the subject we are talking about. This tendency is destroying our ability to hear from one another and to listen to disagreeing voices. Until we take it upon ourselves to slow down, refrain from always speaking, and listen to one another, we will continue to see the decaying of a society that is quick to speak and equally quick to get angry.

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