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.

Garry Jones/AP
Exercise rider Joel Barrientos takes Kentucky Derby entrant Hansen into the starting gate for schooling before a workout at Churchill Downs on Thursday, May 3, in Louisville, Ky.

Mint juleps and outrageous flowered hats aside, horse racing only pops up on the mainstream radar a few times a year. Fans and TV network executives behind Saturday’s Kentucky Derby are always on the lookout for an angle to draw the general viewer back into what has become a niche sport of wealthy owners and weekend handicappers.

This year’s novelty is a doozy, appearing as quite literally the mighty white steed. This guilty pleasure for the casual viewer is Hansen, a nearly pure white two-year-old whose owner wears a T-shirt that says, “The Great White Hope.”

A white horse has never won the Kentucky Derby, points out veteran sports commentator Frank Deford in his Sports Illustrated column, “so Hansen could be the first.”

White horses are rare among thoroughbreds, accounting for less than 8 percent of foals per year. But what makes Hansen 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 as they mature, but it is extremely rare for a horse this young to turn 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.

“Anything that gets people more interested in the sport is good for it overall,” says Dan Collins, a Baltimore PR professional whose family trained thoroughbreds and who became a lifelong handicapper.

White horses are a very popular cultural reference, he notes. “As the media puts out its stories, they’ll keep mentioning Hansen, ‘the white horse,’ and all these past references will come flooding into people’s minds,” he says.

While white horses may be rare on the track, they are common in mythology and scripture. From Pegasus, the Greeks’ mythical winged horse, to the first horse in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, to the mount of St. James who came riding to the aid of early Christians, and on up to Lady Godiva’s ride and Shadowfax from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. And of course, TV’s Silver, faithful companion to the Lone Ranger.

Portraits of both George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte depict them astride white horses. These steeds are often associated with fertility and endowed with magical powers and purity, as with the unicorn, which can only be captured by a virgin. Herodotus wrote in his book “The Persian Wars” that milk-white steeds were considered sacred in the court of Xerxes the Great.

However, it’s doubtful that this impressive cultural baggage can carry this particular white horse to triumph, or for that matter give the sagging sport a meaningful boost, says 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. “Thoroughbred racing had a presence, be it in movies or advertising,” he adds via email.

Adding to the sport’s woes today, he says, is the recent negative publicity about the deaths of three horses on the set of HBO’s now-cancelled “Luck,” a series about horse racing.

Until racing can rid itself of these issues, he says, “including jockeys’ eating disorders, the sport will continue to fade.” 

While a white horse will add an interesting visual to the race, he adds, “it likely won't add any viewers just on this fact alone.” 

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