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February 7, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: This message brought to you by the Buzzkill Society

I don’t know how much fried chicken, pizza and tacos Yum! Brands sells in the West End of Louisville, but now that the Louisville-based global corporation has bought the Kentucky Derby from Churchill Downs, surely it can do something to resolve the controversy surrounding Derby Night “cruising” on West Broadway.

In the wake of the murders and other assorted crimes that accompanied last year’s version of what the TV anchors ridiculously term a “Derby tradition,” Mayor Jerry Abramson was right to take stern remedial measures.

But instead of outlawing the activity, the Mayor should have huddled with Yum! Executives and devised a plan to make cruising an official Kentucky Derby Festival event. Once the spontaneity is gone and the establishment takes over, young people will find their fun somewhere else.

Remember when the Derby Festival decided to sponsor a Derby Eve concert at the Fairgrounds as a way of diverting and controlling young people, especially African-Americans? That flopped big-time. Young people will not be herded and confined and told what they should like to do.

It’s sort of why many young people still prefer Bardstown Road to Fourth Street Live! Bardstown Road is a happening, something that evolved naturally over the years. Fourth Street Live! is a planned and structured venue, a monument to what corporate America thinks young people should like.

So the best way to kill cruising is to incorporate it into the Festival.
As the official corporate sponsor, Yum! would pay to have West Broadway brightly lit from one end to the other. Various politicians and public officials would agree to stand on a reviewing stand and allow themselves to be taunted, booed and subjected to obscene gestures from passengers in the passing vehicles.

In exchange for this privilege, the revelers would agree to appoint a designated driver for each vehicle, wear their seat belts and not carry concealed deadly weapons without a permit.

They also could paint messages on their cars, but with the understanding that any usage of the f-word would disqualify them from competing for the Official Grand Cruising Prize — a Colonel Sanders suit for every passenger in the car!

Trust me, this would bring cruising to a screeching halt without a single expletive being fired.

Speaking of Colonel Sanders, the partnership between Yum! and Churchill means that the King of Finger Lickin’ Good will be symbolically united with another faux Colonel — Matt Winn, the legendary Churchill Downs president who single-handedly built the Derby into the world’s most famous horse race before his death in 1948.

Like a third ersatz Colonel — Tom Parker, who managed Elvis — Sanders and Winn both believed in sales, marketing and promotion. Hell, they were among the visionaries who invented that stuff. But Sanders was a chicken man who never would have crawled into bed with pizza guys and taco folks, and Winn was a Derby man who never would have allowed Churchill Downs to be a shrine to anything except thoroughbred racing.

In other words, even hucksters used to have their limits. Today, however, Corporate America knows no boundaries. Corporate America believes that tradition, romance, charm and integrity are for saps and suckers. The bottom line is all that matters. Years ago, the late Mike Barry began referring to Churchill as “Bottom-Line Downs.” He had no idea of how prescient he was.

Sadly, Louisville’s civic leaders sat by idly while the lawyers and bankers who run Churchill Downs converted a beloved sporting shrine into a glorified Vegas casino that probably could not qualify for National Historic Register status if it were nominated today.

The current diminished status of the twin spires, dwarfed on either side by luxury-box towers, is an impossible-to-miss symbol of what Corporate America thinks about tradition. Surely, the day is coming when the spires will be replaced by twin drumsticks in honor of Churchill’s new corporate partner.

And that will be only the beginning.

The lyrics to the Derby anthem will be changed: “Oh, the Yum! shines bright …” The infield presentation stand will be remodeled to resemble a Pizza Hut; the Governor will be required to wear a white goatee and a string tie; and the Derby-winning owner will be given a choice of original or extra-crispy roses.

If the corporate mentality hasn’t quite killed the spirit and charm of the Derby, it sure is doing all it can to stomp that sucker flat. The Mayor should take note. The easiest way to kill cruising is just let the corporate mentality take it over.