When Remington Smith’s family moved into a house on Churchill Downs—the main road that leads to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville—it was “a little worse for the wear,” Smith told me. “It matched the working families who rented or owned houses in the neighborhood, which in my mind wasn’t ‘blighted’ but lived-in.” Just a year later, though, the area had transformed: University of Louisville banners hung from new streetlights lining the road, which was bisected by a new grassy median. “The City of Louisville demonstrated quite clearly that they wanted out-of-towners to see the best image of our town during their short stay for the derby,” Smith said. He found it to be reminiscent of what he called “the classic ‘Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain’ gag” that was employed at the Rio Olympics in 2016—an effort to shield wealthy tourists from evidence of local economic struggle.
Every year as the derby kicked off, Smith looked on as his step-father, a cab driver, hustled to make an extra couple hundred bucks during the busy weekend. Neighbors, meanwhile, offered parking on their lawn for $50 a day. “That visual of people in their derby finest parking their cars on the lawns of people trying to scrape together some extra money … you can’t see that and not internalize a conversation about wealth inequality,” Smith said. “Especially if you yourself grew up on food stamps and free lunches at school.”
Smith decided to go behind the scenes of the derby and witness this economic disparity for himself. He filmed his short documentary, The Derby, during the races of 2013, 2016, and 2018, following Derby workers and revelers, from a stable foreman who sends money to his family in Guatemala to a man dressed to the nines on Millionaires Row. The observational approach affords a depth of perspective that travels beyond the iconic imagery of thoroughbred horses and jocular patrons.
“The derby represents everything that is good and bad in this country, all in one,” says one attendee in the film.
Another comments on the differences between himself and those observing the race from the infield below. “I think a lot of people sitting up here probably had more luck to start,” he says. “The hands that were dealt up here were better hands than the infield. That’s the reality of it.”