A Gallop Through The Museum

Any museum worth visiting will overload your brain with sights, sounds, facts and experiences. Rather than trying to cram each and every nugget of information into your cranium, sometimes it’s best to stop and savor one particular piece from the museum. If you are at an art museum, that could mean perusing every offering in a gallery, but really reveling in the detail of just that one piece that spoke to you on an emotional level.

Or, if you were me at the Kentucky Derby Museum for the first time, that meant falling in love with a big-hearted horse that could, but couldn’t: Sham.

Despite being one of the fastest racehorses in the sport’s history, Sham never won a Kentucky Derby or got the acclaim he deserved because his cousin — an infamous overachiever named Secretariat — overshadowed him. When I first learned about Sham, I was on the historic walking tour of Churchill Downs, which is free with admission to the Kentucky Derby Museum. The rest of the group nodded in appreciation of the fact, but I found it heartbreaking.

Poor Sham, who, first was bequeathed one of the shadiest sounding names for a prize racehorse I’ve ever heard, then managed to be one of the best competitors in his sport, but never quite clinched the glory. Instead, he was downgraded to the four-legged bad guy in a crappy Disney movie. I instantly needed to learn more. Sham finished the 1973 Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes, a feat that wasn’t repeated for almost two decades.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that I am fully aware that horseracing is a lot more nuanced than I’m making it out to be. I am sure there’s still a healthy debate on whether or not Sham was a sham. My point is only that these are the fun facts that personalize a trip to a place like the Kentucky Derby Museum, which you may or may not be naturally interested in.

Once the guided historic walking tour was complete, the group was unleashed into the museum, where there’s an overabundance of information on individual horses, famous races, and the culture of the Kentucky Derby. Here, I learned that Sham’s birthday is six days after mine, and he died on my seventh birthday. We could have thrown a joint birthday party for underappreciated terrestrial beings. Have I mentioned that I am a middle child? That may be why I reacted so strongly to the 30-second story of Sham I heard.

Now let’s get down to business. The Kentucky Derby Museum offers plenty of activities to keep the experience hands-on. There’s an interactive horseracing game, where you can pretend you’re a jockey for two long minutes. (Not to brag, but I totally beat my boyfriend’s little sister.) There’s another area where you can attempt to call a horserace as it plays on a screen in front of you. I feel it’s safe to assume that you won’t be any good at that, but you’ll have a new appreciation for those dudes who can work the silly names and rapid changes of the race into something that people can both follow and find exciting.

For those more into the actual sport of horseracing, there are panels and panels of information on past races and artifacts that were surely lost on me. The group I went with consisted of no true horse fans, therefore we mostly spent our time in the museum doing silly things like taking selfies with the statue of California Chrome, the nasal-strip-wearing winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, and looking up what horse won during our birth years.

It’s a shame that many Louisville locals wait until they have out-of-town visitors to venture down to Churchill Downs to check out the Kentucky Derby Museum. A wealth of information is waiting to be pored through, and the best part is that you don’t have to wear a comically big hat while doing it. It’s also likely to be the smallest crowd you will ever encounter at Churchill Downs, which is a nice change of pace for those of us who only ever get to the track on those packed days of the Kentucky Derby, Oaks and Thurby. Whether you find yourself obsessing over Sham or some even lesser known horse of races past, it’s fun allowing yourself to become a hometown tourist.

The Kentucky Derby Museum is currently open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more details, visit derbymuseum.org.