“American Idol” wraps up its popular 15-year run this week, but the remaining trifecta of La’Porsha Renae, Trent Harmon, and Dalton Rapattoni aren’t the only competitors ratcheting up the tempo in pursuit of their dreams. The Kentucky Derby (G1) trail is also reaching its climax, and 3-year-old Thoroughbreds must pass their final auditions to make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Obviously, there are some substantial differences between “American Idol,” or “The Voice,” or any of your favorite talent shows, and the Derby trail. The horses, and their connections, are surely grateful that their prospects do not hang upon the whims of judges or a volatile fan base.
The Derby rules are clear for who advances and who doesn’t: a horse must earn points by finishing in the top four in the designated prep races. The top 20 point-getters secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. There’s no “save” if a horse doesn’t score enough. They can love you or hate you, but you can control your own destiny on the racetrack if you’re good enough.
But “American Idol” and Kentucky Derby hopefuls do have some commonalities. Without further ado, let’s dim the lights and count them down:
10. Thousands start out as eligible to compete, but natural talent soon separates the pretenders from the contenders who earn a real shot on the trail. Unlike “American Idol,” however, there are no embarrassing outtakes of Triple Crown-nominated horses failing to win a race.
9. The rounds get tougher and tougher as the hopefuls go deeper into the competition, leaving only the best to fight it out.
8. Contestants have to cope with the big stage, not flub lines, panic, or freeze when their moment in the spotlight comes. It’s a test of temperament as much as of raw ability.
7. Bad luck can strike at any moment, especially through illness or injury. If contestants can avoid adversity, that’s half the battle, and even more creditable if they can overcome it.
6. Heartwarming story lines make it easy to root for a contestant who’s been through a lot, whether human or equine.
5. Some scenarios play more to a certain contestant’s strengths than others. Just as would-be Idols perform some songs better than others, so too do Derby hopefuls prefer some set-ups better than others. If they don’t get a favorable playing field, horses can blow their chances too – much like contestants making a questionable song choice.
4. Everybody’s got an opinion. Idol fans vociferously support their favorite singers, to the point of expressing their disapproval toward a judge’s critique. In the same way, racing pundits, bettors, and fans alike argue over the merits of horses. But to a degree you’d never see in Idol, these differences of opinion translate into a money-making opportunity – Kentucky Derby betting.
3. Some prospects don’t progress as much as you first hoped. Just as the performer with the killer audition sometimes ends up stalling, and fails to build on that promise, so too do some Derby hopefuls ultimately disappoint. You look back and wonder why that early win didn’t mean so much after all.
2. A few prospects blossom over the course of the competition, learning from experience and honing their talents to almost unrecognizable levels. You look back and marvel at how far they’ve come from their first audition.
And the number 1 parallel between the Derby and Idol:
You don’t have to win the Kentucky Derby or “American Idol” to have a successful career. Jennifer Hudson, only seventh in Idol Season 3, went on to win an Oscar and a Grammy. Chris Daughtry, the fourth-place finisher in Idol Season 5, saw his debut album go quadruple platinum. Like Hudson and Daughtry, who somehow ended up as Idol also-rans, there’s a whole club of world-class Thoroughbreds who went down to defeat in the Derby. But that was only a temporary reverse to such Hall of Famers as Native Dancer and Forego, and more recently, Point Given and Curlin. It’s no dishonor to be beaten on the day, when you’ve got a talent pool as rich as Idol’s – or the Derby’s.