This one comes to us from Bo White

The greatest two minutes in sports is when people stand up and cheer for horses that run really fast in a circle. And while there may be skeptics, try attending a race in person or try watching it without wanting at least a horse with a cool name to do well. In football, there’s the two-minute warning, which is hardly an inviting phrase. In hockey, two minutes is usually linked to the penalty box, punishment for violating some rule. Yet in horse racing, grown men and women stand up and cheer and yell and cheer some more, hoping that their horse (who cannot understand a word anyone is saying because the 100,000 people in attendance are all yelling at once) will win. As “the Run for the Roses” starts the Triple Crown stretch, I am always struck by how helpless everyone feels, yet how hopeful many are within that state of helplessness. Let’s be honest, only the horse and the jockey can impact the outcome of the race, no matter how enthusiastically we cheer.

I grew up around race horses, but the glamor of “the sport of kings” is not my experience. I was raised in the Midwest by parents who worked manual labor in a community known for farms and factories. My dad owned, bred, and raced standardbred race horses, and I recall trips to places like the Quad City Downs, Balmoral Park, Maywood Park, Sportsman’s Park, and the Illinois county fair circuit. The state fair in Springfield, Illinois, brought many of us together as well. These were not gatherings of wealthy owners or trainers, which may get attention on television. On the contrary, these were fellow working-class people who shared the dream of winning and the love of horse racing. Did I bring my two dollars and wishful thinking to a betting window? Sometimes. Most of the time, I saw my dad and his friends try to build a winning team. In this case, their sport involved nothing more than than the energy a two-ton animal going really fast. The long hours of training, feeding, walking, and grooming remained behind the scenes. The anxiety of hoping nothing went wrong and no one got injured also lurked under the surface. The dream was to stand in the winner’s circle knowing that most horses (or people) would finish second—or worse. The dream was to be recognized.

How many of us simply want to be noticed or recognized, never mind being cheered on by raving fans who can only stand and watch us? When it comes to our jobs, most researchers agree that employees need recognition even more than rewards. Yet only 1 in 3 receive any positive acknowledgement in a given work week. The greatest two minutes, then, of most anyone’s day is when someone cheers them on. Many of us may have woken up this morning feeling like we are losing the race that we are running. Many of us feel like we may not finish well, forget winning. And so we do what we can to please loved ones, perform at work, parent our children well, and even please God—all while we are running as fast we can. Does anyone notice how hard we are working? As the crowds gather to cheer on their favorite horse, we intuitively know that anonymity is not as fun as some think. We want to be known and we want to be loved, and it would be nice if someone noticed that we too are running hard.

We are pretty bad at cheering each other on. But the father in the story about the prodigal son seems to have no problem with standing and cheering. In fact, I would not be surprised to run into that father at the Derby, because he seems to retain the optimism and the hope that makes the cheering so fun.

The text tells us that he came out to look for his lost son. And one day his son shows up, battered by what Philip Yancey calls “ungrace.” The reaction of the father is to cheer, even to throw a party.

During any horse race there are favorites and winners and losers. The horses who are not supposed to win get the fewest dollars bet on them. So they get the illustrious title of long shot. As the horses draw near the finish, the roar of the crowd intensifies. People cheer. People shout. The announcer gives us the play by play and no one can possibly sit down. The whole spectacle is an adrenaline rush of epic proportions. At that moment, even the long shots have their own cheering section. People who are not supposed to win sometimes do.

What happens if there is an objection? Maybe the front runner is disqualified, and then even the underdog has a chance. The 2019 Kentucky Derby is controversial not only because a foul was called, but because human imperfection loomed large, the favorite fouled, and, with millions of dollars in the balance, the long shot won. Some people are now angry, some are now happy, all of them wondering how the rules of racing will haunt this particular day and this particular memory as life goes on.

In these circumstances, the default mode is to hunker down and try harder. Commenting after the race, even the trainer of the winning horse (originally not the winning horse) said these words: “We’ll just have to prove ourselves in the future.” If our lives were viewed from a variety of camera angles, would good stewards find that we had impeded the race of other people? Do rules always get the final say?

The Derby is still the greatest two minutes in sports. Mint juleps, hats, and the hope of winning are all pretty cool. This year will be seen differently, though. This year, we are reminded that going strictly by the rules somehow feels unsatisfying, and appealing to the rules will be controversial. It’s a small reminder as to why we all long for and truly need a community marked by grace. Because grace is the sound of cheering, for every winner, loser, and long shot, and our sure hope in the middle of our helplessness.