The Jockey as Basic Sign in Hemingway and in the Kentucky Derby

        In 2004, for the first time, a judge's ruling made it possible for jockeys riding in the Kentucky Derby to sell advertising space on their clothing in the form of patches or printed messages.  The judge said the prohibition by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority violated the jockeys' First Amendment rights to free expression.  Previously, they could only wear the "racing colors" of the stables who owned their mounts.  Jockeys at last year's Derby who wore the logo of the Jockeys Guild, an organization which supports jockeys disabled by their dangerous occupations, were fined $500 apiece.  To jockeys, at least to honest jockeys, the race looks completely different from the event seen by spectators.  Shane Sellers, one of five jockeys who brought the suit, pointed out that, of the 20 riders scheduled to ride, "17 of us will make $56" because they will not receive the bonuses awarded to the ones who win, place, or show (first, second, or third place; Sheinman D6).  Jockeys are provided with two complementary tickets for their family members, but in order to allow his entire family to watch him ride, Sellers paid $1495 for seven additional tickets, so he would likely lose money for riding in the race that will make some owners of winning horses into millionaires, if they are not already that rich. 

        The jockey already wears the "advertising" of his horse's owner's stable, the "racing colors" which iconically identify the stable as a brand.  The riders thereby are already made the bearers of commercial messages, but these are considered somehow privileged, as opposed to commercial messages individual jockeys might contract to wear for their own benefit as athletes.  High-culture commercialism suppresses low-culture commercialism while engaging in identical practices.  The right to "name" the practice (assign sign-exchange value) is at stake.

        Think about this from "My Old Man"'s perspective.  The rider who does not cheat makes the minimum for each race.  The people who run the betting make the most, unless one of the riders agrees to rig the race, in which case he can partake in the constant, illegal circulation of cash from the unknowing fans to the knowing bookies and race-riggers.  In a Foucauldian analysis, this is a compensatory circulation of capital.  To the degree that the narrator's "old man" was enabled, by race-rigging, to buy a horse and become an owner-operator, he was able to rise above his station as "basic sign" and join in the more powerful, hidden economic activity of the racing world.  If he does so, of course, he becomes a "son of a bitch," unlike those whose great wealth places them "always already" in that position.

        The KHRA's rules previously had sold advertising to sponsors of the race, like Visa ('06) or Yum! Brands ('09), but they argued that ads on jockeys' clothing "could lead to corruption or interfere with a steward's ability to rule on a tight finish" (Associated Press, qtd. in Scheinman D6).  A semiotician might argue that the "corruption" of corporate sponsorship of the Derby, itself, clearly was given high-culture approval, though it might "pollute" the purity of the sport, whereas the "corruption" of corporate sponsorship of a jockey risked redistributing capital, and confused the high and low claims to privilege.  Similarly, the bookies at the racetracks in "My Old Man" looked upon race-rigging as their private preserve, and resented individual entrepreneurs setting up shop.  Only the illegal insiders were supposed to be allowed to see the sign "win" secretly emblazoned on Kircubbin and "place" on Czar.

John Scheinman, "This Jockey Is Brought to You by . . . --Riders Are Allowed to Wear Advertising," The Washington Post, 30 April 2004, D1 and D6.