Ask former NFL wide receiver Victor Cruz for his honest pitch on turtle racing. “It’s the slowest two minutes you’ll ever watch,” he says. Read the wrong way, it’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement of the second-annual Old Forester Kentucky Turtle Derby, which takes place on Saturday, May 1, at 4 p.m. ET. But you have to see the tell, the upturned corner of the mouth — Cruz is in on the joke. And then, like Keyser Söze, poof, it’s gone. “When you look at these turtles and you see the way they’re shaped, their skillsets are unmatched,” he continues, straight-faced. “People don’t recognize how strong their grip is to the ground. They may be going slow, but they’re moving.”
Cruz, who retired in 2018 with his Super Bowl-winning New York Giants and a Pro Bowl credit already in the bank, is Old Forester’s first Turtle Derby “mascot,” which is a fun euphemism for the fact that he gets paid a ton of money to get people interested in a Kentucky Derby sideshow involving aquatic reptiles. (The Derby itself, which was first postponed and then canceled in 2020, takes place later on the same day as its Turtle counterpart.) To contract Cruz is essentially the equivalent of hiring Tony Romo to narrate the annual Puppy Bowl, a bazooka aimed at a mosquito. But that’s the fun of it, and for Cruz, with his NFL legacy unassailable, it’s all about fun.
Scroll through the 34-year-old’s Instagram, and life is filled with the spoils of a successful career: fast cars, azure skies, private planes, and empty beaches. The Turtle Derby, when viewed from the right angle, is more of the same: “This will be the introduction to [the Kentucky Derby] for me,” Cruz says. “When I think of the Derby, I think of the fashion. I’m excited to put some looks together, and I feel like you can take some risks.” Surprisingly, this will be his first time at the annual equestrian event — which is why the Turtle Derby’s mascot position was so interesting: “I had no idea there was a whole cultural background to it, so I’m definitely excited to open that up.”
One area Cruz is no stranger to is with bourbon itself, and Old Forester’s legacy within the category is as respectable as any. Launched in 1870 by a Kentucky-born pharmacist, the company claims to be the first bottled bourbon, which is a fancy way of saying that it was solely available in sealed bottles instead of in any container-like object that could hold a measure of liquid. But this early adoption was fortunate, as it ensured authenticity. Authenticity guaranteed quality, and after 150 years, the brand has essentially become synonymous with it. For Cruz, who’s grown accustomed to the finer things in life, it’s a perfect match. “I can attach myself to this because it tastes great and there’s a level of luxury there,” he says.
In fitting style with this tradition of quality, Cruz eschews mixed drinks and even ice. Instead, he’s a man that takes it straight: “A nice double, neat, and I just sip the night away,” he says.
But while we both could use a drink as we talk turtles, we’re both sober this early in the morning. And so The Manual asks Cruz for his honest assessment of the second-annual turtle tradition.
On Saturday, the odds-on favorite of the eight-terrapin field is Moe Lassus, a competitor with the pedigree and pre-season dominance required of a champ. With sound fundamentals and a hunger to win, he’s the bettors’ favorite. Pardon My Mulch is also a strong contender, though Cruz views him as green and still a year or two away from the title. “Kind of like when Lebron was right there but couldn’t get over the hump,” he says. But the dark horse, the wild card, the long shot, has to be with Steve, 2020’s third-place finisher. “He doesn’t have a fancy name, he doesn’t have a backstory. He’s just Steve,” Cruz says of the former bronze winner of last year’s event. “So he’s focused, but there’s not a lot of pressure.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to handicap a field of turtles. While there are miniature spectators, there are no jockeys, and goading is strictly against the rules. If last year is any reliable guide of Saturday’s race, early leads melt faster than ice in a Kentucky spring. If you’re lucky enough to secure odds with a sports book, you’ll need to tune in on Saturday to find out for sure.
It’s not lost on Cruz the absurdity of all of this. He ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, and now he’s being asked to speculate on a turtle race broadcast via YouTube. Puns abound, chaos rules, and most competitors seem desperate to get away rather than aim for any finish lines. “Pretty much my entire life was based on speed and eluding people, and to now be the host and the mascot for a competition that’s geared around going as slow as physically possible . . .” He trails off.
“But I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to experience these opportunities,” Cruz continues. “I am a little surprised that I’ve gone from winning a Super Bowl and dancing in the end zone to talking about the Old Forester Kentucky Turtle Derby, but it all comes full circle.”