RICHES AT THE RACETRACK THE GRAND ALLURE OF HORSERACING
Every year on the first Saturday in May equine zealots everywhere cast their undivided attention upon Louisville, Ky., in expectation of the foremost thoroughbred horserace. Most refer to the racing calendar’s epic route as the “Run for the Roses” or the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” But, no matter how a soul verbally depicts the Kentucky Derby, one thing is certain. The spoils of this event remain unrivaled for souls that harbor unwavering dedication concerning matters of the turf.
The Kentucky Derby’s lifeblood will always be comprised of royally bred horseflesh, either fulfilling all promise or woefully shattering dreams. Yet surrounding this infrastructure is a fascinating culture saturated with tradition.
Before anyone can fully appreciate the entire body of what transpires in Louisville, Ky., every spring, they must first be provided with some historical perspective on exactly how America’s most renowned racetrack was conceived. It all started in 1872 when a gentleman named Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition) skipped the pond to experience the grandeur of not only England’s Epsom Derby, but also France’s impeccable flat racing scene. With a staunch fever for equine sport now duly acquired, Clark returned home to Kentucky and formed the Louisville Jockey Club. Aimed at erecting a high-quality racing establishment just outside the city, this organization secured land from Clark’s relatives (John and Henry Churchill) then proceeded to head construction of Churchill Downs.
On May 17, 1875, the inaugural Kentucky Derby was contested at 1-½ miles (the same distance as the Epsom Derby) in front of an estimated 10,000 patrons. Under jockey Oliver Lewis a colt named Aristides, who was trained by Hall of Famer Ansel Williamson, bested a field of 15 to win the feature of the three-race card that also included the Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap.
Due in large part to extensive renovations and shrewd promotions spearheaded by Matt Winn, Churchill Downs’ turnaround was practically immediate. Later on in 1911 on-site bookmaking was replaced by pari-mutuel wagering and the handle exponentially increased by this system that lowered the minimum bet from $5 to $2. In a stroke of marketing genius, Winn convinced multi-millionaire Harry Payne to race his highly regarded filly Regret in the 1915 Kentucky Derby. This horse’s victory heartedly stoked an interest in racing that was already smoldering within the female populous. Bestowed with the honored title of “Kentucky Colonel” from his home state’s governor, Winn was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1937 and continued feverish endorsement of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby until his death in 1949.
By the time the “Run for the Roses” arrived at its golden anniversary, many traditions had gained a permanent foothold. “A-listers” from the realms of film, music, sports and politics now routinely sopped up Derby merriment, and one of the first to engage in this practice was Polish actress Helena Modjeska. In the book Down the Stretch, co-comprised by Matt Winn, it was reported that this beautiful thespian was extremely impressed with the Kentucky Derby of 1877, yet more enamored with the delicious mint julep served to her by a hospitable steward.
Edward George Villiers (the 17th Earl of Derby, from whose family the term “Derby” was derived) witnessed the 1930 Kentucky Derby, but due to prohibition was unable to sip a mint julep while doing so. “You have a great many advantages I should like to copy for England,” the Earl confessed. “However, prohibition is not one of them!”
Whether or not a Kentucky Derby attendee’s title brings forth awe, all who have crossed over the threshold into Churchill Downs cannot help but throw a glance skyward to reverence the iconic Twin Spires. In 1895 a 24-year-old draftsman named Joseph Dominic Baldez was asked to design plans for Churchill Downs’ new grandstand. Though the Twin Spires were not initially included, they were later added in an effort to make the structure “more striking.”
THE FAMED TWIN SPIRES AT CHURCHILL DOWNS were added in 1895.
A national historic landmark, the Twin Spires remain more tightly interwoven with the Kentucky Derby than does any other image. During his tenure as president of Churchill Downs, Matt Winn pulled Joseph Dominic Baldez aside and reportedly declared, “Joe after you die there is one monument that will never be taken down—the Twin Spires.”
In days of yesteryear it was not uncommon for both ladies and gentlemen to wear their Sunday best to the racetrack. It’s generally accepted that this practice bled over from the United Kingdom, where equine enthusiasts that frequented the famed Ascot Racecourse routinely donned lavish wardrobe. These days the dress code around American ovals has considerably loosened, yet on Kentucky Derby day a great percentage of patrons opt to leave the blue jeans and tank tops at home.
Obviously, when it comes to Derby fashion, a hat is the one accessory that stands heads and shoulders above the rest. For ladies this article is typically the centerpiece of an entire outfit, and many scholars note that the practice of modeling custom chapeaus dates back to the very first Kentucky Derby. Since the bonnet is typically void in modern wardrobe, many women go to extremes when it comes to the garb atop their head on May’s first Saturday; but, with several on site and local “best hat” contests awarding fabulous prizes, who can blame them?
Social studies have shown that women lean toward headwear parallel to their personality and social caste. Thus Millionaires’ Row (a block of optimum seating in the main grandstand, which accommodates those of tremendous means) showcases an array of hats that cost more than an average citizen’s annual property tax. On the flip side you have fashion within the confines of the infield that could often be described as downright frivolous. Most hats fall somewhere between these two extremes, and the “Southern Belle” design featuring an oversized brim remains most popular among the locals.
The Kentucky Derby’s official beverage has already been referenced more than once in this article but the mint julep, which has been promoted in association with the Kentucky Derby since 1938, is a delight definitely worth expounding upon. A traditional mint julep contains mint leaf, bourbon, sugar and water with the mint used as a garnish to introduce flavor and aroma through the nose. While this recipe is accepted as standard, a popular variation exists where the mint is “muddled” or crushed then mixed into the drink itself to enhance flavoring.
MINT JULEPS AND CIGARS ARE also popular traditions at the Kentucky Derby.
Over the two-day period between the Kentucky Oaks and “Run for the Roses” 120,000 mint juleps are served in souvenir glasses that feature the current Kentucky Derby logo and name of every former Derby champ.
In 2006 Churchill Downs began offering an extra premium custom-made mint julep at a cost of $1,000 with all proceeds going to charities that support retired thoroughbred racers. These “grand” libations dwell in gold-plated goblets and feature: Woodford Reserve bourbon, imported Irish mint, spring water ice cubes from the Bavarian Alps, Australian sugar and a sterling silver straw.
The Kentucky Derby’s pageantry only intensifies as post time draws near and while admiring the Twin Spires, bearing witness to the “best hat” contest, sipping on premium bourbon, rubbing elbows with the stars and feasting on burgoo stimulates the senses, nothing equates to what precedes the post-parade. Written in 1852 by Stephen Foster and played by the University of Louisville’s Marching Band, My Old Kentucky Home serenades each Derby entrant as they step onto the racecourse for their life’s most pivotal journey. Aside from the stretch run of the race itself, no other moment on Kentucky Derby day encapsulates more emotion then when 100,000+ souls join together to sing My Old Kentucky Home. In this twinkling of an eye every patron shares the same rooting interest and all motives directed towards self temporarily evaporate. I’ve always proclaimed that if seeing nature’s most magnificent creature being paraded under the cloak of this particular melody doesn’t make you misty eyed, nothing ever will.
Soon after the dust kicked up by this year’s Kentucky Derby field settles back over the strip, it will be time to commence coronation of thoroughbred racing’s new equine king (or perhaps queen). The winner’s circle located in front of the clock tower on the infield of Churchill Downs is only tread upon once a year and the showering of posies that takes place inside of this enclosure remains my favorite Kentucky Derby ritual.
Most are familiar with the lush blanket of 554 red roses, which is draped over the racer that secures the Triple Crown’s initial jewel, but the idea for this dressing might have started thanks to a well-to-do gent named E. Berry Wall. This socialite presented red roses to the ladies at a post Derby soiree in 1883 that was attended by none other than Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark. It is believed that Wall’s gesture persuaded Clark to make the Kentucky Derby’s official flower a rose. The first rose blanket ever used in a Kentucky Derby post-race ceremony was draped over the withers of 1896 Champion Ben Brush and contained not red, but pink and white flowers.
Every major sport awards a trophy to those whose efforts were the season’s best, and many athletes in our country toil their entire career pursuing the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Larry O’ Brien Trophy (NBA Championship) or the Commissioner’s Trophy (MLB Championship). Throughout thoroughbred racing it is also common for ownership, conditioners, jockeys and even grooms to receive awards when equines they’re associated with dominate a contest of consequence. But, when it comes to the Triple Crown, the stakes become nearly unfathomable.
The term “Holy Grail” is thrown around way too often these days, but when it comes to the Kentucky Derby Trophy, no other title even approaches accurate representation. The initial history of this award is somewhat murky and, though trinkets were sporadically presented to winners of the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 1923, Matt Winn commissioned construction of a golden anniversary trophy several months before the 50th “Run for the Roses.” Aside from slight embellishments instituted for the Derby’s 75th, 100th and 125th anniversaries, the Kentucky Derby Trophy remained largely unchanged until 1999. That year the outer horseshoe was turned 180 degrees to honor superstitious types who believe luck runs out of an inverted equine sneaker.
THE KENTUCKY DERBY TROPHY IS topped with an 18kt gold horse wearing a “blanket of roses” made of 350 rubies and 12 emeralds.
Excluding the base, the Kentucky Derby Trophy stands 22 inches tall and weighs 56 ounces. The cup portion is hand tooled out of 14kt gold, while the adorning 18kt gold horse and rider are fashioned from a mold. Craftsmen at New England Sterling in Attleboro, Mass., begin work on the trophy in mid-autumn and log hundreds of hours in labor before delivering the finished product to Churchill Downs in April. The Kentucky Derby Trophy is the only solid-gold prize awarded annually for athletics of any type in the United States. A blanket of roses pieced together with 350 rubies and 12 emeralds has been affixed to the withers of the cup’s equine guardian.
If anyone that professes allegiance to thoroughbred racing ever proclaims they haven’t dreamed of hoisting the Kentucky Derby Trophy high in the air while cuddling up next to a rose-covered equine, don’t believe them. Whether someone’s role inside the Sport of Kings is that of owner, conditioner, jockey, groom, outrider, backstretch laborer, teller, agent or handicapper, all have at one point or another come down with an incurable condition horsemen refer to as “Derby Fever.”
BY ERIC FLOYD
Eric Vaughn Floyd is a turf writer for various gaming publications and a Triple Crown pari-mutuel consultant for several nationwide media outlets. Excerpts from his gambling memoir, My First Decade Playing the Game, can be read at LuLu.com.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DARREN ROGERS/CHURCHILL DOWNS
RSS 2.0 feed. Leave a response, or trackback.