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And they’re off! Look back at the history of the Kentucky Derby

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Three men on horseback racing c1885
“A Brilliant Inauguration of the Louisville Jockey Club Association” was the second-page headline in the Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper the day after the first Kentucky Derby back in 1875. The story was of interest to the locals, of course, but it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted how popular the horse race would soon become — or that it would still be going strong nearly a century and a half later.

In 1937, the editors at Lousiville’s The Courier-Journal took a look back at their own stories written about the Derby during the previous decades — specifically focusing on the years 1917, 1900 and 1875. For each, they offered both a summary and a critique of their coverage of the event. Even though it’s been more than eighty years since this history of the Kentucky Derby was published, we can still appreciate their insights on the famous horse race, which has been described as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Three men on horseback racing c1885

How the Kentucky Derby got started
Stories on Derbies from then to now (1937)

How did the Derby stories of other years go? The lead on the 1917 Derby story, though a masterpiece in its way, is somehow sad.

“Mindful still of the wartime, but mindful more of the playtime of Kentucky’s great play day of the May time — 35,000 citizens of everywhere came from the high and low places of the earth yesterday to make Derby Day in Louisville, the day it always has been.”

1937 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
1937 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

The story continues:

“They were reminders giving token that somewhere leagues away under the blue sky beyond the east fence men fighting grimly under other flags for freedom, were straining powder-reddened eyes for a glimpse of the red, white and blue banner, that was so bravely borne aloft over the Downs for the reverent gaze of 70,000 eyes.”

There wasn’t much space that year for anything but the big race itself. And at that, only a three-column head announced the winner.

Kentucky Derby in The New York Times, May 20, 1917

Off front page in 1900

Going back still farther to 1900, one is surprised to find the Derby crowded off the front page by the accounts of the trials of Youtsey and Howard, charged with the assassination of Kentucky’s Gov. William Goebel.

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However, the second and third pages cover the event quite adequately, much in the same style we now use, although society is much neglected in comparison with later years.

On the second page is a map of the Downs, showing the position of the horses at the various posts, and a picture of the winner, Lieutenant Gibson, held by an unidentified stable boy with one foot crossed over the other in the approved photographic style of the late Nineties.

There is a naivete and briskness about the style of writing that is refreshing. Following the lead paragraph announcing the winner is this line, which probably wouldn’t get by the desk today:

“Behind him like drunken men staggered and battled six other game brutes, their foam-flecked sides heaving with the exertion of that heart-breaking journey.”

This next “crowd” paragraph has not been surpassed by our flossiest reporters:

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“More than 30,000 people saw the race. The grandstand was like a many-colored sheet, curved and twisted and blown by the wind. Every seat and every inch of standing room was taken. From the green of the field the mass loomed as a cloud. Where the sunlight fell, it was lined with blue and fringed with golden gleams. Back of there in the shadows, it was streaked with the foam of white dresses like the breakers of the sea.”

The story of the Kentucky Derby in 1900

The Courier-Journal Louisville, Kentucky May 4, 1900

Trampled in betting ring

Compared to our ladylike betting under the pari-mutuels system, betting in the 1900s must have been a jolly affair.

The betting story reads:

“Just north of the stand, the betting ring brayed and bellowed. Here the race was more than sentiment. . . . As early as 1 o’clock they; began to gather in the betting ring. From being a scramble for money, it became almost a fight for life. Maniacs crushed against one another forgetting the need of balancing, and once when a sudden flurry of the crowd left an open space, a man fell and was trampled over and then was dragged out with a broken arm. No one paid any attention. All were money mad.”

Room for all on trams

Aside from one single item in the society column stating that Mrs. Smith had guests for the Derby the only reference to society was contained in one paragraph:

“South of the stand in tally-hos, carriages and drags, with their loud bugles and fluttering flags, was society glittering in all its spring glory.”

The “Newsy Notes” column smacks of our sidelights. Here are excerpts from it:

“The push in the betting stand was something awful.”

“The streetcar company handled the crowd very nicely — there was room for everybody both coming and going.” (That’s news, or would be today.)

“Newspapermen requested the president of the Jockey Club to keep the press stand for the use of writers exclusively.” (This has a familiar ring.)

The first Derby story

Found on the crumbling yellowed pages of The Courier-Journal Weekly for May 26, 1875, is the account of the first Derby, said to be written by Gen. Basil W. Duke.

It is interesting not only for its historical value and for its style, but because it contains a prophecy that has come true.

On the front page with the one-column Derby story are an account of the death of Gen. John C. Breckinridge; a story about a blood transfusion on Gen. Frank P. Blair; a report from the New York Times in which Jefferson Davis is commended for his recent address before the veterans of the Mexican War (he appealed to them to be “loyal to the stars and stripes”), and an announcement that “John G. Whittier takes the recent denial of the Barbara Frietchie story quite good-naturedly.”

High old sport

The Derby headlines are:

The Races.

A Brilliant Inauguration of the Louisville Jockey Club Association.

A week of high old sport.

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) - May 18, 1875

Undue emphasis was not given to the Derby itself. Following the lead was a matter-of-fact outline of the first race; then an equally matter-of-fact account of the event of the day, the second race, which was the Derby. The rest of the three columns describes with a form sheet precision the individual races of the week’s meet.

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General Duke covers the situation pretty thoroughly in his lead:

“Four superb races in which the pluck, speed and breeding of forty-one horses participated; 10,000 visitors on the ground: perfect order; admirable arrangements and such a day as the fondest hopes of the management could scarcely have anticipated, united to make the inaugural day of the Louisville Jockey Club Association a success from the first opening of the gates to admit the great throngs in attendance until the last tired pedestrian had left the grounds when night had already fallen.

“There was gathered together in the grandstand such an array of loveliness, drawn from city, town and farmhouse throughout all the borders of Kentucky and with representatives from every State in the Union as has never before been seen at a similar or perhaps any occasion in the West. Until the close of the first day, it has been the wont of our people to refer with glowing enthusiasm to the extraordinary aggregation of beauty which congregated at the great Gray Eagle-Wagner contest of thirty-five years ago.

“It would seem that no impulse has in the long interval since so served to draw together the people of Kentucky; but we now have another event from which to date and by which to compare the great gatherings of wealth, fashion and general elements of the population.” (How truly spoken!)

No respite at all

After a description of the first race, the Derby was outlined:

“The second race was the event of the day, the Kentucky Derby, a dash of 1-1/2 miles for 3-year-olds, fifty dollars entrance, p.p., the association adding $1,000 — Aristides forced the pace all the way for his stable companion, Chesapeake, and so had no respite at all, which makes his performance a very remarkable one.”

The final paragraph of the account, and the only one aside from the introduction that strays from the mechanical descriptions of the races, is the ancestor of the columns of space we use today about the notables and celebrities who attend the Derby.

It reads: “Mr. James Shy of Lexington, the oldest turfman in the United States, aged 86, was present and occupied a seat in the president’s stand.”

Told in three columns or in 100 with art, it is the same old Derby today as it was when General Duke wrote about it. It is the annual meeting place of horse lovers, wealth, beauty and fashion. The numbers have increased, the costumes and manners are different, and the carriages have given place to the automobile, but the reverence the true Kentuckian has for the thoroughbred that comes thundering down the stretch and across the finish line is as sincere now as it was sixty-two years ago Aristides drew his Derby roar.


It’s Kentucky Derby day — and there they come! (1936)

Kentucky Derby 1936

Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, parading north (1941)
1941 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, parading north
First quarter of Kentucky Derby from infield (1943)
First quarter of 1943 Kentucky Derby from infield

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