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The Kentucky Derby, by James Nicholson


Book Review by Nancy Brannon

With two legs of the Triple Crown run in May and the third on June 6th, the time was right to peruse James C. Nicholson’s book The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event. Again, the nation seems poised to celebrate a Triple Crown winner in American Pharoah, the outcome determined at the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. Last year’s hope for the Triple Crown is shown on the book cover: 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, with jockey Victor Espinoza.

Nicholson grew up on a Thoroughbred farm in Lexington, KY that was founded by his maternal grandfather in 1956. His wife’s family is active in Thoroughbred racing and several of his extended family members work in the Thoroughbred industry. He says he has “watched the Kentucky Derby from practically every vantage point possible in Churchill Downs.” Currently, he is an author, alumnus, and part-time history instructor at the University of Kentucky (UK). Nicholson received his doctorate in history from UK. He received the Southern Kentucky Book Fest’s Kentucky Literary Award and the 2012 Kentucky History Award for this book.

Nicholson is intrigued by how the Derby has become such a phenomenal, national equestrian event that enthralls non-horse people as well as horse folk. Certainly, “it is not the fastest, longest, or most monetarily valuable horse race in the U.S.” Nor is it the first race or derby to be run in America. “Why then does this cultural phenomenon capture the attention of millions…? His book provides the answer.

Derby signifies a race for three-year-old horses and its origins date to 18th century England and Edward Stanley, twelfth Earl of Derby, who cofounded the Derby Stakes in 1780.” Kentucky evokes a special sense of place with images of vast green pastures and horses grazing, but images from early accounts depict Kentucky as an “untamed yet civilized place” with mixed images of early Kentucky settler Daniel Boone, the backwoods mountain people, and, later, idealized notions of the genteel southernness. “The Kentucky Derby is a celebration of a place, enhanced by specific associated traditions, icons, and images. …But exactly what is being celebrated, experienced, and remembered at the Derby, and how that has changed over the course of its long history, is unique,” Nicholson writes.

Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of famous explorer William Clark) was instrumental in organizing the first “Derby Day” in Kentucky in May 1875. Impressed with Epsom Downs in Great Britain, he led an effort to build an upscale facility in Kentucky like Epsom Downs where a signature race like the English Derby would be run. Clark convinced a group of 320 sportsmen and businessmen to fund construction of a racetrack and grandstand for the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association on 80 acres of land owned by Clark’s uncles Henry and John Churchill. The track soon became known as Churchill Downs.

In the early days of American racing, many jockeys were former slaves. After emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the racial hierarchy remained and the majority of trainers and jockeys were black. But by the turn of the century, many jockeys were becoming relatively rich and famous. Black jockeys won half of the first 16 Derbies and 15 of the first 28. During the 1880s Isaac Burns Murphy was the most famous rider in America, and he won the Derby aboard Riley in 1890. In 1891 he became the first jockey to capture successive Derbies. The last great black jockey to ride in the U.S. was Jimmy Winkfield, who was also the last black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, both in 1901 and 1902. As the U.S. court system officially sanctioned Jim Crow laws by the end of the 19th century, black riders and trainers were forced out of the sport by white jockeys and owners in an increasingly segregated society.

In the 1920s and 1930s the momentum of the Derby grew rapidly. The first radio broadcast of the Derby in 1925 drew a large national audience.

In the face of supply shortages and travel restrictions during World War II, the Derby found it difficult to recruit elite Thoroughbreds. But the Derby continued, affirming its place as an American institution and furthering its national reputation.

Nicholson describes “Derby Culture” as everything connected to the Derby besides the race itself – the hats, the mint juleps, the roses, the music “My Old Kentucky Home,” etc. “The Derby has few rivals in terms of the variety of people it attracts. The presence of the rich and famous in Millionaires’ Row helps to attract the multitudes in the infield…To have both sharing the same space is unique and creates a fantastic spectacle,” he says.

“For much of the 20th century, Kentucky and Louisville were perceived by many as a place in the South but not the South. So visitors could experience ‘southern hospitality’ without traveling too far geographically and without venturing into the racially and politically volatile Deep South.”

Persisting through the decades after the advent of the automobile and horses were no longer an important element of daily life, horse racing has become increasingly anachronistic, yet still manages to increase in popularity and cultural relevance. “Churchill Downs has the difficult task of maintaining the Derby’s tradition and ties to the past while keeping the event relevant in an ever-changing culture,” Nicholson says.

Nicholson argues that the Derby, at its essence, is a celebration of a place, existing as a connection between Kentucky’s mythic past and modern society. The Derby is more than just a horse race—it is an experience enhanced by familiar traditions, icons, and images that help Derby fans to understand Kentucky and define themselves as Americans. Today the Kentucky Derby continues to attract international attention from royalty, celebrities, racing fans, and those who simply enjoy an icy mint julep, a fabulous hat, and a wager on who will make it to the winner’s circle.

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