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America's greatest horse race.

Irving S. Cobb, the homespun phiilosopher of Paducah, Kentucky, after trying to explain to sportswriter Grantland Rice what made the Kentucky Derby so special, ended his futile effort by asking, "What's the use? Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain't never been nowhere and you ain't never seen nothin'!"

According to Derby historians, except for a flip of a British coin, the greatest race in America would be run under a somewhat less dramatic name. As one account has it:

"Before 1780 a horse race was only a horse race, and a Derby was just a man. His name: Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby. He and Sir Charles Bunbury, a friend and fellow breeder of fine horses, had just founded a new race, a springtime test of the three-year-old colt and filly thoroughbreds in all England. But the contest first had to be named.

"The question was," the report continues, "which of the two partners would it be named for, Derby or Bunbury? A coin flashed in the air-and landed in Derby's favor. And a good thing, too. Otherwise, we'd all be trooping out to Churchill Downs-to see the Kentucky Bunbury." Whatever the name, Derby-style races proved popular to both horse owners and spectators.

In America, the inaugural Kentucky Derby, on May 17, 1875, drew 15 three-year-old horses and a crowd of 10,000. Aristides, a little red horse, led the field to the wire to win a punch bowl worth $1,000 and a purse of $2,850. (Prize money at that time was put into silk purses and hung at the finish line. The jockeys grabbed the purses on their way to weigh out.) The second-place finisher, Volcano, made its owner richer by the handsome sum of $200.

The track itself at Churchill Downs has had much to do with attracting owners and trainers to this prestigious test of horseflesh. The surface has a top cushion of three inches, which consists of 75 percent sand, 23 percent silt, and 2 percent clay. The next five inches is compacted sandy loam, the same material as above, atop 12 inches of clay base, which overlies 25 feet of native sandy loam base. The Ohio River bottom land dirt is regarded as so good for horses to run on that other tracks buy it.

In comparison to today's thoroughbreds, horses competing in the early Derbies occasionally fell somewhat short of top thoroughbred standards. This had to do with owners' sometimes unrealistic assessments. For example, an owner needed to spend only $100 on the nominating fee and $2,000 for the starting fee. Some owners, eager to see their silks in the Derby, and to flourish an owner's badge entitling them to a box seat, would nominate a horse better qualified to pull a milk wagon. As one wag pointed out, "It was as if anybody could buy a jalopy and run in the Indy 500, or pick up a golf bag . . . and play in the Masters."

A horse named One-Eyed Tom finally brought the matter to a head. Besides lacking one eye, Tom was an unknown. His owner had never measured the training track back on the ranch. Training had consisted of a "boy" weighing 170 pounds galloping the horse from four to six miles a day. One other small thorn under the saddle: Tom had never been inside a starting gate. He would have to pass this test to be accepted as a participant. Track personnel came from all comers to witness the event, and they weren't disappointed. The exercise boy managed to maneuver Tom into the gate five times. Once he simply walked away; once he bolted and executed a neat U-turn; again he shied away from the contraption altogether. After the ordeal the rider's legs were streaked with green paint from being battered against the sides of the gate. One-Eyed Tom had flunked the test--and he was scratched.

There are no One-Eyed Toms in this year's proposed lineup of 20 horses. A Triple Crown nomination fee of $600, an entrance fee of $ 10,000, and a starting fee of another ten grandadded to Churchill Downs' $350,000, constitute the purse. Last year's payoff to the winner beat the first Derby's $2,850 by exactly $571,350.

Although One-Eyed Tom was one of a kind, other heroic horses that have made their marks in Derby history have not been without their little eccentricities. * The trainer Ben Jones used to say that Whirlaway, who whirled away the opposition in the 1941 Derby, was nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs." * Count Fleet, the winner of the 1943 classic, had a reputation for pride. He wouldn't trot over for sugar or petting. He was royalty. You could come to him or forget it. He did, however, have one shameful secret: he was afraid of the dark. * Secretariat had the reputation of being a prodigious doer," consuming 16 quarts of oats a day and all the hay he could eat. Though he ate continuously, he did it tidily-some oats, then a sip of bottled water, some hay. When the hayrack is removed the morning of a race, most horses grow edgy, sensing what's coming. Secretariat usually took a nap. * Riva Ridge, Secretariat's stablemate, once the main attraction, resented all the attention given his younger associate. When crowds formed around Secretariat, Riva would turn his rump to the stall door. In horse parlance, one can assume that this compares with the human gesture of putting the thumb to the nose and waggling the fingers.

Many of the 130,000 spectators to pour through the gates come early to view the immaculate grounds and its 6,000 plants, including tulips imported from Holland. All the fans, of course, are waiting for the strains of Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," which will beckon the year's top three-year-olds to the track and will raise enough goose bumps to resurface the infield. Here, in a matter of two nerve-tingling minutes, another horse will be joining the illustrious company of such legendary names as Count Fleet, Citation, War Admiral, and Northern Dancer. What about Man 'o War? you ask. Sadly, America's greatest racehorse never ran in America's greatest horse race.

A final word, which you won't find among the treasures at the museum or on the program for this year's Derby: if you go to this race of races with an eye to paying off the mortgage with your winnings, forget it. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who knew horses as well if not better than you, would warn you of that.

"The biggest bet I ever made," he admits, "was $100 on Man 'o War, an 11-to-20 shot. He was a sure thing to win the race, I thought.

Man 'o War was beaten by Upset that day, the only race he ever lost. That put a new word in the English language and a dent in the Fitzsimmons' bankroll. And it was another illustration of how little any of us really know about horses. For the Kentucky Derby, that goes double."
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Title Annotation:Kentucky Derby
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1990
Words:1188
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