Kentucky Derby Eve, 1935

Apr 27th 2011 07:09 pm |

Kentucky Derby Crowd in 1935 (Kentuckiana Digital Library)

We are less then two weeks away from the biggest day on the American racing calendar. Few sporting events have maintained there cache longer then the Kentucky Derby.

For much of its history it has been the race that brings with it a caravan of spectators to Louisville that represent many facets of American life; from the easily recognized celebrity and social mover to the “work-a-day Joe” looking to make a big score or simply out for a good time (although Derby ticket prices are making it harder for those from the latter group).

While doing some research in the Turf and Sport Digest, I came across an article about the Kentucky Derby by one of the magazines talented and largely forgotten staff writers. In the article he brilliantly describes the atmosphere in Louisville on the eve of the Derby circa 1935. Many of the vignettes that make up the article will resonate with those who will join the scene that descends on the city prior to this year’s Derby day. As we have found countless times at this site, the parallels between past and present are strong in racing and Derby week in Kentucky is no exception.

Here is how racing scribe Nelson Dunston described Kentucky Derby eve in the May 1935 issue of Turf and Sport Digest:

Churchill Downs is asleep, the clouds having changed color and blended into the night overhead. But it’s a restless sleep, for nearby Louisville is wide awake, and becomes more so as the whirr of busy, modern America focuses on the town and pours thousands of sports lovers into it hourly to join those already on hand.

It is hardly possible to put a town’s noises and smells on paper, but as one walks through the ever-growing throng, one is certain to catch on the wing a fleeting whiff of an emotional stimulant that fuses the deeply rooted nerve in the mind of a vast crowd. And it is a happy crowd for on the morrow it will witness a renewal of America’s greatest sports classic – The Kentucky Derby.

The hotel lobbies are jammed, the telegraph office a beehive of activity, and for one night, Louisville is a city of purple robed and pauper clad strangers. It has become a giant melting pot, bringing from the South the typical Southern gentleman who will have “just a small sentimental wager on Cunnel Bradley’s colt, suh,” and from New York, the city dweller who suddenly realizes no urban crowd, not even that of New Year’s Eve, ever had quite the thrilling undercurrent of camaraderie and breathless expectancy he senses here. Old friends will suddenly see one another and with a handshake and glowing smile steer straight for the long bar, where with feet on the rail, will laugh until they cry in their ale.

No one who has a bed or cot thinks much about it. They join the others to make the street a scene resembling that of the night before a championship fight of the olden days; they smile in the joyous manner of a Mardi Gras throng – minus the masks -and then enter feverish shops to buy knick-knacks, or send a card back home to say “this town is a madhouse. you should be in it” and other similar wise cracks.

Governors, mayors and prominent Washington officials stand to chat in the lobbies of the modern hostelries. But the Seelbach is a tradition and a habit with Southern Colonels. The old carpet bag they carry bulges with one clean shirt, one clean collar, one extra flowing black tie, and four Mason Jars of mellow mountain dew, which although colorless, has a kick that would make a mule green with envy. Once deposited in the suite that is quaintly adorned with mahogany whatnots, and cavernous red leather arm chairs, the Colonel unscrews a Mason jar, fills his glass and as he raises it, repeats the ritual “may the best horse win. And ah hope Cunnel Bradley, suh, that yo’ horse will be no worse than first”!

All over Louisville are “Apartment To Rent” signs. When you see the “apartment” a shock usually goes with it, for in most cases it consists of a cot in a parlor or dining room. Six, seven, or maybe eight other cots range alongside of it.

In the hotels(during the dry period [Prohibition]) an enterprising gentleman stuck his business card under the door, and upon turning it over the holder reads “Fine Scotch, $10 per quart. Card giving name of Derby winner with each and every bottle.” If you bought four bottles, you got the names of four different horses.

“Who’s gonna win the Derby?” is the all-absorbing question. Governors ask it along with bell-boys, spinsters, newsdealers, debutantes and grandmas, and once asked, they can hardly wait for the answer so that they in turn can give their views. Many have never seen a horse race before, but a little thing like that does not deter them from offering their opinion…

…By midnight, the streets become quiet, but as the visitor walks through the hotel corridors, he notes the theme of “who’s gonna win” has taken many variations. From the open doors he hears the names of Black Gold, Whiskery, Clyde van Dusen and others. And then, some time during the night, peace and quiet descends to take brief possession of the city and all within its confines.”

Much as it was in 1935, the excitement for another edition of the Kentucky Derby builds.  As Churchill Downs track announcer Mark Johnson said prior to his first ever Derby call in 2009: “In two minutes, racing immortality awaits.”  There are few instances where a span of two minutes can define a career, maybe that’s why people have been flooding to Kentucky for the first Saturday in May for so many years.  The annual two minutes that is the Kentucky Derby stands as the heartbeat of the American thoroughbred scene and one that all racing fans anticipate like no other.


Nelson Dunstan, “Kentucky Derby,” Turf and Sport Digest, May 1935

Image from the Kentuckiana Digital Library, where they have a fine selection of Kentucky Derby photographs.

Be sure to check the content at Hello Race Fans leading up to Derby day, they will have features on betting the race and historical pieces from their crack staff of writers.

I have been meaning to mention the first ever addition to the Colin’s Ghost staff. I have “hired” long time friend and Saratoga sidekick Chad W. Roth as a much needed copy editor here.  Welcome aboard, Chad!

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history,Turf and Sport Digest

One Response to “Kentucky Derby Eve, 1935”

  1. Rick Davies says:

    I’ve lived in Louisvile all my life and while I have only attended a few from the infield, the Derby is an event unlike any other. From the numerous private jets at the airport, to the revelers that used to party on Central, you know somethings up! People who haven’t a cluue about the horses, suddenly are experts on thoroughbreds and their trainers. The pagaentry of Derby extends from Frankfort Ave fancy shops to the East End with a wide variety of styles between.