The Kentucky Derby Crowd, 1930 to 1946

May 1st 2015 01:21 am |

In James G. Nicholson’s excellent book about the Kentucky Derby published in 2012, he offers a unique look at America’s most popular horse race. It’s difficult to write anything new about the Derby but Nicholson manages to do just that. It is meticulously researched and sourced.  Although the author sometimes goes a bit far to make a point – as books published by academic presses are required to do – it offers a fresh look at the big race.

An especially interesting piece of Nicholson’s book is what he writes about the Kentucky Derby crowd. Although attendance wasn’t officially reported until the 1970s, that didn’t stop Churchill Downs — primarily through its legendary promoter Colonel Matt Winn — from providing crowd estimates. One thing that Nicholson finds consistent about the Derby crowd over the years is that it was always reported as the “biggest ever” even though the estimated numbers didn’t always substantiate the claim. From the period I studied, that didn’t appear to bother those making the estimates or the writers reporting it.

I thought it might be interesting to look at these crowd estimates through the pages of the Daily Racing Form (and other sources) starting in 1930 until the Derby (un)officially reached the six figure mark of 100,000 in 1946. Instead of simply putting together a list of reported attendance, I have included the language that surrounded the reporting on the crowd to provide context and highlight its similarities.1

Here is sixteen years of the Derby crowd from the Crash and Depression to War and Peace:

A 1930 article in the Daily Racing Form under the title “Early Derby Day Scenes” demonstrated by the fifty-sixth edition of the big day at Churchill the race’s crowd had long become ordinary in its size and consistency:

“Each tale of the Kentucky Derby crowd is virtually the same, except in the matter of weather reports. The crowd always comes early and no matter what provision is made by Col. Matt Winn to comfortably take care of the great gathering, there is sure to be the usual congestion. This year was the same as all the others.”

According to the report of Gallant Fox’s win in 1930: “…some 80,000 crowded into the course to witness the running.”2

In addition to the focus on the size of the crowd, another common thread in reports is the emphasis on the variety of “types” that attended the race. The idea of the upper strata of society rubbing elbows with the lower classes (albeit white men of those classes) is a consistent theme about the race track that started in the 19th century and endured well into the 20th. It’s no surprise that it became a common theme in describing the Derby crowd. Here is how the DRF reported it on May 18th 1931:

No more representative and colorful throng ever attended a running of the race, or for that matter any sports event than that which taxed Churchill Downs for today’s fifty-seventh annual staging of the Kentucky Derby. It was a multitude that embraced the nation’s most prominent in many walks of life and almost without exception, every outstanding patron and patroness of the great sport witnessed the Derby contest. Leaders in society were more numerous than ever before and nationally famous merchants, lawyers, political giants, monarchs of finance, stars of the screen and stage and others of lofty stations in other lines of endeavor were in the crowd of high and low, rich and poor from far and near.”3

In the report of Twenty Grand’s win in 1931, the DRF reported that the attendance was “estimated by Col. Matt J. Winn as the largest ever assembled at historical (sic) Churchill Downs.” However, the Chicago Tribune estimated the crowd at 45,000 – far below the number provided in 1930.4

The 1932 Derby was not a sell-out according to reports but the “the victory was tremendously popular with a crowd of some 40,000 that thronged Churchill Downs.”5

In 1933, 45,000 people watched what the DRF called “a mild breach of the rules” by the two jockeys in a race forever known as the “fighting finish” when Brokers Tip beat Head Play.6

Calvacade’s Derby in 1934 was the first run since the end of prohibition and brought with it some unruliness that was not all that uncommon at Churchill during this period.  James Nicholson writes of this in a chapter of his book titled “Conflict at the Derby and the Great Depression.” It is, perhaps, the most detailed account of the “riotous” nature of the Derby crowds during a period in the 1930s.

A report of the 1934 crowd indicates just how wide ranging (and arbitrary) the estimates from this time could be:

A near record crowd saw the running of the Kentucky Derby here this afternoon. No official figures were available but the attendance was variously estimated at between 40,000 and 60,000 souls… As early as dawn people began trickling into Churchill Downs…By noon the grounds and stands were thronged and when the first race was called to the post there was scarcely a spare inch of breathing room.”7

In 1935, Omaha won the Derby on his way to the Triple Crown in front of a crowd estimated at “more than 70,000 persons.” According to the DRF, “Matt Winn himself said the paid attendance established a new record.”8

In 1936, “60,00 persons bulg[ed] the stout fences at Churchill Downs,” a decrease in the estimate of 1935 but the DRF added “..a throng occupied every available seat and packed on every inch of standing room..”9

A recognizable tone from previous years reporting accompanied War Admiral’s year in 1937:

A crowd of inestimable size, but positively the largest ever, stood in waiting upon King Horse at the Kentucky Derby coronation at Churchill Downs this afternoon. People from every strata of society elbowed their way into the clubhouse and grandstand enclosures and overflowed into the center field and into the area where the stables are quartered on the far side of the track.”

While the above called the crowd size inestimable, the very same DRF article, just a few paragraphs later, reported: “…upwards of 80,000 joined forces to make Derby Day the day which excites the imagination of thoroughbred fanciers of the entire continent.”10

The DRF online archives does not include the 1938 Derby edition so I used the Chicago Tribune from May 8 1938. They offered this telling and wide ranging estimate:

There were various estimates of the attendance. Some ran as low, as 50,000, others as high as 100,000. For the first time the infield was opened to a public that got in through an underground passageway which passed beneath the track. It was the infield crowd that was difficult to estimate. On the grand stand side the attendance was as large as usual with a hysterical crowd milling about from noon until after the Derby had been run.”11

The ‘Sunny’ Fitzsimmons trained Johnstown won the 1939 Derby as reported by the DRF:

…80,000 persons, constituting the largest crowd ever to witness a horse race in this country, gave William Woodward’s [Johnstown] the benefit of all their cheers, not simply because he triumphed in the manner of a great colt, but because they had installed him the shortest-priced Derby candidate since 1905. ”12

A photograph in the May 5th 1940 edition of the Chicago Tribune included this ho-hum heading: “The Derby Packs Churchill Downs, as Always.” The caption of the photo included the estimated crowd using the oft-repeated ‘throng’ descriptor: “Churchill Downs was jammed and the throng [was] estimated at 75,000…many of whom were unable to see.”13

In 1941, Whirlaway “wrote another brilliant chapter in the history of the Kentucky Derby before 90,000 roaring fans…” Under the headline, “Largest Attendance in Derby History,” the DRF commented further on Whirlaway’s crowd:

Figures were not available immediately, but it was estimated that the turnout, certainly the largest ever seen on any American race track, closely approached the 100,000 mark, which Col Matt J Wynn (sic), president of Churchill Downs, had foreseen would one day witness this classic spectacle….In the Derby day crowd were persons from every strata of society but a cross-section represented ‘Mr Average American’ in high holiday spirit.”14

Of course, World War II put a stop toward the inevitable trajectory to a six-figure Derby. However, in spite of travel restrictions, the war years did not affect the crowd estimates as one might expect. Even in 1944, when the Derby was nearly cancelled and only Louisville locals were permitted to buy tickets, a crowd of 65,000 saw Count Fleet’s easy victory.

The first full year of peace brought the final push to a crowd that – all seemed to agree – exceeded six figures. In 1946 the estimated crowd surpassed the 100,000 mark as Colonel Winn had hoped would one day witness his race. He would die four years later in 1949.

It would be another three decades before the attendance became “official” but the period from 1930 to 1946 brought a significant surge in the Derby Day crowd and stands as one of the most interesting stretches in the long and fascinating evolution of the biggest spectacle in American racing.


As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, James Nicholson’s book is well worth a look. Here is a link to it at Amazon: The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event

Here is a link to recent Kentucky Derby attendance

Another year and another Derby, hard to believe it’s been a year since California Chrome. Looks like we have a solid group of colts lining up on Saturday — really looking forward to it!

Here are a couple of articles I wrote for CBS Local this week:


Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

  1. None of these articles used for this piece included by-lines so we do not know for certain the author []
  2. “Gallant Fox wins Derby,” Daily Racing Form (DRF), 19 May 1930. “Early derby Day Scenes,” DRF, 19 May 1930 []
  3. “Colorful Gathering at the Derby”, DRF, 18 May 1931 []
  4. “Twenty Grand the Derby Winner,” DRF, 18 May 1931. “45,000 Fan Watch Twenty Grand Win the 57th Derby…” Chicago Tribune, 17 May 1931 []
  5. “E.R. Bradley Wins his Third Kentucky Derby,” DRF, 9 May 1932 []
  6. “E.R. Bradley Wins His Fourth Kentucky Derby,” DRF, 8 May 1933 []
  7. “Calvacade Wins Sixtieth Kentucky Derby,” DRF, 7 May 1934 []
  8. “Gallant Fox’ Son, Wins Kentucky Derby,” DRF, 6 May 1935 []
  9. “Sixty-Second Derby To Bold Venture,” DRF, 4 May 1936 []
  10. “Largest Derby Crowd,” DRF, 1937 May 10 []
  11. “Lawrin Wins Kentucky Derby; Dauber 2nd,” Chicago Tribune, 8 May 1938 []
  12. Johnstown Runs Away with Derby, DRF, May 8, 1939 []
  13. Chicago Tribune, 5 May 1940 []
  14. “Whirlaway Wins Kentucky Derby” and “Largest Attendance in Derby History,” DRF, 5 May 1941 []

Filed in Affirmed,Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history,Winn, Matt J.

One Response to “The Kentucky Derby Crowd, 1930 to 1946”

  1. Kurt J says:

    Thanks as always, I could almost hear the crowds.