The First Derby under the Twin Spires, 1895

Apr 29th 2010 10:12 pm |

Grandstand at Churchill Downs, 1901 (Library of Congress)

So here we are less than 48 hours away from another Kentucky Derby and, as usual, we here at Colin’s Ghost are looking backward. We did a post about Twenty Grand’s Derby a few weeks ago but wanted to do one more before the big race.

The question that inspired this post: When was the first Derby run under the iconic twin spires at Churchill Downs?

The spires atop the Churchill grandstand were a late addition to the Derby scene, coming 20 years after the inaugural race in 1875. Lewis Gentry wrote an outstanding article in 2005 for the Bloodhorse about the building of the new grandstand in 1895 that included the spires.

In perusing the news stories of the 1895 Derby, the first run under the famous spires, I found that the race itself was a bit of an afterthought. A colt by the name of Halma beat only four other starters. A history of the Derby published in 1921 had this: “The story of the [1895] Derby is quickly told as there was no sensational features about it.”

All of the sensation was in the crowd, according to this article published on May 7, 1895:

That Kentuckiana have not lost their enthusiasm for the horse was evidenced by the crowd that thronged the superb stand, betting ring and every other available place to see the classic event. It will never be known just how many pairs of eyes centered upon little ‘Soup’ Perkins as he guided Halma under the wire an easy winner, but the most conservative place the number at 25,000.

Before the arrival of the noon hour the journey of thousands to Churchill Downs began. The boulevard leading to the course was crowded with vehicles of every description, from the antiquated two wheel conveyance to the modern English cart. All the city buildings and many of the larger establishments gave a half holiday to their clerks, and all went to see the Kentucky Derby. At the Downs there was a scene never before witnessed in the history of that grand old course. The magnificent new stand, which has a seating capacity of nearly 10,000 was inadequate to hold the vast throng. Every place of vantage about the stands, paddock and stables was occupied, while in and about the betting stand it was one solid mass of humanity.

The betting stand from the time the first odds were chalked on the board until the flag fell in the closing event was almost one immovable mass. Men jostled against each other and essayed to elbow their way through the throng in their effort to place their money, but the fifteen bookies who were there to accommodate the public could not handle more than one-half the money.

I imagine that all those looking to place a bet on Saturday will have no problem. The one constant in the Derby is that it has drawn a “solid mass of humanity” for over 100 years. Show me another event in the United States that has done that.

The quote text is from the Sacramento Daily Record-Union May 7, 1895.  This Derby report appeared, in one form or another, in many newspapers I viewed in the Library of Congress online newspaper collections.

John O’Conner. History of the Kentucky Derby, 1875-1921:

The image of Churchill Downs is from the Library of Congress

Need more Derby history?  Check out Teresa’s article at Hello Race Fans

My picks for the 2010 Derby in no particular order (unless of course they happen to finish in this order): 1) Super Saver 2) Devil May Care 3) Paddy O’Prado.  Had Looking at Lucky not drawn the dreaded #1 post position,  he would have been my top pick without any hesitation.  He might finish in the money, and still could win, but I am a firm believer in the whims of luck and, despite his name, this colt is jinxed.  I am rooting for him and hope he pulls it off but I’ll take my chances betting on some of the bigger priced colts (and filly).


Filed in thoroughbred racing history

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