Countdown to the Derby with Matt Winn: The Inaugural, 1875

May 5th 2011 07:00 am |

From today until Kentucky Derby morning on Saturday, we’ll be counting down to the big race with selections from the 1945 autobiography of Colonel Matt Winn. Winn is considered the father of the modern Derby. As a resident of Louisville, he was there for the first ever running of the race, and in 1902 he purchased Churchill Downs and made it profitable for the first time since its opening. In 1908, he fought off a challenge from political reformers who attempted to outlaw bookmaking and thus kill off racing in Kentucky. Winn found a long forgotten piece of legislation that allowed him to operate parimutuel machines at Churchill. If not for Winn’s tenacity, the Derby may have become nothing more then a blip on racing’s historical timeline.

Not only did Winn save the Derby, he also transformed it from a regional phenomena to a national spectacle. By the time he died in 1949, he had turned the Kentucky Derby into the most important horse race in America.

So then, it is fitting that we look back this week with selections from Down the Stretch, The Story of Col. Matt Winn as told to Frank G. Mecke (Mecke was Churchill Downs Director of Press Relations).

Here is how Winn described the inaugural running of the Derby in 1875:

“The first Derby Day I remember as if it were yesterday. It was May 17, 1875. I was 13 – nearing 14 – when Col. M. Lewis Clark, the Louisville sportsman, and his associates of the race track which now is Churchill Downs, were making ready for the opening. My father decided to be there. He wasn’t a horse player. But this was more than a race day. It was a festival, and my father felt he ought to be at the track to see if the “goings on” would be worth all the fuss the people had been making about the new track, and the new kind of racing…

…I was up at dawn. It was clear, sunshiny and warm. Father hitched the horse to the wagon, which he generally used in hauling groceries from the wholesale houses, and we were off for my first Derby through the greatest traffic jam Louisville had known up to that time.

The mule-drawn street cars were loaded to the limit. Those who had horses, hitched them to carts, or buggies, and were on their way. Others horsebacked by track, while thousands walked.

The track was then located in what was a suburb of Louisville, surrounded by farms. It was regraded as “pretty far out,” which it perhaps was to the pedestrians at the time. But the growth of Louisville as a city has been such that the Downs now is only a short strret car ride from the heart of the city – nearer to the hub of the great city than any other race track in the land.

Many guesses have been made as to the exact spot I occupied when I saw the inaugural running in 1875. I saw it from a standing position on the seat of my father’s wagon, anchored in the infield, which was known as the “free gate area” meaning that if you didn’t wish to pay a fee to get into the grandstand section, you could walk, or drive, through a special gate to the infield – without charge.

It was a thrill for me, this first Derby, with crowds swirling around the infield, the grandstand a riot of color, and tenseness in some places, unrestrained enthusiasm elsewhere, as the time neared for the horses to parade to the starting line in readiness for the race that all of Louisville, and most of Kentucky had discussed for so many months…

…During the hours before the race, many of the ‘infielders’ came over to our wagon and rested themselves by leaning against it. They talked and eagerly I listened. Mostly their conversation was about a horse named Chesapeake. They said he was a great one; one of the greatest that ever was. Little chance for any other horse…

But it wasn’t Chesapeake who would be immortalized as the first colt to win the Kentucky Derby. ¬†Instead, it was his stablemate Aristides. Reflecting on that day, Winn would write:

“That was my introduction to horse racing, where, at 13, I was to learn so thoroughly that nothing on this earth is quite so unpredictable as a horse race.”

Winn would live to see every running of the Kentucky Derby from 1875 until his death in 1949. His perspective on the early years of America’s greatest horse race is like no other.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Winn’s view of Regret and the 1915 Derby


Down the Stretch the Story of Colonel Matt J. Winn as told to Frank G. Mecke (1945)

My early over-analyzed pick for the 2011 Kentucky Derby was ArchArchArch. However, like last year, my early pick drew the number one post position. When it happened to Lookin’ at Lucky in 2010, I jumped ship and landed on Super Saver. Not sure what I am going to do this year…I am leaning towards sticking it out with ArchArchArch. I’ll make my final decision after looking at the past performances.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Churchill Downs,Countdown to Derby,Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history,Winn, Matt J.

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