Broadcasting the Kentucky Derby, 1935-1936

Jan 29th 2013 09:00 am |

This week’s focus is on an article that was written in 1935 by Turf and Sport columnist Jimmy Loftus.  It offers rare insight into the content of early Kentucky Derby broadcasts and, even more interesting, it talks about how race fans reacted to the relatively new  experience of listening to the race. As we often find when looking at the past, not much has changed. For as long as sports fans have been experiencing events through mediums like radio and TV, they have freely expressed widely differing opinions about the quality of the content.

Here is how Mr. Loftus told it in his “Talk o’ the Turf” column in the June 1935 edition of the Turf and Sport Digest:

There is one thing that will create as much disagreement as a ‘hoss’ race, and that is the merit of ‘hoss’ race broadcast. After the ‘airing’ of a big race you always find the radio bugs split sharply into two camps. The broadcast was splendid, or it was lousy.

I beg to report that in my opinion the Columbia broadcast of the 1935 Kentucky Derby was an improvement in this method of presenting a racing spectacle through a loudspeaker.

You see, I was chained to a Pimlico press box typewriter and couldn’t get out to the Derby. I had to be content with a chair in front of the home radio and a promise of a bird’s eye view of the Preakness the following week.

It has seemed to me that in the past the man who described the race was forced to work too long without a rest to collect his thoughts and data, or to force his way through the huge crowds. This year’s broadcast, I hear, was the result of a Columbia sponsor tying up the ‘exclusive’ for a reported sum of ten ‘grand.’ The program was laid out cleverly and timed perfectly.

First came the commercial plug; then the background ‘spiel’ by Thomas Bryan George; then a switch to another ‘mike man’ interviewing the clubhouse celebrities; then back to George for a description of the running of the race; then back to the celebrity hunter, now in the judges’ stand to bring the presentation highlights to the listeners. It rolled off clearly, cooly, its dashes of comedy and drama and color judiciously mixed.

If you were a listener, you caught the clearly-chiseled words and slightly condescending tones of Mr. Thomas Bryan George. I thought he did a corking job. Now this may be telling tales out of school but Mr. Thomas Bryan George is none other than Bryan Field, the dynamic, intense young man who started his educational career with an eye on theology and wound up as turf expert for the lofty-browed New York Times.

Field is as thorough a newspaper man as he is a sports announcer…[He] is a mighty good man behind a ‘mike’ at a turf specialty, as is our own silver-thatched Clem McCarthy. They have done much to popularize this grandest sport of them all by converting stay-at-homes into raving rail birds.

Last week, after reading this, I was poking around online for old recordings of the Derby and found a site called Old Time Radio Catalog. Among their collection is a disc of Kentucky Derby recordings that includes race calls and a few clips of pre and post race coverage from early Derby broadcasts. While it does not include the 1935 broadcast described by Jimmy Loftus, it does include the 1936 broadcast that appears to follow a similar format.

The clip posted below of 1936 pre-race coverage begins with the playing of My Old Kentucky Home by the Fort Knox Military Band. Bryan Field then provides a description of the scene and a rundown of the entries and odds with about ten minutes to post-time. After analysis of the entries, Field goes to correspondent Bob Carl who interviews some “distinguished race spectators” in the owners boxes of Churchill Downs. Among Carl’s subjects are Joseph Widener who owned Brevity, the favorite for the 1936 Derby. Here is an eleven minute clip of the 1936 broadcast just prior to the running of the race [it cuts abruptly as the horses are going into the gate]:

Kentucky Derby, Pre-Race Coverage, 1936

Here is the call of the 1936 Kentucky Derby from Bryan Field:

Bryan Field’s call of the 1936 Kentucky Derby

The clip of the post-race is short but is fascinating for the “on the ground” coverage delivered by the previously mentioned Bob Carl. He interviews the legendary Colonel Matt Winn and the 18-year-old jockey Ira “Babe” Hanford who rode Bold Venture to a wire-to-wire victory

Here is about six minutes of the post-race coverage after the running of the sixty-second Kentucky Derby:

Kentucky Derby, Post-Race Coverage, 1936

Its a minor miracle that these recordings have survived. I have spent the last week listening and re-listening to what I found, and I’m sure I’ll be posting more historic audio as we get closer to yet another Kentucky Derby day.



“Talk o’ the Turf by Jimmy Loftus,” Turf and Sport Digest, June 1935

Ira Hanford was the younger brother of Carl Hanford who later trained the great Kelso.  He lived until his 91st year and died in 2009.  Here is his obit from the New York Times

I have been working on a post about Bryan Field who has been a primary character in my last few articles.  Might have that ready to go next week…

Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!



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

5 Responses to “Broadcasting the Kentucky Derby, 1935-1936”

  1. Jim Melia says:

    Any data on when the public address system for calling races was instituted at Saratoga? I found 1940 to be the first year for on-track Saratoga calls (not sure if it was Bryan Field) which makes sense because it was the first year of pari-mutuel betting at the Spa. Do you think it could have been earlier than 1940?

  2. Warren Eves says:

    Thanks for this post. When I was a young man working in publicity at Saratoga Raceway and calling several flat races live from across the street at Saratoga my mentor was none other than Bryan Field. I was offered a lucrative job at Waterford Park during that time. I called the famed Triple Crown announcer for advice. I told him I had been offered this job with all the perks by a big name who owned and raced under the Fourth Estate Stable. Field answered in his own original brogue: “Young man, should you liken to take that job that sounds so good, don’t bother calling me for any more advice.” Field hung up. I got the message, and no I did not take the job at Waterford Park. Guess the industry word in regard to the owner of Waterford Park at the time was “beware.” A good friend of mine was at the table when I talked to the owner that day. I will never forget Mr. Field as I called him. He deserved the respect he got from most and his race announcing was unique to be sure. I’m certain if Mr. Field were still alive today he’d say that too many race callers are copying one another’s styles.

  3. Kevin says:

    Hi Mr Eves: Thank you so much for sharing your story! Kevin

  4. Eliza McGraw says:

    Great post. I love hearing the old audio–the music and that Widener interview. Was Jimmy Loftus related to Johnny Loftus?

    • Kevin says:

      Hey Eliza: Thanks for the comment! Yeah, Widener’s inflection is almost hard to believe. Good question about Loftus and one that crossed my mind too. I’ll look into it and see what I can find. Kevin