The Kentucky Derby: A tradition of resiliency

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Apr 30, 2020

Horse racing fans have a few extra months this year to perfect their mint juleps and place their bets on the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby, which was postponed until September to protect public health.

For most, it will be the first time that they do not gather together with family and friends on the traditional first Saturday in May to cheer on the Thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs. But some seasoned spectators still remember the years long ago when “the most exciting two minutes in sports” faced a different global threat — and never faltered.

It was 1943, at the height of World War II, and the Defense Department had issued a ban on nonessential travel within the U.S. to conserve resources (e.g., gasoline and rubber tires) for military use. The government asked the organizers of the Kentucky Derby specifically to call off the race. Col. Matt Winn, the president of Churchill Downs who had rescued the Derby from financial collapse in 1902, dug in his heels, reportedly vowing that the Derby would run even if there was only one spectator in the stands to watch.

The "Street Car Derby"

According to Kentucky Derby officials, Winn arranged for streetcars to shuttle in locals from all across Louisville. Most out-of-town boxholders that year declined Churchill Downs’ offer to refund their money, opting instead to donate their seats to the military personnel who were stationed at nearby Fort Knox.

The 69th running, which became known as the “Street Car Derby,” attracted a crowd of 65,000 that year and the heavy favorite, Count Fleet, won the garland of roses. He went on to win both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, becoming America’s sixth Triple Crown winner.

Citing Winn’s memoir, “Down the Stretch,” Horse Racing Business magazine noted that Winn always considered the 1943 race to be “the greatest Derby” of all. He reportedly wrote: “None of those who were at the 69th Derby could be forgetful that a world conflict raged. The swirl of men in all the uniforms of the Armed Forces was a grim reminder. Yet for that one afternoon there was a lulling of the life that is; the life of a war-torn world; there was a short return to the pattern of the peaceful, happy life that was.”


Photo courtesy Churchill Downs

The Kentucky Derby prevailed again in 1944, despite ongoing civilian travel restrictions. And it faced its biggest hurdle yet the following year. James Byrnes, Director of the Office of Economic Mobilization (later appointed Secretary of State by President Harry S. Truman), viewed horse racing as a general drain on resources. He declared a total ban on all horse racing in 1945, starting on January 3. Organizers of the Kentucky Derby prepared to miss the first running at Churchill Downs since its founding in 1875.

But on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany issued an unconditional surrender of its armed forces, ending the war in Europe. Byrnes moved quickly to lift the ban, and Churchill Downs scrambled to pull the Derby together on short notice. The “Run for the Roses” that year was held on June 9, attracting some 75,000 fans.

The Kentucky Derby, which remains the longest continually run sporting event in America, has faced other hardships during its long history as well, from the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 to the outbreak of the equine influenza in 1919, which set back or claimed the lives of multiple top stakes runners across the horse racing industry, according to the Paulick Report .

This year’s Derby

Some 16 million fans are expected to watch the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby this year on September 5 — either in person or on TV — against the backdrop of a global health pandemic. But make no mistake, the race will prevail.

“Throughout the rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority has been how to best protect the safety and health of our guests, team members, and community,” said Churchill Downs' CEO Bill Carstanjen in a statement. “As the situation evolved, we reached the difficult conclusion that we needed to reschedule. At no point did we ever consider canceling the Kentucky Derby.”

After all, the Derby is more than just a race. It’s a great American tradition, a reason to celebrate with those we hold dear, and an opportunity to honor our past, present, and future. It’s a symbol of hope in uncertain times.

“The fact that the Kentucky Derby has been run 145 consecutive years is a testament to the resilience of not only the Thoroughbred industry, but our country,” said Churchill Downs president, Kevin Flanery. “No matter the crisis, the Derby allows us to come together to celebrate our special relationship with our industry, our beloved Thoroughbreds, and our community. The pageantry, the excitement, and the certainty that we will find a way to continue serve as a beacon that we will persevere and thrive together.”

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