The Indianapolis 500 was not run from 1942-1945 due to World War II and a number of other prominent sports events were suspended as well. The Kentucky Derby was also in jeopardy in 1943 and 1944.
In his 1945 memoir, Down the Stretch, Matt Winn, longtime president of Churchill Downs, said that the 1943 Kentucky Derby was, in his mind, “the greatest Derby” because it was held at all.
In February of 1943, the U. S. Office of Defense Transportation (ODT) asked Americans to forgo unnecessary travel. ODT’s written statement specifically noted that ODT would be requesting that the Kentucky Derby be called off, as railroads were clogged with war-related traffic.
Winn explained his response to ODT:
“My answer was made up of several parts. First, I advised that special trains had not been run to Louisville since 1941; that they had been cancelled in 1942. I told the ODT that we would cooperate in every possible way to discourage passenger travel into Louisville, if such travel merely was to see the running of the Derby. I explained that our only concern was to run the Derby; that we were not concerned about how large, or how small, the crowd.”
Winn described how the ODT asked for a list of Derby boxholders who lived out of town, and followed up by sending them letters with a request to forgo travel to Louisville for the race. Boxholders complied and most did not accept Churchill Downs’ offer to refund their money, but instead donated their seats to members of the military located nearby Louisville, such as at Fort Knox.
The 1943 Kentucky Derby became known as the “Street Car Derby” and attracted a crowd of 65,000.
Winn summed up the day:
“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.”
(Winn dedicated his memoirs—dated July 3, 1944–to his grandsons, one in the Navy and the other in the Marines, who were “somewhere in the battle zones.”)
In 1944, Churchill Downs reprised the Street Car Derby. The 1945 Kentucky Derby was held on May 5 and three days later American celebrated “Victory in Europe.”
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The Kentucky Derby series began on February 20 and ends on May 1, with articles appearing weekly on Monday.