Walking along to Churchill Downs after parking the car a mile away on Kentucky Derby day offers people-watching at its finest.  You can see college-age revelers dancing and partying near a bus in a parking lot and then encounter street preachers loudly proclaiming hell and brimstone.  Nearby is a fellow hawking t-shirts etched with profanity and a guy illegally selling beer out of a cooler.  The fashion one sees runs the gamut from shabby to chic.  Some of the outfits are surely tailor-made, as it would be next to impossible to buy them off the rack.  The closest sports event to the Kentucky Derby in terms of seeing colorful people and unique clothing is a world title fight in Las Vegas.

The crowd at the Kentucky Derby is, with some exceptions, well behaved, in spite of the availability of alcohol-laden drinks.  In comparison to the language and fan conduct at NFL games, the Kentucky Derby is tame.

Speaking of the NFL, all three of the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots quarterbacks were in attendance at the Derby.  For a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan like myself, it would nice if we could trade for the second or third string QB behind Tom Brady.  (We fortunately have the CAVS and Indians to root for.)  A former Browns player, Robert Jackson, is a partner (via the West Point Thoroughbred syndicate) in Derby winner Always Dreaming.  Two other Clevelanders are also partners, including Tom Wilson, who sold two Cleveland radio stations for $200 million and currently owns another station in town.

The Derby’s winning jockey John Velazquez is the all-time leader in earnings by a rider.  The Hall of Famer is married to Leona O’Brien, daughter of trainer Leo O’Brien.  The horse most associated with O’Brien’s career is Fourstardave, who has a race named after him at Saratoga Race Course.  Velazquez’ mentor and agent is Derby-winning jockey Angel Cordero.  Velazquez is an articulate leader in issues having to do with jockey safety and care for injured riders.

Trainer Todd Pletcher handled with aplomb the inevitable question that an NBC-TV reporter asked him after the race about his low winning percentage in the Derby.  Another classy act was the post-Derby statement Godolphin issued about the health of Thunder Snow, who was pulled up shortly out of the starting gate owing to his bucking like a rodeo horse.  Godolphin let concerned people know that the horse was not injured and wished the winner and his connections well.

The Derby telecast had an overnight rating of 10.5, an improvement of 12% over 2016, and the second highest rating in 25 years.  The on-track crowd was, as usual, enormous despite the rain and the betting was brisk.  For the first time ever, the Derby card topped $200 million ($207.5) and the Derby itself drew wagers totaling $137.8 million.

In 2016, an artificial intelligence algorithm from a company called Unanimous A. I. correctly picked the Derby superfecta.  This year, the same AI program had the order of finish as Classic Empire, McCacken, Irish War Cry, and Always Dreaming.  The company issued a statement calling the race “flat and unpredictable.”  Sounds like the current stock market.

The 2017 Kentucky Derby was another glorious day of Americana.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business


Brad Kelley is one of the largest landowners in the United States and is an avid conservationist.  He does not develop the land he buys.  As part of his conservation efforts, he breeds endangered exotic animals to save them from extinction and return them to their native habitats.

In relation to Kelley’s vast land holdings, the 800-acre Calumet Farm on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, is small change.  But to many folks like Kelley (from Franklin, Kentucky, about 45 miles northeast of Nashville, Tennessee), the Calumet Farm property is the crown jewel of Thoroughbred breeding and racing.  When the farm came up for sale in 2012, Kelley–the self-described “good old boy from Kentucky”–purchased it from the heirs of previous owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski (who deserve plenty of credit for keeping the farm from being developed).

de Kwiatkowski bought Calumet Farm from the heirs of Lucille Markey, the remarried widow of Warren Wright.  Wright built it into the premier breeding and racing establishment of all time in American Thoroughbred horse racing.  In a sordid tale (told in the book Wild Ride), the farm was mismanaged into bankruptcy.

From 1941 through 1958, Calumet Farm won the Kentucky Derby eight times and had two winners (Whirlaway and Citation) of the Triple Crown.  This year, Calumet will have three starters in the race—Hence, Patch, and Sonneteer.  While they are longshots, it would be a story replete with nostalgia and redemption if one of them pulled off an upset victory. However, just having the Calumet name back in the Derby is enough for now.

Brad Kelley’s colors are black-and-gold rather than the famous devil-red-and-blue colors carried by so many Calumet champions.  Plenty of people will be rooting to see a black-and-gold-clad jockey flash first under the finish line on Derby Day 2017.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business


Native Dancer is in the very top echelon of greatest racehorses and sires of all time.  He won 21 of 22 races, with his sole loss coming in the Kentucky Derby.  The “Grey Ghost” was a fan favorite galloping across the screen on black-and-white television sets in the early years of the medium.  He was trained by William Winfrey and ridden by Eric Guerin.

On Kentucky Derby Day 1953, Native Dancer was the overwhelming favorite in the field of eleven.  The fifth choice, at odds of nearly 25-1, was Dark Star, trained by Eddie Hayward and ridden by Henry Moreno.  Dark Star was sired by the Australian-bred Royal Gem, who was located at Warner Jones Jr.’s Hermitage Farm near Louisville.  Jones would one day become the chairman of Churchill Downs.

Native Dancer and Dark Star’s owners were descendants of families whose vast wealth derived from Gilded Age businesses, Alfred G. Vanderbilt II and Harry Guggenheim, respectively.

Native Dancer was transported to Churchill Downs via train and the train wrecked, throwing the colt down in his car, causing one of his ankles to swell to the size of a grapefruit.  How much this contributed to his defeat is, of course, unknowable.

When the starting gate opened in the Kentucky Derby, Dark Star immediately seized the lead and never relinquished it, holding off the late-charging Native Dancer by a head.  The official chart of the race described the troubled trip that Native Dancer had:

“Native Dancer, roughed at the first turn by Money Broker, was eased back to secure racing room, raced wide during the run to the upper turn, then saved ground entering the stretch and finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably best.”

Eric Guerin received the bulk of the blame in the media and among fans for Native Dancer’s defeat, but Vanderbilt and Winfrey stuck with him.  Guerin rode the colt in all but one of his ten races after the Derby.

Dark Star broke down in the Preakness and never raced again, retiring with a record of six wins, two seconds, and two thirds from 13 starts and earnings of $131,337.  He had moderate success at stud in the United States and France, dying in 1972.

In 2007, readers of the Blood-Horse magazine voted the 1953 Kentucky Derby as the greatest upset ever in the race.  Mine That Bird in 2009 would certainly be in the running for greatest upset, but that race did not have a colt of the historic stature of Native Dancer.

Oral history has it that on the morning of the 1953 Kentucky Derby, Native Dancer’s trainer, Bill Winfrey, encountered a young boy, a stranger, during workouts at Churchill Downs, who volunteered to Winfrey that Dark Star was going to upset the Grey Ghost.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

The weekly series on Kentucky Derby history began on February 20 and ended today.