REMEMBERING THE DAY THE KENTUCKY DERBY WAS IN PERIL

Being a lifelong aficionado of horse racing and growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, the Kentucky Derby has always been a cherished event.  While I have attended a few in person, I’m grateful  for one I did not have to attend.

In 1967, the civil rights movement in the United States was making progress through the non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King and others.  Louisville, in the months preceding the Kentucky Derby, was filled with tension over protests for and against open-housing legislation, including marches ending at Churchill Downs.  On one side were advocates of open housing, some of whom wanted to disrupt the Kentucky Derby.  On the other side were dissenters like the Ku Klux Klan, who promised to be at the Derby in full regalia to confront any protesters with force.  The situation was so threatening that the Kentucky Derby Parade was cancelled as well as all Derby-week events scheduled to celebrate the race.

On the Monday before the Derby, five protestors actually stopped a race in progress by jumping the rail in the Churchill Downs stretch and sitting down in the middle of the racetrack.  Fearing that something similar would transpire during the running of the Kentucky Derby and that this would provoke retaliation from the Klan and like-minded racial separatists, Louisville’s mayor asked the governor for help from the Kentucky Army National Guard.  Imagine what might have happened in a crowd of over 100 thousand people in front of a national television audience.

The turmoil surrounding  the 1967 Derby is personal for me, as I was a soldier in one of the Army National Guard units sent in by the governor to maintain peace.  We were ensconced in a facility proximate to Churchill Downs, ready to go at a moment’s notice to join forces with the 1,000 armed police and military personnel who were already at Churchill Downs.  Fortunately, due mainly to the cool-headed intervention of Dr. King and his brother Reverend A. D. King, the protest was diverted to downtown Louisville rather than held at the racetrack.  The Klan did show up as promised at the Derby.

When Proud Clarion crossed the finish line, I was watching on television at our off-track location, thankful that chaos had been averted.

However, a year later in late May, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. King, Louisville erupted in what has been classified as one of “the 25 worst riots of all time.”  My Army National Guard unit was once again called out, for nearly a week, to quell the violence and killing.  Fewer men were available than the year before because President Lyndon Johnson in April 1968 sent the 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery of the Kentucky Army National Guard to a place called Vietnam, where they suffered heavy combat losses.

Meanwhile, the 1968 Kentucky Derby was embroiled in mystery and scandal that persists somewhat to this day.  The winner, Dancer’s Image, was disqualified for testing positive for phenylbutazone, or “bute,” and replaced by Calumet Farm’s Forward Pass.

My Derby-time memories of 1967 and 1968 are vivid, to say the least, approaching 50 years later.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business

Comments

  1. What a time, what a story! Thanks for telling it. I remember the 1960s but did not recall the events you write about.

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