To Say that the Kentucky Derby is a horse race is like saying that a bourbon julep is a shot of whiskey. It is true, but it is not the whole truth. For Derby Week in Louisville is a phenomenon—a happy turmoil, a frenzied turbulence, a time of high living and high good humor in the face of high costs and highbinders.
Sixty-five thousand people pour into the city which has a normal population of 405,000. They come by air (commercial airlines plus a thousand in private planes) and by train and automobile and bus. From San Antonio come 175 Texans in their 17-car (including a shower car) "Kentucky Derby Special"—which also serves as their hotel. There are "Filly" specials, one sponsored by Sigma Alpha Sigma, a businesswomen's sorority in Chicago, another carrying 200 General Motors Girls Club members from Detroit.
For weeks before the Derby, every rooming house, hotel and motel has been a sellout despite a $15-a-day asking price for furnished rooms and double that at the better hotels. It is just possible, however, that a few house rentals may still be available. Some home owners are willing to get out of town for $1,000—one week's rent.
Ten million dollars will change hands within the city limits of Louisville during Derby Week. The tab for bourbon whiskey alone (45,000 fifths of it) will come to $250,000. The balance will go for food and housing and foolish notions, including horse bets.
Betting on the Kentucky Derby is something very special. People who never bet on anything else like to have a wager riding on a Derby horse, even if it's only a 25¢ stake in an office or neighborhood pool. And up and down the country, people who have little or no interest in racing at other times will follow the race breathlessly by radio or television.
The Kentucky Derby is what it is principally because of one man, Colonel Matt Winn. When he took over Churchill Downs in 1902, the great race was little more than a local affair. The colonel popularized pari-mutuel machines. He did a complete job of redecorating. He then tackled the most important job of all: the wooing of the standoff eastern Jockey Club. His big break came in 1915 when Regret won the Derby. Regret's owner was Harry Payne Whitney, and Whitney was a member of The Jockey Club, then headed and dominated by August Belmont. Colonel Matt was in. At his death at 88, in October 1949, the colonel was a legend. He had seen the first running of the Derby (in 1875) and every subsequent one through the 75th. He had seen it become an American institution.
And yet, the Kentucky Derby is not the richest horse race in America, nor the oldest, nor the best from a competitive point of view. Some trainers complain that it comes too early in the year for most 3-year-olds to be in top condition, and it is a quarter of a mile short of the classic derby distance of one and a half miles. And while Churchill Downs is a fair place for 50,000 people to watch a horse race, it is no place for 100,000.
For all of that the Kentucky Derby stands alone among all the horse races in America, maybe in the world. As the late great turf writer, Joe H. Palmer, once observed: "...now we approach the event about which no one can write quite truthfully. The legends are too strong. A man may go to Miami or Baltimore or Saratoga feeling no particular way and may report what he sees. But the Kentucky Derby must be approached with an attitude."