Early in May millions of Americans who skip casually over the racing news for 51 weeks suddenly become Thoroughbred experts, tossing about racetrack patois like Kentucky hard-boots. Caught up in the growing anticipation of the Derby they become instantly familiar with the names of jockeys and horses and the owners of famous racing silks. Even so, few hear of people like Mrs. Kingsley Walker, who is an invisible but vital part of Derby tradition. Over the past 35 years Mrs. Walker has sewn 22,000 roses into garlands for the winning horse and bouquets for his jockey. She is extremely proud of her work and does not care to disclose the exact procedure she follows. But she does reveal that, about every five or six years, she changes the strain of rose she uses because, after that time, the strain runs out and the roses turn purple and then pinkish. This year's roses are Forever Yours, and about 500 of them will go into the winner's garland. It will be put together on Friday and kept in the refrigerator overnight. Saturday will bring fruition to the efforts of others besides Mrs. Walker. For many among them the people shown on the following pages, Derby Day in Louisville is the sporting summit of the year.
"The town isn't as wild as it used to be at Derby time, and celebrities don't come in as early," says Bell Captain Abe Atkinson, a 30-year veteran at Louisville's once-elegant Brown Hotel, which also isn't what it used to be. But Atkinson dourly admits, "We still make a few extra bucks." He has been so occupied over the years that he has never seen the race. White-haired Wathen Knebelkamp saw his first Derby in 1911 and will see his 48th this week. As head of Churchill Downs he is a congenial host, but risks making enemies this year with his ruling that beer may not be carried into the track's infield, which usually is jammed and hot. Someday he hopes to add 50,000 seats to the existing 43,000 in the ancient plant.
Alley Fighter is a tough little colt, a son of Rough'n Tumble, who died last month at age 20. Getting him to the Derby (one of 191 originally nominated) will be a milestone for all three of his principals. Owner Charles Engelhard (far left) has never had a Derby starter or seen a Derby run; Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. has never ridden in one; MacKenzie Miller (below), who acquired much of his early savvy at Derby-wise Calumet Farm, has not had a starter in 18 years as a trainer. Engelhard is chief stockholder in Engelhard Industries, with major holdings in platinum, palladium, gold and silver (those are coils of silver wire around him). Living abroad much of the time, he has raced horses successfully in France and England—winners like Indiana, Romulus and Ribocco—and invested $6 million in the sport in six years. "Needless to say," Mack Miller understates it, "we're all pretty excited."
Trying to pick Derby winners is a universal pastime, but few have been more successful than Isi Newborn, the cigar-smoking handicapper for the Cleveland Press. In 27 years of covering the Derby, Isi has been right 12 times, having made such satisfying choices as Pensive ($16.20) in 1944, Dark Star ($51.80) in 1953 and Proud Clarion ($62.20) last May.
May 5, 1968
At Tijuana's Caliente, Tony Alessio (far left) is busy accepting "future" bets on the Derby, which may not be sent through the U.S. mail. Alessio is hurt most when a favorite like Kauai King wins, and is luckiest when he receives a large bet (like the $25,000 on Graustark the same year) on a horse who fails to start. This year's closing favorite: Forward Pass at 2 to 1.
On the Louisville police force 27 years, Colonel James Hyde has won more than 14,000 trophies for pistol shooting. This year will be his 21st on Derby Day duty, his first as chief. Nearly half of his 573 men will be engaged in handling traffic and other problems connected with the race. "It's a lot of extra work," he says, "a lot of nice extra work. I enjoy it."