The 100th running of the Kentucky Derby is history now, but the centennial will not fade into thin air with the last strains of My Old Kentucky Home. Two handsome new books, gift-sized and gift-priced, keep alive the high and low moments of the Derby's first century, and if neither has the flavor of a tall, solid mint julep, each has plenty to recommend it.
The more impressive and authoritative is The Kentucky Derby: The First 100 Years, by Peter Chew (Houghton Mifflin, $15). The other, somewhat skimpier but attractive all the same, is Run for the Roses: 100 Years at the Kentucky Derby, by Jim Bolus (Hawthorn, $14.95). Both are loaded with pictures, commentary and statistics.
Inescapably, they cover the same ground, chronicling the Derby year by year from the victory in 1875 of a "compact little golden-red chestnut" named Aristides to the thundering triumph in 1973 of Secretariat, the horse that became a TV star. Told by either writer, it is a fascinating tale, with a number of luminous moments that survive in American legend.
If anything, the chronicle may be of more interest to those of us with only a casual interest in racing than to true aficionados, who presumably know it all by heart. How many of the former are aware, for example, that Man o'War was held out of the 1920 Derby because, as Bolus puts it, "his owner, Sam Riddle, thought the race was held too early in the year to ask a 3-year-old to haul 126 pounds over a mile and a quarter"? Or that, as Chew claims, "Horsemen agree there is no more difficult race to get ready for than the Kentucky Derby"? (Same reason: they think May is too early.)
June 9, 1974
Such provocative tidbits aside, both books trace the Derby from the founding of the Louisville Jockey Club in 1874 through the lean early times to the great triumphs and surprises of recent years. And the disappointments, too, of which the most poignant was the performance of Silky Sullivan in 1958. The gritty little horse had won millions of admirers with his exhilarating come-from-behind stretch runs, but he turned into the stretch at Churchill Downs—and finished 12th in a field of 14.
So pick your book. Either will give you a happy dose of Derby nostalgia, though the edge must go to Chew. His text is considerably more thorough, especially on the early history, and his statistical appendix is far more comprehensive. On the other hand, Bolus writes in a pleasantly breezy way and captures the devil-may-care atmosphere of Derby Week with some nice vignettes. It is fair to say that you will not go far wrong with either book.