LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The Kentucky Derby Museum holds more than 141 years of memories and mementos from the "Sport of Kings." Rarely seen pieces of history from spectators and from the sport itself are locked behind the doors of a very important vault.
Boots worn by Aristides, the inaugural Kentucky Derby winner in 1875, are properly cared for and in pristine condition, neatly tucked away in a room filled with hundreds of artifacts. That first Derby was raced at a mile and a half in 1875 and it remained that distance until 1896. It was then changed in 1896 to the present mile-and-a-quarter distance. Museum officials do not know if the boots guarded so carefully behind the iron door in the basement were the very boots Aristides used to gallop to victory in 1875, but they do know they were worn by the great American thoroughbred.
What race could be more important at Churchill Downs than the Derby? A yellowed program found amongst the items in the vault tells a story.
It was a race on July 4, 1878, that matched California mare Molly McCarty and a top stallion from Kentucky named Ten Broek. The historic race drew a record crowd of 30,000 people to the Louisville Jockey Club, what is now Churchill Downs. Both horses were champions of the period, and the win by Ten Broek marked the first loss of McCarty's career. The excitement of that day was immortalized in the folk song "Molly and Ten Broek" by proud Kentuckians Tom T. Hall and the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe. It is also known as "The Racehorse song."
In 1889, controversy found its way on to the track as well. It was the 15th running of the Kentucky Derby, but horse enthusiasts still talk about the race
to this day. Eight horses were carded to go to the post. The finish was what we would call today a photo finish, but it came 50 years too soon. There were no photos as a record of a close battle between racing rivals. At the finish line, there were three men armed only with field glasses, a focused attention and their integrity. In those days, the Churchill judges' stand was on a platform, in the infield adjacent to the finish line. Spokane swept under the wire in close proximity to the stand and the judges. Proctor Knott completed the race on the far side of the track. On May 9, 1889, a number of factors complicated what ended up as a very difficult race. Proctor Knott, the favorite, was at 1-to-2 odds and Spokane's were 10 to 1. The horses had crossed the finish line and the only thing left to finalize was the payoff. But to which horse?
Matt Winn, who would later be the president of Churchill Downs, and his wife watched with ticket in hand along with the thousands in attendance. Also in attendance with tickets in hand were two well-known outlaws reputed to wear as many as three revolvers apiece at one time. Frank and Jesse James made frequent stops in Kentucky and to Churchill Downs. Their uncle, George Hite, was a well-to-do farmer in Logan County. Their mother was from Midway, and their father also was from Logan, and a graduate of Georgetown College. There are stories in local papers of the James Brothers that date back to 1874. There were many in the Churchill crowd that day that questioned the accuracy of the results of the race. There were reports of as many as 25,000-30,000 people in the crowd, but Frank James wasn't among those displeased. He cashed in a ticket for $45,000 with Spokane's victory. The most important discussion that influenced the outcome of the race that day was prolonged and pretty important. It took the judges some time to determine the winner, according to Matt Winn in his book "Down the Stretch."
In 1947, Churchill Downs found its way onto the big screen in a movie called "Black Gold," starring Anthony Quinn. The race depicted in the movie was filled with controversy, wrongdoing and fast thoroughbreds. The books, movies and newspaper articles described the events of that Derby day as hard to
believe. The movie was based on the 1942 Kentucky Derby. Big oil tycoon Harry Sinclair and his high-priced colt Bracadale were ready to take on independent racehorse woman named Rosa Hoots and her homebred dream horse Black Gold. Oil had been found on the Hoots family land, but it was nothing compared to the riches of the Sinclairs. It was described as a Derby day filled with black clouds hanging over the track, as well as threatening rain. As the horses left the gate, the trouble began. Bracadale led after a quarter mile. Black Gold was said to have broken well but was taken back. That is where the disagreements and the rumors also take off. Some of the sportswriters of the time reported that Black Gold was hit so hard and "almost knocked over the rail."
It is believed by some historians that Earl Sande and some of the other riders were purposely trying to prevent Black Gold from winning the race at all cost. Whatever troubles occurred, it was not enough to stop a courageous stretch run by Black Gold, who won by half a length. The official result said Bracadale finished fifth, but jockey Earl Sande disputes that.
Hoots' good fortune did not last long. After being presented with $50,000 and a gold Derby trophy, her family lost nearly everything in the years that followed. Someone even broke into their home, stealing their gold Derby trophy. A fake golden trophy is kept in the vault to represent the trophy from the controversial race. Black Gold was later put down after being hurt during a race.