Billy Reed: A brief history on the marriage of horse racing and bourbon in Kentucky

Billy Reed: A brief history on the marriage of horse racing and bourbon in Kentucky
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - As you may have noticed, Woodford Reserve bourbon, owned by the Louisville-based Brown-Forman Co., has replaced Yum! Brands as the title sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. In effect, Colonel Sanders is out, and John Barleycorn is in.

It's a marriage that was inevitable, when you stop and think about it. As legend has it, thoroughbred racing and bourbon whiskey both came to prosper in the central part of the Commonwealth because the limestone in the soil and water were perfect for both raising horses and making bourbon.

Over the decades, Brown-Forman and the Derby became inextricably entwined. Did you know, for example, that retired Brown-Forman executive W.L. Lyons Brown was the first owner to use a female jockey in the Derby?

It happened like this:

In 1968, Brown went to his longtime friend Warner L. Jones, master of the Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky., and told him that he wanted to buy some well-bred yearlings at Keeneland in the hope of getting one good enough to make the 1970 Derby.

Jones introduced him to Dan Devine, a young trainer who had a reputation for developing young horses. Devine's girlfriend, Diane Crump, also was one of his exercise riders. She accompanied Brown and Devine to the Keeneland sales, helping them pick out Brown's new stable.

Happily for Diane, Brown's decision to get serious about the Derby coincided with a national movement to allow females to become licensed jockeys. The female pioneers had to endure a lot of male resistance, which included lawsuits, boycotts, and threats.

On Feb. 7, 1969, Crump broke the glass ceiling at Hialeah Park in Miami. Although police had to escort her through an angry crowd, she rode a horse named Bridle n' Bill to a ninth-place finish in a 12-horse field. A couple of weeks later, she became the first female rider to win a pari-mutuel race at a track in North America.

With the permission of Lyons Brown, Devine began riding Crump on his horses, who were now 2-year-olds. She won eight races for him at Gulfstream Park in 1969, including her first ride on Fathom, a bad-natured colt who had been difficult for Devine and Crump to handle.

But one morning in 1970, a few weeks before the Derby, Lyons Brown came to Barn 39 at Churchill Downs and asked Devine for a word in private. He asked if Devine would saddle Fathom in the Derby for him. When Devine said yes, Brown then got back in his car and asked Diane to join him.

"Diane," he said, "I'd be very honored if you would ride Fathom for me in the Derby."

"Mr. Brown," she said, "I'll be happy to ride him down Longfield Avenue if you ask me to."

On May 2, 1970, Fathom broke from the 10th post position in the 17-horse Derby field. He was within six lengths of the lead in the upper stretch, but faded to finish 15th in the race won by Dust Commander.

"If you watch the rerun," Diane said in 2006, "I'm right in the thick of it for awhile. I actually made a legitimate move in the stretch. So it wasn't a total disgrace. He wasn't bred to go a mile and a quarter (the Derby distance), so he ran the race he was bred to run."

Her trophy was the smile on Lyons Brown's face.

"It was a great day for me and a great day for him," Diane said. "He was the nicest, most gentlemanly millionaire I've ever met in my life. He told me, 'I know the horse probably didn't belong in there, but I'm old and I wanted to run a horse in the Derby.' I loved Mr. Brown."

History doesn't tell us exactly when the relationship between Brown-Forman and thoroughbred racing officially began. However, it's a matter of record that Edward Beam, son of the founder of Early Times distillery, purchased 60 thoroughbreds in 1891.

As Brown-Forman grew, it acquired the Early Times distillery and Old Kentucky distillery. Then, in 1940, in order to build up its whiskey inventory in anticipation of America's entry into World War II, Brown-Forman bought the Labrot & Graham distillery outside Versailles in Woodford County. However, the company sold the Labrot-Graham site in the 1960s and it quickly gave way to neglect and disrepair.

It was still in shambles in 1986, when the company promoted its Early Times brand to the thoroughbred world by signing an agreement with Churchill to make the Early Times Mint Julep the official drink of the Derby, and sponsoring a new stakes race, the Early Times Turf Classic, that would be run on the Oaks Day card.

The first Early Times Turf Classic was run in 1987 and won by Manila, one of the finest grass horses ever. But changes already were being discussed and considered at Brown-Forman.

In 1992, Brown-Forman repurchased the Labrot & Graham site with the intention of making it home to its new premium bourbon, Woodford Reserve. It spent $7.5 million to renovate the property and build a visitor center much like the one at the company's Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. The grand opening was held on Oct. 17, 1997.

It also changed the name of the Early Times Turf Classic to the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. Last year, Divisidero became the third horse, following Einstein and Wise Dan, to win the race back-to-back.

Other than Lyons Brown, the most prominent Brown-Forman executive in the Derby history book is the late William F. Lucas, the company's president from 1965-69. He bought his first thoroughbred in 1949, and had indifferent success, mostly on the Kentucky circuit, until 1984.

That year his Taylor's Special was one of the Derby favorites. Going into the race, he had nine wins in 13 career starts, including an impressive win for jockey Pat Day and trainer Bill Mott in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

On Derby Day, however, the colt was hardly special. He was within striking distance of the leaders heading into the turn for home, but leveled out and finished 13th to Claiborne Farm's victorious Swale.

At the 2006 Derby, Churchill estimated that it sold more than 140,000 Early Times mint juleps. But that didn't draw as much interest as the 50 Woodford Reserve juleps that came in 24-karat gold-plated cups with silver straws and sold for $1,000 each, all proceeds going to Green Pastures, a non-profit organization for retired thoroughbreds.

During NBC's Derby telecast, Brown-Forman's Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve and other products, did an interview about the juleps with Bob Costas. The julep used in the interview had been purchased by Tom Hammond, the Lexington native who then was the show's host.

So now, after all these years, we can look forward to toasting the winner of the Kentucky Derby, presented by Woodford Reserve, with an Early Times mint julep. It brings to mind the words of the great turf writer Joe Palmer:

"Four springs ago, two men, not now identified, laid plans which are about to come to fruition. One was planning the mating which led to the winner of the Kentucky Derby. The other was lighting a fire under the mash at Brown-Forman distillery. Strength to them both."