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The Kentucky Derby

On this first weekend in May, celebrities, spectators, racing fans, politicians, jockeys, and journalists will gather at Churchill Downs to celebrate the tradition of the Kentucky Derby—often described as the “two most exciting minutes in sports.” If one of the lucky participants watching the action live, you might not notice that some trainers are absent from the track.

In a May 4, 1957 Post article, “I Like the Derby, But—,” James Fitzsimmons, a highly successful trainer, whose horses won 2,275 races over his 70-year career, offered his reasons for missing the action.

“By the time your horse walks onto the track, the Derby is an anticlimax to a trainer. You’re tired, and your big worry is that the horse comes out of the race all right. The Derby is a mile and a quarter of the hardest going for a three-year-old colt. It comes on the first Saturday in May, and at this stage of his career, a three-year-old is like a growing teenager who is taking final examinations in school. … A three-year-old in the early spring is a fragile animal. At night he may be snoozing in the barn, just as valuable a horse as can be found. The next morning, his value may be gone. A cough, a leg banging against the stall wall—any of a hundred things that can happen to a young horse… A trainer doesn’t really know his own horse by Derby time, much less the rest of the field. A horse doesn’t mature until he is four or even five. A young horse can fool you badly. … At the same time, I can’t pass up the race. Each year, there are around 9,000 thoroughbreds foaled. Some 2,000 go on to win at least one race as two-year-olds, but only about 130 are considered good enough by their owners to be nominated for the Derby. Those 130 are narrowed down to a starting field of around 14 to 16. So you can see that you’re lucky just to have a horse good enough to be entered in the race.”

Among his many champions, Fitzsimmons trained two Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935). (See full article below.)

If you know less about horses than Mr. Fitzsimmons, you might want to predict the winner based on its name alone.

The names of thoroughbreds sound peculiar to people unfamiliar with racing conventions. It helps to know that the owners can’t choose any name they want. All thoroughbreds’ names are recorded and regulated by the Jockey Club (its modern title is the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Inc.).

A July, 31, 1948 article, “Did You Ever Name a Horse,” informed Post readers about Jockey Club rules “that no name used during the previous fifteen years can be duplicated, even if the first thoroughbred to own the name failed to race. Other rules limit names to fourteen letters—spaces and punctuation marks count as letters—and no more than three words. Names of famous or notorious persons are prohibited, as are names used for advertising purposes and names that are vulgar or sacrilegious.” (See full article below.)

Since that time, the Jockey Club has changed some of its rules. For example, the shortage of eligible names was expanded when the Club allowed owners to use up to 18 letters. (A more complete list of regulations can be found here.)

Yet there is usually some reason behind the horse breeders’ choices. In the early 1900s, Edward Riley Bradley bought a horse named “Bad News.” When he asked about the name for a May 5, 1937 Post article, the breeder replied, “I’ve always heard it said that ‘bad news travels fast.’ ” Bad News traveled so well for Bradley, he gave all his horses names that began with the letter “B.” These included four horses that won the Kentucky Derby four times: 1921 (Behave Yourself); 1926 (Bubbling Over); 1932 (Burgoo King); and 1933 (Brokers Tip).

The world of thoroughbred racing abounds with traditions. One of them is the appearance of articles that record astonishment at the vast amounts of money involved. A February 13 Post article of 1932—over two years into the Depression—detailed the vast amounts of money still being made in thoroughbred racing. “The total of [winners'] prizes increased steadily from about $1,500,000 in 1912 to an average of $10,000,000 since 1925. In 1930, regarded by most businessmen as a mighty poor year, the owners of race tracks managed to provide a total of $10,461,575 in stakes and purses.” Seventy-five years later, that amount has risen from $10 million to over $1 billion.

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