Texans being Texans and therefore safe from the temptations of common sense, the oilman and cattle baron W.T. Waggoner believed everything had its price, even the best racehorse alive, Man o' War. So Waggoner went to Man o' War's owner, Sam Riddle, and proferred a blank check. "Fill in the amount," the Texan said.
Truth is the first casualty of mint juleps (a cautionary note here), and Kentucky horse people have suffered from self-inflicted wounds for two centuries. Daniel Boone, on cutting through the Cumberland Gap, first raised the majestic twin spires of Churchill Downs and with the other hand invented bourbon while Phyllis George stayed in the cabin cooking grits. Or something like that.
Anyway, Riddle looked at the Texan (according to julep lore) and said, "You go to France and bring back the sepulcher of Napoleon. Then go to England and buy the jewels from the crown, then to India and buy the Taj Mahal. Then, I'll put a price on Man o' War."
Man o' War skipped the Derby in 1920 because the race was drifting into mediocrity after Churchill Downs was sold by Matt Winn, the impresario who had woven a fabric rich in legend and romance to make the Derby a national event. Unable to buy Man o' War, the Texan Waggoner later paid an extravagant $65,000 to buy a son of the great runner.
Broadway Limited, a lookalike for his daddy, ran ninth in the 1930 Derby. He never won a race. He was gelded. He dropped dead in his first race after the gelding. Not for nothing does the prominent breeder Tom Gentry say today, "Horse people, y'know, don't tell you all the truth 'cause maybe they know somethin' they don't want somebody else to know."
Serves the Texan right for thinking an oil well is as precious as a Kentucky racehorse when all the world, or at least that part which has been racing horses since 1780 (on the streets of Lexington), knows the route to heaven goes through the fourth turn at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of every May.
Irvin S. Cobb, a 1930s country philosopher from Paducah, took the purple crayon from his box to explain why he couldn't explain the magic of the Kentucky Derby.
"If I could do that, I'd have a larynx of spun silver and the tongue of an angel. But if you can imagine a track that's like a bracelet of molten gold encircling a greensward that's like a patch of emerald velvet . . ."
And so on about pretty women and brocaded terraces and jockeys' courage and speeding kings of the turf, until, breathless, Cobb wrote, "But what's the use? Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the Derby, you ain't never been nowheres and you ain't never seen nothin'!"
Col. M. Lewis Clark was a steady patron of the Oakland Race Track in Louisville when he sailed for Europe in 1872 to see England's Epsom Derby, a 1 1/2-mile event for 3-year-olds. Back home in 1874, Clark hit 320 investors for $100 each for the $32,000 necessary to lease farmland from John and Henry Churchill.
Clark built the Louisville Jockey Club, later known as Churchill Downs, and in 1875 he ran his version of the classic he'd seen in England. A little red colt, Aristides, won the first Kentucky Derby, and before long the Derby's clientele included gentlemen who had made their fortune through hard work and were looking now for easier ways to get rich.
One such gentlemen, Frank James, who had been in business with his brother Jesse, came to the 1889 Derby wearing a white planter's suit and a soft white hat (as described by historian Jim Bolus in his "Run for the Roses: 100 Years at the Kentucky Derby"). With $2,400 he'd won in earlier races, Frank James asked a track bookmaker the odds on Spokane.
"Ten to one, and the sky's the limit," the bookie said.
James bet $5,000, causing the bookie to gulp. "As far as I'm concerned, that's the sky," he said. Spokane won.
In 1903, with the Derby losing prestige and Churchill Downs in financial difficulty, a longtime race fan named Matt Winn bought the track. By his death in 1941, he had become Col. Winn, impresario extraordinaire. He made the Kentucky Derby an event of such romance and drama that now it is the rarest of sports events: it transcends its sport and reaches millions who don't know a fetlock from a furlong.
Q: What is the common denominator to these elements: Pancho Villa, the sinking of the Lusitania, Billy the Kid, Indians who strike oil, nightmares that come true and a horse with one eye?
A: The Kentucky Derby.
To buy safety from Villa's early-1900s plunderings in Mexico, Col. Winn, also operating the Juarez track, put Pancho on his payroll.
Winn's Derby moved up in class in 1915 with victory by the filly Regret, running for one of the prestigious Eastern stables that had been reluctant to follow Daniel Boone's trek to the dark and bloody ground.
But even Regret's entry was questionable on Derby Eve when a German U-boat torpedoed the passenger ship Lusitania, sinking it with 1,198 passengers, including Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. He was a brother-in-law of Harry Payne Whitney, Regret's owner. Whitney decided to go ahead with Regret, and Winn always considered the filly's victory a turning point for the Derby.
Famous Derby names: Calumet Farm, Ben Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Eddie Arcaro, Dancer's Image, Bill Shoemaker, Bull Hancock, Secretariat, Silky Sullivan, Olin Gentry, Col. E.R. Bradley (who started Idle Hour Farm with mining money earned in the West, where he claimed he often lent money to Billy the Kid because, "He'd shoot you if you didn't.")
Romance: Al and Rosa Hoots, full-blooded Osage Indians, loved their mare Useeit so much that when she was claimed in a Juarez race in 1916, Al refused to hand her over. He raised a shotgun at the man who claimed her. Knowing she'd never be allowed to run again, Hoots took Useeit to his farm in Oklahoma.
There the Hoots struck oil. Hoots then bred Useeit to Black Toney, Kentucky's top stallion. Legend insists that as Hoots lie dying, he told Rosa he had dreamed about the coming foal. He asked her to name it Black Gold and run it in the Derby. "If you will promise to do this for me, I will die satisfied," Hoots said.
Black Gold won the 1924 Derby.
Sometimes dreams are nightmares, as in 1957 when Texas oilman Ralph Lowe woke up thinking his horse, Gallant Man, lost the Derby because its rider misjudged the finish line. That night Lowe had dinner with Bill Shoemaker, his real-life rider, and the trainer, John Nerud.
"Ralph, you'll sleep better tonight," Nerud said. "You've got your own jock here. He won't pull him up." Everyone laughed.
But in the Derby, with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Bill Shoemaker stood up in the saddle, momentarily slowing the front-running Gallant Man, and the colt lost by a nose.
In 1972, before qualifying rules were drawn up, any horse could run in the Derby. So Mike Hines, a lawyer in Nevada, brought a gelding who had momentarily lost the sight of one eye when it ran into a tree branch. One Eyed Tom had never raced. On a test out of the Churchill Downs starting gate, he made a U-turn and wound up behind the gate. "If he can't get out of the gate," Hines said, disgusted, "he isn't going anywhere--he'll punch cows on the ranch for the rest of his life."