04/22/2010 11:00PM

Making a fast Derby track the hard way

Email

From the time Louisville tailor Matt Winn first took the helm of Churchill Downs in 1902, the Kentucky Derby has grown to be one of the most legendary sporting events in the country.

Using skills reminiscent of P.T. Barnum, Winn in little more than a decade transformed the Derby from a local event to a national one.

By 1915, nearly every major newspaper from coast to coast sent at least one reporter to cover what had become "the most famous two minutes in sport." All were men, of course. Female journalists were not allowed in the Churchill press box until the 1950s.

Even after Winn's death in 1949, the Derby continued to add to its own lore. Millions to this day remember seeing RKO newsreels in movie houses in 1957 showing jockey Bill Shoemaker momentarily standing up in the saddle aboard Gallant Man. Did it cost the colt the race?

And who will forget the five-year legal battle where the winner of the 1968 Derby changed so many times that Churchill Downs stopped listing the winners of all Derbies on its famous mint julep glass one year?

See how much you remember about these other memorable Derby stories.

1. Old Rosebud set a track record (2:03.20) in winning the 1914 Kentucky Derby. This was all the more amazing because it had rained hard and steadily for two days prior to the Derby. What extraordinary method did Churchill Downs use to get the track fast by post time for the Derby?

2. Charles Kurtsinger, known as the "Flying Dutchman," rode in only four runnings of the Kentucky Derby - winning with Twenty Grand in 1931 and War Admiral in 1937. Kurtsinger also was aboard Triple Crown winner War Admiral in his famous 1938 match race at Pimlico with Seabiscuit.

In his other two Derby starts, Kurtsinger finished third in 1934 aboard Agrarian and seventh aboard He Did in 1936.

He Did might have finished closer had it not been for a bizarre incident that occurred on the far turn. What happened?

3. While Josephine Clay was the first woman to breed a Kentucky Derby winner (Riley in 1890), no woman was even listed as an owner of a Derby starter until 1904.

In that year, Laska Durnell became not only the first female owner of a Derby starter but the first woman to own a Derby winner, as well, when her Elwood captured the 30th running of the Louisville classic.

As years went on, women became commonplace as owners of racehorses. In one Kentucky Derby, seven of the first eight horses across the finish line were owned by women. Name the year.

4. After years of walk-up starts, Churchill Downs began experimenting with various ropes and webbings in the early 20th century in order to ensure fairer starts.

In 1930, the then state-of-the-art Bahr gate was used for the first time in the Kentucky Derby. It was simply 14 connected stalls with wheels allowing a single mule or horse to move it. There were no doors in front or back of each stall and the start was initiated simply by a loud bell.

The first starting gate to be used in the Derby with magnetically released V-shaped doors in front was in 1940, but the doors were never closed for the Derby. Why?

5. Graded earnings have become a major factor in recent years for horses hoping to make the cut for the Derby field.

The Derby was 110 years old before a horse entered the starting gate with earnings of $1 million or more. Since that time, a total of 30 horses have been millionaires when they started in the Derby. But only one has ever worn the roses when the race was over.

Name the first Derby starter with $1 million in earnings and the first and only millionaire to win the Derby.

1. The front page headline on the Derby Day, May 9, 1914, edition of Daily Racing Form was "Slow Track for Derby." The story in the following day's edition noted that Old Rosebud's victory in the 40th Derby was over a track that was "in much better condition than seemed likely before today's racing began."

The track condition was helped by a clear, sunny afternoon. But much of the water was soaked up by hand.

Throughout the day of the Derby (the fourth race on a six-race card), track superintendent Tom Young got his 25-man crew, armed with buckets, to walk the track and sponge water out of every hoofprint and puddle. The track condition went from slow to fast by the start of the Derby.

2. The Kentucky Derby Museum has the "Warner L. Jones Time Machine" where visitors can watch prior runnings of the Derby back nearly 100 years - although some early races are only available in those brief portions that appeared on movie house newsreels.

One of the more interesting aspects of watching the older races is seeing the infield crowds pile along and under the rail - just inches from the horses as they speed by.

In the 1936 Derby, jockey Charles Kurtsinger broke He Did on top and set the pace for the first half-mile.

As the horses rounded the turn, He Did was hugging the rail. As Kurtsinger raised his left hand to begin whipping, a spectator reached out and plucked the whip from the rider's hand.

In later years, Churchill added a chain-link fence to separate spectators and horses, but a record crowd attending the 100th Derby in 1974 knocked the fence over and fans flocked to the rail. The fence was double reinforced the following year.

Since construction of the turf course began in 1984, infield fans have been kept far away from Derby runners.

3. In 1942, the Greentree Stable, owned by Helen Hay Whitney, captured the Kentucky Derby with favored Shut Out.

It was Greentree's second winner in the Derby, after Twenty Grand in 1931, making Whitney the first woman to own two Derby winners.

Of the next seven horses across the Derby finish line in 1942, only the third-place finisher, Valdina's Orphan, did not carry the name of a female owner or stable owned by a woman.

Between 1904 and 1942, six Derby winners were owned by women. The others were Black Gold in 1924, owned by Rosa Hoots; Reigh Count in 1928, owned by Fannie Hertz; Cavalcade in 1934, owned by Isabel Dodge Sloan; and Gallahadion in 1940, owned by Ethel V. Mars.

4. Starting races was for centuries one of racing's great challenges. Lining up horses to get an even break often resulted in multiple restarts and occasional delays of an hour or more.

As early as the 1880s, tracks in New York were experimenting with various types of wooden and rope barriers.

By the 1920s, wooden stalls were introduced, but they had to remain in place. They were replaced by movable metal gates, still with no doors.

Gates with V-shaped stall doors released simultaneously by electromagnetic current were first used in Canada and America in 1939.

When Matt Winn brought the new gate to Churchill Downs in 1940, the decision was made to leave the doors open since many of the Derby starters were not yet used to the noise and action of metal doors springing open.

The following year, when Whirlaway won the Triple Crown, the magnetic doors on the starting gate were used for the first time in the Kentucky Derby.

5. The filly Althea in 1984 was the first Thoroughbred to enter the Derby starting gate with $1 million or more in earnings. She and her entrymate, Life's Magic, were the post-time favorites. Althea set the pace before fading to finish 19th.

In 2007, Street Sense became the first and only millionaire to capture the Kentucky Derby. He is also the first and only winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to come back the following year to wear the roses.