Last May, 20 runners vied for the blanket of roses at Churchill Downs, a number that surprised no one. In modern times, Derbies have gone off with 15-20 entries, with rare dips below that. But what if you had a Derby and only three horses showed up? And what if two of them were owned by the same owner? And what if the winning jockey were only 15 . . .
Welcome to 1892, which gets my vote for the Kentucky Derby’s low point in history.
That year only three starters ran in the race, down from four starters the previous year, and six the year before that. The race is historic for another reason: the winning jockey, the great African American rider Alonzo Clayton, became the youngest Derby winning jockey, at age 15, a record that still stands.
In the 1890s, the Derby was on hard times. It’s hard to imagine a time when the Derby wasn’t Thoroughbred racing’s signature event, but as we have seen in previous columns, in the 1890s, the Derby was less than 20 years old, and had begun as little more than a publicity stunt — a race for 3-year-olds! — to draw fans to a startup track in Louisville that wasn’t yet called Churchill Downs.
Merriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of the Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and named after the Lewis, founded the Derby in 1875. Clark had a mercurial personality type and was entirely unsuited to managing a racetrack, or perhaps any other business. He sadly took his own life in 1899.
Clark had based the Derby on the English Derby, a race for 3-year-olds, in an age when the prime year of a horse’s career was his 4-year-old season. The idea of a 3-year-old race, particularly in the spring, was new, and meant to attract attention. It was, in large part, a publicity stunt.
But by 1892, the new had worn off. Other races, such as the Preakness Stakes, then often run on the same day as the Derby, and the Belmont Stakes, often run only a few days later, had the advantage of not requiring horses in training on the east coast to be shipped west to Kentucky.
It’s hard to say why 1892 became the low point. The Panic of 1893, which virtually destroyed Churchill Downs financially, was a year away, and the wave of reform that virtually killed racing in the northeast after the turn of the century was more than a decade away. Of course, this wasn’t a one-year phenomenon: with only four starters the year before, and six before that. The race hadn’t been a popular race in almost a decade; the last time the race had drawn ten starters had been in 1886, and the last time it drew 14, nearly equaling its opening day performance of 15 starters had been 1882.
The three entries in 1892 were the great runner Azra, who beat an unknown named Huron by a nose and went on to win the Travers Stakes and the Clark Handicap as a 3-year-old, and the third place horse, named Phil Dwyer, who loped in six lengths behind.
Both Huron and Phil Dwyer were owned by Ed Corrigan, about whom I don’t know much, other than that he provided two thirds of the entries for the smallest Derby field ever. Obviously Huron, who only lost by a nose, wasn’t a bad runner on that day, despite his obscurity. It’s hard to say much in favor of Phil Dwyer, though. In a three horse race, with the other two nose and nose at the wire, it’s hard to say you had a bad trip. And, at 2:41 1/2, for a mile and a half, it’s not like they were setting the earth on fire.
Azra was owned by Bashford Manor Stable, an up and coming Thoroughbred breeding operation founded by George J. Long in Louisville in 1887. Bashford Manor would breed and race Thoroughbreds well into the Twentieth Century, but Azra was its only Derby winner.
He was trained by John H. Morris, one of the top trainers of his day. His regular jockey, and his Derby rider, was the great African American jockey Alonzo Clayton, who, at age 15, made history himself.
The Derby had another decade to struggle, before salvation arrived in the form of Col. Matt Winn, the impresario who turned a publicity stunt into the modern face of Thoroughbred racing. It improved a little bit, eking along at seven and eight starters, until the late teens, when buoyed by some of Col. Winn’s own publicity stunts, the numbers began creeping up as Matt Winn’s race became America’s race. The era of three horse Derbies is long gone.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.