Louisville Magazine

APR 2012

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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138 REASONS WE LOVE DERBY Nos. 94-102: Mysteries& Matters of Fact So, you were wondering a few things about the Derby. Writer Bill Doolittle has the answers. When was the Churchill Downs Infield first opened to Derby Day fans? Many guess it first opened for the 100th Derby in 1974, for certainly no other day saw so many Derby-goers cram into Churchill Downs. Others guess it was to celebrate the end of World War II. Or during the war, for soldiers on a pass from Fort Knox. Or in the 1930s. Or the Roaring '20s. But in fact, the first Derby Day the Infield was opened to racing fans was the very first Derby, in 1875. And it's been open for every Derby since — without exception. And for testimony on that, we have the first-person account of Col. Matt J. Winn, who attended the first Derby and never missed another for 75 years, along the way assuming part ownership and general manager's duties — courting the New York press and spinning the words "Kentucky Derby" into the vocabularies of people all over the globe. "I was 13 — nearing 14 — when Col. M. Lewis Clark, the Louisville sportsman, and his associates of the racetrack which is now Churchill Downs, were making ready for the opening," Winn wrote in his autobiography, Down the Stretch. "But this was more than a race day. It was a festival, and my father felt he ought to be at the track to see if the 'goings on' would be worth all the fuss the people had been making. . . . He promised to take me along to see the opening of the new track, and the running of the Derby, provided I performed a few extra chores, which were completed in world's record time. . . . "Father hitched the horse to the wagon, which he generally used in hauling groceries from the wholesale houses, and we were off through the greatest traffic jam Louisville had known up to that time. "Many guesses have been made as to the exact spot I occupied when I saw the inaugu- [46] LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 4.12 ral running in 1875. I saw it from a standing- up position on the seat of my father's wagon, anchored in the infield, which was known as the 'free gate area,' meaning that if you didn't wish to pay a fee to get into the grandstand section, you could walk, or drive, through a special gate to the infield — without charge." hopping back off. Of course, stepladders and stilts — and A young Doolittle (center, with mustache) on his magic carpet in 1971. grocery carts full of ice-cold beer — were long ago banned. But it wasn't that long ago that you still could bring in all sorts of benign bric-a-brac, and a gang of my friends hit upon a viewing plan that worked to perfection. It started with a huge Persian rug that graced the living-room floor of one of those old Tird Street college-slum apart- ments, where University of Louis- ville students have bedded down for decades. Tis carpet, a genuine hand-me-down from the palace of Xerxes I, was huge, spreading out maybe 12 by 16 feet. Anyhow, we rolled it up and walked it to the Derby. Took four people, one on each end and a couple in the middle — down the Fourth Street sidewalks to the track, then lifted it over the turnstile at the East tunnel into the Infield. We got there early and went straight back to the fence that separated people from horses on the backstretch rail. Te rug was unrolled and snugged up to the fence, and boundaried off with a couple of coolers, and as our If you're in the Infield, you won't see a horse all day. Tat's certainly likely, with the huge throng jammed into the space. But it is possible to see a horse. Tere was a time when fans brought peri- scopes and even stepladders through the gate to get a high vantage point in the Infield to see the race. One year a guy walked in on tall stilts that lifted him six feet above ground. His problem was that he couldn't find anything tall enough to lean against and finally lost his balance and fell down. Disgusted, he sold the stilts for 50 cents to a kid who jammed them between the wheels and body of a delivery truck, popping up on them from the truck bed just long enough to see the races, then PHOTO COURTESY OF PEG RICHARDSON PLAUT crowd arrived, we had something of a camp- site — with a picture-window view through the chain-link fence that allowed us to see almost the entire back straightaway. On a transistor radio we heard Cawood Ledford's call of the Derby on WHAS radio, then saw the field come out of the first turn into the backstretch, way off in the distance. Te field drew closer — then flew by. When you hear that top Toroughbreds run at speeds close to 40 miles an hour, you never realize how fast that is until a Derby field blurs by in a rush of brightly colored jockey silks over bay and chestnut-colored bodies. You can hear the hoofbeats, too, a low thunder, but light. Not thuds, but clipped and quick beats. With a backdrop roar from the grandstand away in the distance. Like surround sound.

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