Hard Times

by Ed Meyer

posted on May 1, 2009 in General Discussion, Kentucky Derby | 1 Comment >>

The Kentucky Derby has long been considered recession proof.

It was not, however, Depression proof.

But the Depression era saw great popularity for the Derby, three Triple Crown winners and an expansion of horse racing in general.

“The quality of the race didn’t suffer. The recognition of it as a national sporting event didn’t diminish,” said Ed Bowen, a journalist and author of 19 books about Thoroughbred racing. But there were signs of economic struggles. There were fewer nominations of horses to the race — indicating that owners felt pinched and might not have been willing to pay entry fees to enter. The Derby’s purse fell from $50,000 to $37,000 during the Depression years.

Times were hard for most everyone, but as in today’s tough economy, Kentuckians seemed especially hard hit. Before the 1929 stock market crash, Kentucky’s annual per capita income of $371 was only slightly more than half the national average. By the start of 1933, it had fallen to $198, still about half the national average. To put that figure in context, a used late-model Chevrolet might cost $495 in Fayette County in 1933, wrote George T. Blakey in his book, “Hard Times and New Deal in Kentucky.”

With fewer discretionary dollars, the amount wagered on the Derby and for all Derby Day races fell in 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1933.

Wagering was not a casual decision. There was a scarce number of bettors in line in 1932.

“Only a few, if any bets were placed without earnest deliberation, forethought and study,” reporter Allan M. Trout wrote. “Every so often, one from the line would step quietly to the window, purchase a ticket, and walk away with determined strides. As if to say, ‘Well, I’ve done it. If I lose I’m sunk.’”

Against this somber background, horse racing in America — and the Kentucky Derby in particular — still saw great change.

In 1931, the first international radio broadcast of “The Run for the Roses” was transmitted to England. And radio brought the race home to more people in the states, too, who had previously been without electricity.

As Laura Hillenbrand noted in her Depression-era tale Seabiscuit, horse racing’s dramatic action was suited to narration, and it found a perfect conduit through the radio.

There were physical changes to Churchill Downs as well. A stall machine, a kind of precursor to today’s starting gate, was used to start the Derby in 1930.

The presentation area where Derby winners are led immediately after the race was first used in 1938, which also marked the debut of a tunnel under the track that extended from the grandstand to the infield.

The first Derby glass specifically produced as a souvenir debuted in 1939, a year after mint juleps were served in tall water glasses rather than paper cups.

Alice Headley Chandler, 83, owner of Mill Ridge Farm near Lexington, remembers going to the 1938 Derby. That year her father, Hal Price Headley, a horse breeder and the first president of Keene­land Race Course, hoped to win with Menow.

On the drive to Louisville, Chandler recalls, “my sister (Patricia) and I sat in the back seat, and we were not allowed to speak” until after the race was over because their father wanted quiet. “That’s the kind of pressure everybody was under. It didn’t show, but he was a nervous wreck.” (Menow came in fourth to the winner, Lawrin.)

The party, however, continued no matter the pressure. After 15 long years of Prohibition, beer returned to the Derby in 1933. Whiskey came back the following year, selling for 10 to 25 cents a glass. As described by newspapers at the time, the Derby scene was not much different than what one would see today.  “Men lay about dozing; some drunk, some just tired. Many failed to see any race. Dice games and cards flourished in the oval during the interludes between races. Remnants of picnic lunches lay scattered about.”

And, then as now, celebrities were on hand. English nobility arrived in 1930, when Edward George Villiers Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby, came to Churchill Downs. Baseball great Babe Ruth and boxer Jack Dempsey, boxer Gene Tunney (who defeated Dempsey in 1926 and 1927) and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover all showed up in 1937. James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, attended in 1933. Another son, Elliott Roosevelt, attended in 1938, with Time magazine reporting that, at a Derby party, the younger Roosevelt challenged a stranger to a fist fight for remarks that “besmirched the president’s name.”

The Depression era had some notable on-track moments, too. The 1930s saw three Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox in 1930, his son Omaha in 1935, and War Admiral, son of Man o’ War, in 1937. Perhaps the most indelible Derby moment of the Depression years was 1933’s “fighting finish,” in which photographer Wallace Lowry caught jockeys Don Meade and Herb Fisher clawing at each other in their attempts to impede each other’s horse, Brokers Tip and Head Play, to win the race. Brokers Tip won by a nose.

As the 1930s progressed, there were signs of recovery in people’s bank accounts and in wagering at Churchill Downs. At the 1934 Derby,  “Everybody seemed to have a roll of money and a desire to bet it.”

By 1936, change was on the horizon: “And to eyes which have been trained on many Derby crowds, this whole ensemble, notables and nobodies together, had the air of prosperity. This was no place to talk about the depression.”

At the 1938 Derby, writer Neville Dunn wrote, “Inasmuch as the country is of the opinion that we are in the grip of a financial recession, the heaviest business done at Churchill Downs today was at the window where they sell only $50 tickets on the nose.”