Derby Day in Kentucky is an exciting time of the year, hailed as “The greatest two minutes in sports.” Started in 1875, the Kentucky Derby is normally on the first Saturday in May, with the Kentucky Oaks (running of the fillies) the Friday before. This year, the Derby will be held on May 1, 2021.
Harrodsburg is already renown as “The oldest English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains”, but did you know it holds two places in the history of the Kentucky Derby?
Leonatus, winner of the ninth Kentucky Derby (1883) was noted for his stamina and durability. He was owned by George Morgan and Colonel Jack P. Chinn, both of Mercer County. Leonatus was foaled in 1880 on Fountain Bleu Springs in Harrodsburg; he died 1898 in Bourbon County. As a two-year-old, Leonatus only ran one race, in which he came in second, but as a three-year-old, he put together an amazing string of victories. Leonatus was trained by African American horseman Raleigh Colston Sr. as well as by John McGinty.
Photo by Keith Rightmyer
A week before the 1883 Kentucky Derby, Leonatus won the Blue-Ribbon Stakes in Lexington. At the Derby he won by three lengths. Less than a week after the Kentucky Derby, Leonatus won the Tobacco Stakes. Then, three days later, he won the Woodburn Stakes. Another win came at the Hindoo Stakes—later known as the Latonia Derby—and where he was ridden by legendary African American jockey Isaac Murphy. These wins were followed in close succession by victories at the Ripple Stakes, Himyar Stakes, Dearborn Stakes, Green Stakes, and Illinois Derby.
In finishing up my research on Fountain Blue Springs of Harrodsburg, I came upon this interesting tidbit about the Kentucky Derby. According to legend in 1883, Harrodsburg native Jack Chinn and another horse owner placed a bet of roses on the winning horse. Leonatus distinguished himself by eating the presentation roses. (Blankets of roses were not recorded being draped over the winning horse until 1896, when Ben Brush wore them.) After this year, the Derby became well-known as the Run For The Roses. It was already a tradition for New York socialite E. Berry Hall to hand out roses to ladies visiting the Derby. Many people believe founder and president of Churchill Downs, Colonel M. Lewis Clark, witnessed Hall's gifts of roses.
Painting by Henry H. Cross, 1886
Leonatus was the son of Uncle John Harper's great racer and sire Longfellow, himself a son of the imported English stud Leamington. Leonatus' dam was the Daniel Swigert-bred Semper Felix, whose dam was by the great nineteenth-century American foundation stallion, Lexington, himself by Boston.
Leonatus' Kentucky Derby jockey, Billy Donohue, was reported to have bet his entire life savings on his mount. Leonatus went off at 2-1, ($14.80 to win) so Donohue at least doubled his nest egg. The winning time was 2:43.00.
In 1916, Harrodsburg had another Kentucky Derby winner. George Smith was a black colt named after noted turfman George E. Smith, also known as "Pittsburg Phill", who was once an owner of the colt's dam. The horse was bred by Fred Forsythe and Jack Chinn and was foaled at their Fountain Bleu Farm in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. George Smith was purchased as a yearling for $1,600 by Ed McBride, who trained him as a yearling and raced him as a two-year-old.
Photo from the Kentucky Derby Museum
The 1916 Kentucky Derby was run on a clear day with a field of 9 horses. George Smith was ridden by American Racing Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Loftus and was the clear contender of the race from the start. The only competition for the win came from Star Hawk, who lost the race by a neck after a rally in the home stretch. Winning time of the race was 2:04.00 and the payout for race was $ 10.30 to win, $4.80 to place, and $2.90 to show
In 1918, George Smith won the Bowie Handicap at Pimlico Racecourse by defeating two other Kentucky Derby winners. The 1917 winner, Omar Khayyam, finished second, and the 1918 winner, Exterminator, ran third.
Photo by Keith Rightmyer
In 1980, Genuine Risk became only the second filly to ever win the Kentucky Derby. Born on Harrodsburg's Shawnee Farm, and bred by Sally Humphrey, Genuine Risk was the first filly to complete in all three of the American Triple Crown races, placing second in both the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Her odds were 12:1 and her winning time in the Kentucky Derby was 2:02.