restricted access Chapter 4. An American Institution: 1940-1960
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4 An American Institution 1940–1960 On an unseasonably cool May 4, 1940, Gallahadion caught previously unbeaten and odds-on favorite Bimelech in the homestretch to win the Derby at odds of more than 35-1 in one of the great upsets of Derby history. Gallahadion was owned by Ethel Mars, the widow of the founder of Mars Candies who raced under the name Milky Way Stables. The bedridden Mars, who netted the winner’s share of the largest purse in Derby history, called it “the happiest day of her life.”1 The stable had entered at least one horse in every Derby since 1935 with lackluster results.2 Among Milky Way’s previous Derby finishes were a fifteenth, a thirteenth, an eleventh, and two last-place finishes. In contrast, Bimelech was owned by four-time Derby winner E. R. Bradley , and was by Black Toney (sire of 1924 Derby winner Black Gold), out of one of the most influential American broodmares of the twentieth century, La Troienne. Bimelech, arguably the best horse Bradley had ever owned, would be his final Derby starter. The 1940 Derby crowd of around ninety-five thousand is believed to have been an American record at the time. Though few actually won money on the bay colt, the spectators greeted Gallahadion with loud cheers as he entered the winner’s cir-  113 The Kentucky Derby 114 cle, a giant killer and a popular champion. The celebration of Gallahadion’s unlikely victory mirrored the popularity of other Depression-era underdog triumphs, including Seabiscuit’s over War Admiral, and boxer Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock’s over world heavyweight champion Max Baer. But the resonance of victory by “the little guy” in the Great Depression would give way to celebrations of powerful racing stables and dominant equine champions at the Derby in the two decades that followed as Americans looked for examples and demonstrations of American strength and prosperity. The cultural climate of the Derby and the nation would be permanently altered in 1941 by the American entry into World War II, marking Gallahadion’s victory as the end of an era. The Derby would survive the war, as 1940 trophy presentation. Left to right: president of Standard Oil Co. William E. Smith, Postmaster General James A. Farley, Colonel Matt Winn, trainer Roy Waldron, jockey Carroll Bierman, Kentucky governor Keen Johnson. (Morgan Collection, Keeneland Library, Lexington, Kentucky.) An American Institution 115 it had the Great Depression, becoming even further enmeshed in the American cultural fabric in the process. On the morning of the 1941 Derby, the last before the United States entered World War II, an advertisement appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal promoting the newspaper’s special Derby issue that would be on newsstands the following day. The ad included a cartoon Kentucky colonel saying, “Yes suh! It’ll be a great hoss race!”3 In the infield that year, the Indiana University marching band and drill team delighted fans as they had for years by spelling out “Dixie” while playing the tune. The Courier-Journal reported that the new entrance to the Churchill Downs clubhouse at the streetcar gate “represents a dignified beauty reminiscent of an old Southern mansion.”4 Since the end of World War I, journalists had publicized and perpetuated a perceived connection between the Kentucky Derby and the Old South. But with the onset of American involvement in World War II, references to “Dixie,” “darkies,” “colonels,” and “belles” in conjunction with the Derby would temporarily disappear. These connections would return by the 1950s, demonstrating that the Derby and its related imagery could be either “American” or “southern,” as the tastes of national culture required , in much the same way that Kentucky was simultaneously (and alternatively) “backward” and “refined.” The return of the “American” element of the Derby’s identity in the early 1940s reflected changes in the American cultural landscape that included a reduction in the divisive celebration of sectional identity and a desire to downplay America’s own racist past in order to distinguish itself from the racist Nazi enemy. This change also underscored the resiliency of the Derby, which could remain culturally relevant as an American event in a moment when the Old South was not an attractive element of popular historical memory or national identity. When the United States became fully involved in World War II late in 1941, the immediate future of much frivolous activity The Kentucky Derby 116 like major sporting events was in serious jeopardy. But Colonel...


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