Connecting the Kentucky Derby with harness racing

by Bob Heyden

On the weekend of the 150th Kentucky Derby, here are 15 fun facts connecting the “Sport of Kings” and “America’s First Pastime.”

1. It was 1875 when Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby. That same year, The Red Mile began racing, but it was another 18 years until the standardbred Triple Crown would get underway.

2. More than half of the Kentucky Derbies as of 1902 were won by African-American riders. In 1993 Milton Smith sent out American Winner becoming the first African American to capture the Hambletonian.

3. In 1886, the bookmakers went on strike at the Derby. From 1957 through 1974, the first 17 years the Hambletonian was held in DuQuoin, there was no pari-mutuel wagering.

4. Regret was the lone filly in the 1915 Derby and won it. Atlanta was the lone filly in the 2018 Hambletonian and won it.

5. In 1997, George Steinbrenner became the first owner to have a Derby horse and a Meadowlands Pace finalist in the same year. Concerto was ninth in the Derby, while the Joe Holloway trained Rods Deal also did not get a check in the Pace.

6. In 1914 Donerail won the Derby and paid a record $184.90. In harness racing — in the 21st century —four Hambletonian winners were out of Donerail dams: Donato Hanover (out of D Train), Broad Bahn (Madonorail), Royalty For Life (Bourbon N Grits), and Marion Marauder (Spellbound Hanover).

7. Jockey John Velasquez will compete in his 18th consecutive Kentucky Derby this year with Fierceness. This summer, driver Tim Tetrick is set to duplicate that, twice. He’s been in the last 17 finals of both the Meadowlands Pace and the Hambletonian.

8. There was no grandstand at the Derby until 1895, the same year the Twin Spires were introduced. The Meadowlands introduced a new grandstand in November 2013 and for the first time the 2014 Hambletonian was held there.

9. The stall gate was first used in the Derby in 1930, as was the photo finish camera. The Phillips mobile starting gate was introduced in 1946.

10. Calumet Butler won the 1931 Hambletonian for a farm that bred nine Kentucky Derby winners. Known standardbred breeder Bill Solomon — the Pin Oak Lane Farm — also won the Kentucky Derby in 1992 either Lil E Tee.

11. John Velasquez, now 52, finished last with his first three Derby mounts. Today he is at $484 million and No. 1 all-time! Billy Haughton did zero damage in the Hambletonian from 1949-74 from 25 to 50 years old, then he won it five times in the next nine years.

12. In 2022, the Kentucky Derby went to 80-1 shot Rich Strike and the Hambletonian three months later to Cool Papa Bell at 52-1.

13. Allen Jerkens, the “Giant Killer,” who was the 1973 thoroughbred Trainer of the Year during Secretariat’s year, made it to the Hall of Fame before ever having a Kentucky Derby starter. Harness Hall of Famer Billy Haughton never drove a Kentucky Futurity winner but did win every other Triple Crown event.

14. The 1943-44 Kentucky Derbies were often referred to as the “Street Car Derby,” because of wartime restrictions about driving to the event with the emphasis on public transportation. Soldiers were welcomed. In 1945 Germany surrendered on May 8 and the Derby was then contested a month later. On the standardbred side, the Kentucky Futurity was paused from 1942-45.

15. For arguments sake, let’s assume that either T C I or Karl dominates the 2024 Hambletonian and becomes an easy choice for HOY. This is the 99th edition of the Hambletonian. Who won the 99th edition of the Kentucky Derby? Secretariat in 1973.