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Sitting among carefully tabulated memories kept on file cards is a tall, thin man chain-smoking Pall Malls. His desk, piled high with stud books, once belonged to a president of Churchill Downs; he was named after the owner of a Derby winner, S. S. Brown (Agile, 1905). Brownie Leach was raised in the bluegrass, playing as a child in a backyard that once was Henry Clay's. He is returning the favor by writing a book about Marse Henry and his two great broodmares.
No one possesses a more intimate knowledge of the Downs and the Derby than Brownie Leach. He worked closely with Matt Winn, the fabled Kentucky Colonel who made himself and the Derby national institutions. In the Colonel's last years Brownie Leach was his PR man and aide-de-camp at Churchill Downs, or as Kentuckians always pronounce it, Churchle.
The racing writer Joe H. Palmer once noted, "Mr. Leach has a great respect for the truth, and uses it sparingly," but that wry encomium refers only to the tall tales he scatters with his bourbon. Mr. Leach, who is fiercely loyal to the late Colonel Winn, wants only to set the record straight, as he sees it. He also holds some opinions:
"If all the Derby winners raced each other, I'd spend an awful long time down there in the paddock looking at Whirlaway and Count Fleet, but I believe I'd go then and put my money on Twenty Grand. If you had just seen him that day in 1931. Why, he came around that last turn as far off the rail as we are from that hedge over there, and rolling like a freight train coming down the mountain with the brakes off. All you hear now is Secretariat. Listen, I'd love to have a stableful of Secretariats, but if you just look at the record you'd-see he couldn't carry Man o' War's blanket.
"I probably sound like an old grouch, but sports can be so phony today, just as bad as the food and the cars now—and my God, you can't get a plain white cotton shirt anywhere in the country but Brooks Brothers anymore. Racing simply has no regard for its past. Everybody is going around writing that the Derby was not a top race in its earlier years. Will somebody besides me just once look at the record? When you have men like the Dwyer brothers shipping in a Hindoo , it is a top race. It was only later it ran into snags, which is why the Loolville people hired Col. Winn. That was 1902, but he didn't really get it back on top till 1915, when H. P. Whitney brought Regret in. The Colonel gave a great deal of credit to that race, but I'd say his favorite Derby was Exterminator's, although a lot of that had to do with Exterminator's subsequent record. Anytime you like something, anything good that happens later that's related to it makes it seem all the better.
" Col. Winn was the boss. That was his nature. He had a good sense of humor, but he was not the kind of man you could put your arm around. He had a certain reserve, even a severity, and a lot of people at Churchle were scared to death of him. It was true that if you made a mistake he would fuss at you, but he was a fair man and a gentleman of the first water.
" Winn became a colonel on the governor of Kentucky's staff back when they had very few of those, when it was an honor. It wasn't until some governor in the '30s that they started giving those things out wholesale. This lady called me up once and told me they were going to make me a colonel, and I said, 'I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't. It's gotten so there is more distinction in not being a Kentucky colonel than in being one.'
" Col. Winn had an apartment in the Waldorf Towers in New York. He went to all the resorts as a guest, not hustling and scuffling like some promotion man. But once he set down to talk he started selling himself and his race. Toward the end he did get to become a hero to himself, but he wasn't overbearing about it. Through that last part of his life, the Derby was all he thought about, night and day.
"Earlier, he ran I think it was 11 different racetracks, all over. Why the only thing that kept Churchle going in the Depression was Latonia, the old Latonia. Latonia paid the bills that kept the Derby going during the Depression. A lot of people in Loolville have conveniently forgotten that. Winn knew everything about everybody in Loolville. He once read me chapter and verse on everybody in the city. He told me it would be helpful for me and Churchle when he was gone, knowing these things. You're damn right they were unsavory. That was the point.
"The Colonel knew everybody everywhere. There were very few outstanding people in the country he was not friendly with. I knew his thinking: you get the ladies and gentlemen, and the ordinary people will beat the doors down to get in. From 1920 through the Second World War, anybody who was anybody—social leaders, business leaders, political leaders—were at the Derby. They say they get 130,000 now, but who are these people?