The people who helped create the new Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville are the first to tell you they didn't know a fetlock from a furlong when they undertook the project. "The fatal mistake most sports museums make is to hire an insider to decide what's important," says executive director Randy W. Ray, who came to the museum after serving as curator of collections for the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. "We wanted to make this museum 'user friendly,' a place that would appeal to the racing novice as well as the racing expert."
Dedicated in 1985, the new museum was made possible by a $7.5 million grant from the foundation of the late J. Graham Brown, a Louisville industrialist, and is conveniently located on the grounds of Churchill Downs, adjacent to the Kentucky Derby track. Like a racetrack, the museum is in the shape of an oval. Unlike a U.S. race, however, the exhibits proceed in a clockwise direction. Some might consider museum a stuffy word, but don't be put off by it; this one's a winner. I ought to know, I visited the museum in its previous incarnation.
In 1972 I made my first trip to the Kentucky Derby and paid the museum a visit. Back then the displays consisted mostly of a bunch of moldy-looking silks hanging along badly lit walls, with the owners' names on little plaques under each set. Were Aristides' boots on display back then? Probably, but I can't remember. That was a "museum," dryasdust and quite forgettable. If the boots were on display, there was undoubtedly a sign that read, BOOTS WORN BY ARISTIDES, FIRST KENTUCKY DERBY WINNER. I would have read the sign, learned who the first Derby winner was and left, wondering why anyone would put boots on a horse.
Happily, the new museum is a different place altogether. I have visited every year since it opened, always on the Thursday before Derby Saturday. That's when they draw the post positions for the race there, and the Great Hall of the museum is so crammed with owners, trainers, press and TV camera crews that there's scarcely room to breathe. And every year I've stayed long after the posts were drawn, especially to watch the multi-image slide show, which is updated each year, and to take a quick look at this or that exhibit. Quick looks are about as good as it gets during Derby week. The place is so crowded it's hard to linger.
I paid another visit to Churchill Downs last June and discovered that the best time to go to the Derby museum, which is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving, Oaks Day (the day before the Derby) and Derby Day, is anytime except the week of the big race.
So on that summer morning, as I stood on the main floor (there are three levels) staring at Aristides' boots, the first call came over the P.A. system. "Ladies and Gentlemen," the recorded voice announced, "five minutes to post time in the Great Hall." Good, I thought, I had time to contemplate the boots and the sign underneath that reads: ARISTIDES' BOOTS-WORN BY HIM IN 1875. THEY ARE ACTUALLY PROTECTIVE SPATS WHICH WERE STRAPPED AROUND THE HORSE'S ANKLES.
Why was I lingering in front of these two ancient pieces of canvas with leather straps and buckles attached to them? Well, for one thing, Aristides is my paternal grandfather's and my eldest brother's name, so right away that makes Aristides my favorite Derby winner. For another, I wondered where these boots had come from. Had the family of Aristides' owner, H. Price McGrath, carefully preserved the boots, passing them down from generation to generation? Could the McGraths have foreseen that the Kentucky Derby would continue uninterrupted for 115 years and counting? That it would come to be known throughout the world as "The greatest two minutes in sports"? And its trophy the most coveted in all of racing? Actually, I don't want to know. I prefer to think that the family loved Aristides so much, they saved his boots to remember him by.
"Two minutes to post time in the Great Hall," the P.A. system announced.
By this time there were about three dozen people in the museum. I moved a step or two from the Aristides display and read: 1875-37 STATES IN THE U.S. BOSTON FIRST BASEMAN CHARLES WAITE USES FIRST BASEBALL GLOVE. FIRST KENTUCKY DERBY. McGrath had two horses entered in that first Derby, Chesapeake, his big bay, and Aristides, the "little red horse" who would be Chesapeake's rabbit. Sure enough, Aristides, with jockey Oliver Lewis up, set a fast pace and was still in the lead as the horses reached the turn for home. At this point, according to the plan, Aristides would be finished and Chesapeake would zoom to the lead and victory. But Chesapeake never made his move. Fortunately, McGrath was standing at the head of the stretch to give directions. "Go on!" he yelled to Lewis, waving his hat toward the finish line. Lewis and Aristides did go on, winning the 1�-mile race in 2:37�, an American record for a 3-year-old. (The race was shortened to 1� miles in 1896.)
I long to be transported to McGrath's side on that day in 1875, as the horses thunder by and he waves his hat wildly and screams for Lewis to "Go on! Go on!" There is a time machine in the museum, but it doesn't go back to that first race. You can, however, watch films and TV broadcasts of the past 66 Derbies on a five-by-five-foot screen. Step up to a console, press a button for the year you want and—presto!—there's Reigh Count, in grainy black and white and no sound, winning in 1928, or Spend A Buck, in color, with the track announcer calling the race as the colt leads all the way in 1985.