Growing up in Louisville, I was able to experience the Kentucky Derby up close in some of the golden days of horse racing in the 1950s and 1960s.  Following are a few memories.  Younger readers are likely not to recognize most of the names, just as I am not familiar with many of the icons of today.

Celebrities.  Well-known people like Bob Hope could be spotted at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.  I recall seeing the red-haired actress Susan Hayward at the 1959 Derby and she was stunning.

A popular nightspot for celebrities and sports figures during Derby week in the 1960s was a place called Patio Lounge in a shopping mall on Louisville’s east side (east of the city of St. Matthews).  The shopping center is still there but the nightclub is long gone.  A few of the high-profile people I can remember seeing there were Dr. Alex Harthill, Paul Hornung, Caesar Romero, and Bill Shoemaker (Harthill and Shoemaker traveled together).

In 1953 or 1954, Shoemaker was nursing an injury when he arrived to ride in the Derby.  He went to the University of Louisville, near Churchill Downs, to use the athletic department’s whirlpool.  There he met an obscure 155-pound quarterback who provided advice about treating the injury—Johnny Unitas.

One year in the late 1960s, a friend of mine volunteered to take actor Robert Conrad around to various events during Derby festivities.  Conrad was the star of the top-rated television show Wild Wild West.  My friend kept getting asked for autographs, so he eventually accommodated the requests rather than keep explaining he was just a volunteer.  He laughed that the autograph seekers would later scratch their heads trying to figure out who he was.  His own favorite memory of an autograph was from President Richard M. Nixon in the Churchill Downs clubhouse in 1969, the only sitting president to ever attend the Derby.

Celebrity appearances did not always go smoothly.  In the 1980s, Tom Meeker, then president of Churchill Downs, said that the male star of a hit television series was not welcome back because of his rude behavior toward the public.

Boxers.  For years, a professional boxing card was held on Derby Eve.  The boxers would often do their “road work” (jogging) over the Churchill Downs track.  The world’s light-heavyweight champion, Willie Pastrano, was the featured boxer in 1960, and he won a unanimous decision over a fighter named Alonzo Johnson.  I watched Pastrano spar in a pre-fight workout at Bud Bruner’s gym in downtown Louisville against a former Kentucky Golden Gloves heavyweight champion.  Although the sparring partner wore a head protector, Pastrano had such hand quickness and accuracy that the other guy’s face was red as a beet when the two or three rounds were over.  For better competition, Pastrano’s trainer—Angelo Dundee–should have brought in the 1960 national Golden Glove’s champion, an 18-year-old Louisvillian whose name at the time was Cassius Clay.  Clay (later Muhammad Ali) would soon be trained by Dundee and win the world’s heavyweight title in 1964.

The Parade.  The first Kentucky Derby Parade was a very small event held in 1956 on a budget of $640.  The parade route was down 4th Street rather than the present-day route on Broadway.  Included among the Grand Marshalls have been such notables as Muhammad Ali, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Col. Harland Sanders, Diane Sawyer, William Shatner, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.  (The Grand Marshall of the 2015 parade will be former University of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.)

Horses and Jockeys.  The Derby has been blessed with great horses and jockeys.  Two of my favorite rides were both by Bill Shoemaker.  To watch him win the 1959 Derby on Tomy Lee and the 1986 Derby on Ferdinand is to witness a master in action.  I vivdly recall the bright sun beating down on the finish line as Shoemaker rallied Tomy Lee to best Sword Dancer in a furious duel.  (Ironically, Shoemaker was offered the mount on Sword Dancer but kept his word to ride Tomy Lee.)  Shoemaker’s winding course through traffic with Ferdinand was facilitated by luck and incredible vision and riding prowess.

Copyright © 2015 Horse Racing Business


  1. Damascus did not run in the 1959 Derby. I think you meant Sword Dancer.

  2. Bill Shanklin says

    Thanks very much for pointing out that I meant Sword Dancer rather than Damascus. I made the correction accordingly.

  3. Guy (From Chicago) says

    Mr Shanklin; Thanks for a great article, which in turn caused me to google the Ferdinand derby. Watching the race and the isolated view of Ferdinand reminds me that Shoemaker was among the true greats of racing. No panic in the man whatsoever. To overcome the early problems and have the horse in perfect position was astounding. A testament to Ferdinand, too. Also, I am/was a big fan of Ms. Hayward. Thanks, Guy