The remarkable spring of 1945: The year the Derby almost wasn’t

By Thomas C. Ware, University of Tennessee Chattanooga

It strikes me as all but impossible now to acknowledge that the series of events I am about to address occurred more than 60 years ago.

Yet it sometimes seems as if I relive a part of those episodes almost every day – or in my dreams.

No, it wasn’t just another year the Yankees lost the pennant. It was more profound, even for American League baseball fans. And it wasn’t just the year the University of Kentucky basketball team started a stretch of 130 winning home games. It was far more important, even for Kentuckians. That late winter, and especially the spring and summer of 1945, embodied such a remarkable pattern of events that one may fittingly place it among the most crucial periods of modern times.

Much of Western culture was literally at stake in the mid-1940s. And it wasn’t just the year the Kentucky Derby was almost cancelled, shocking as that would have been. Among Kentuckians, few will recall that it was in fact not run that year on the first Saturday in May – a “tradition,” incidentally, which was not officially established until 1932. And as one of America’s greatest sporting traditions, it appeared for an anxious few months in 1945 that it was to be cancelled altogether, after an unbroken string of 70 years. It all depended on what happened abroad as to whether the Derby would become one more casualty of World War II.

Background: The Theater of War

Actually, the very existence of thoroughbred horse racing became threatened in those latter months of the war, when civilian and non-military traffic in most sections of the country had been sharply curtailed both by gasoline rationing and by the power of the Office of Defense Transportation, which had alerted race tracks across the country to start closing, including Keeneland in Lexington. This agency also requested that Churchill Downs suspend business, although in 1944, various military exhibitions had been publicly displayed in the infield. Even the Kentucky State Fair was held there because the old fairgrounds in west Louisville had also been taken over by the federal government.

To most people today the details of this period, which included victory in the War in Europe, clearly belong to the ancient world, if they occur anywhere in their sense of the past. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that it was an exhilarating if frightening time; and we – those in my immediate family and practically everyone I knew old enough to understand what was going on – watched much of that epic panorama on radio. Yes, we “watched” the events on radio, before the advent of television. That may seem a strange configuration of senses, but it was in the main true.

To paraphrase a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V, we “pieced out the imperfections” of that medium with our thoughts and imagination. People regularly gathered around or within earshot of a radio – at home, at work, or standing in front of shops – watching the small orange-colored dial in a deeply absorbed manner of attention, like spectators at a game of life or death. We waited for fresh bits of “news,” good and bad, in this country and from around the world. We heard voices which after a time became like personal confidants, keeping us informed: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Winchell.

After what had become a horrifying pattern of catastrophes – beginning with the German bombing of Warsaw in September 1939 and the unleashed conflagration in Europe, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and their subsequent occupation of much of Asia and the Pacific Ocean – prospects of victory for the Allies in Europe, and to some degree in the Pacific, had finally begun to look promising in early 1945. In late January, German forces began a retreat from the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. The Soviet army had driven the Nazis out of Warsaw and days later reached the Auschwitz concentration camp. U.S. forces under command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur were preparing to re-capture the Philippines.

In early February, several American Army divisions, under Gens. Eisenhower, George Patton and Omar Bradley, had broken across the Rhine River and onto German soil. Early in March, large airborne drops of Allied  soldiers east of the Rhine had made significant changes in the course and conduct of the war in the European theater.

“Theater” became a popular (and appropriate) term in those days to describe the huge geographical areas of carnage, danger and destruction. And why not? To a great degree, because of the popularity of the motion pictures during those years, those of us not actually engaged tended to see war in those same terms. So many high-ranking military figures, on both sides, seemed to revel in bravado appearances; and journalistic coverage, especially newsreel clips, tended to make media icons of some of them. MacArthur, of course, appeared especially self-possessed with his corncob pipe and crushed four-star general’s cap, and his attempt to walk on water. (Eisenhower was quoted as once saying, facetiously, that he had studied dramatics for two years under MacArthur while he had served as the great man’s adjutant.)

Then there was Patton, perhaps the most flamboyant of them all, frequently shown riding fearlessly in an open tank with his battle helmet on – and often depicted with his pearl-handled revolvers in their holsters at his hips.

The Germans had such theatrical figures as Hitler, Goering and Field Marshall Rommel; the Italians had Mussolini, with that jutting chin; the Japanese featured the sinister dictator Tojo; the Chinese gave us the inscrutable Chiang Kai-shek.

And as if to signal their optimism that the war would soon be over, we were treated to much coverage of those truly decisive figures of FDR, Churchill and Stalin meeting at Yalta in early February ’45 to discuss the means of waging the peace. This tableau was, of course, at the time more show than substance.

The military campaigns did not always continue to go well, however, although some 30,000 U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima in late February. That battle, which left some 22,000 Japanese troops and 6,000 Americans dead, did not fully come to an end until mid-March, even though that especially symbolic flag was raised within the first week of the invasion. Other, later-sustained attacks on a number of Japanese island strongholds did not produce quick victories. In desperate measures, suicidal Kamikaze pilots were still attacking and occasionally sinking U.S. Naval vessels in the Pacific. It seemed evident that this phase of the war would continue unabated for yet a while.

Concentrated high altitude bombing of German cities did hasten the end of the war over there – that, along with the desperation of the Wehrmacht having to defend assaults on two fronts. When the German central command disintegrated and, shortly after, when Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, the curtain of the theater of war had suddenly dropped.

V-E Day, meaning unconditional surrender in Europe, was declared on May 8. It was as if a whole new jubilant world had opened, if only part of the way. A war was yet to be waged and, one assumed, to be won on that side of the globe; and some of those forces in Europe were being deployed to fight in that one. It was too late to salvage the hallowed first Saturday in Louisville. No one, it appears, would have been more deeply wounded by the breaking of that string than the man who seemed to embody not just the tradition but the very soul of the Derby, Col. Matt Winn.

The Prime Mover: Col. Matt Winn

As for Derby officials in Louisville that April, the issue was almost as important as the war itself: to run or not to run. The idea of cancellation seemed abhorrent. The first Saturday in May had become their High Holy Day, and Churchill Downs was their Temple. Contemporary accounts show that Col. Winn, the venerable president of Churchill Downs from 1938 until his death in 1949, had been in one capacity or another associated with thoroughbred racing in Kentucky, and especially in Louisville, almost all of his life. If one can believe all of the legends, such comments as “he had seen them all,” testified that he had been present at every Kentucky Derby, arriving at age 13 with his father at the first running in 1875.

Over the decades he committed his love of racing; his skills in management, marketing and political in-fighting; and his gregarious personality to transforming the physical and financial character of the Downs, especially promoting and enhancing the aura of the Derby into “The Run for the Roses” and what is now popularly termed “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”

Yet as mentioned earlier, non-military transportation had been impeded for several years – to the point that in 1944, major efforts by Col. Winn and his associates had been made to justify holding the race in the depths of the war by encouraging attendance only to citizens of Louisville, even for box-seat owners.

What to do? It was finally agreed that in light of the victory in Europe, the Derby would be held – but not until June 9.

Records show that Col. Winn used his remarkable prestige to pull the complex matters together, cashed checks for nominations from owners of more than 150 3-year-old thoroughbreds, and miraculously, a 16-horse field was ready to run a month later. It was the first time the Derby had ever been held in June. It was held only once in April.

The big day arrives

I celebrated my 16th birthday that joyful but uncertain spring. And like many friends my age, I was in that awkward period – too young to enlist or to be drafted, eager to see some aspects of the war overseas, yet not eager enough to be shot at. Although I worked several part-time jobs beginning at age 12 – mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, working as an executioner in a poultry house (yes!) and the like – for someone age 16, it was legally possible to get employment in that economy, with so many able-bodied men still at war.

In my neighborhood, the word was out that an enterprising tavern keeper had obtained a temporary franchise to sell beer in the infield and was looking to hire the necessary help. About a dozen guys my age applied, and on Derby Day we trucked and carried crates, ice and the necessary lumber to set up in the middle of that storied oval, under those two majestic spires. We sold, for $1 a bottle, local beer that normally cost in stores at the time less than 15 cents. Although warm, it had been raining for several days that week, and the grounds and track were muddy, although no one seemed to mind the intermittent showers – or the cost of beer.

As people continued to arrive for the early races, which began about noon, it was evident that there would be a massive turnout, later estimated at 65,000. Our group was kept extraordinarily busy, trying to keep with the demands, franticly pulling caps off the cold wet bottles and taking in hands full of bills – no need for change. That made it easy for transferring money to the cashier or to the till, but it also made it easy for many of the guys to transfer instead some of the money into their own pockets, as the sales became brisker by the hour.

A large percentage of the crowd, as one would have expected, were in military uniforms, young women as well as men. Surprising to us was the number of Canadians, who seemed especially delighted to be there and elated that their duties in the war were apparently over. In all, despite the general absence of places to sit down (there were no stands or seats in the infield, though some had brought small wooden ladders) and the pressure of the long lines to get to the betting windows, the crowds seemed reasonably well-behaved and merry. In sections of the grounds, there were from time to time episodes of impatience and rudeness. But hey! It was the Derby.

And for some, the war was over.

Betting on the winner: Eddie Arcaro on Hoop Jr.

As the day wore on we caught only glimpses of horses, but from time to time we sent one of our crew to place bets on the races, most of them losers. Soon the big event was looming, and there was much talk among us about the Derby field. It seemed almost unanimous, however, that since no one knew much about the horses, and even though Hoop Jr. was not the favorite, we were placing our money not on that colt but on the jockey everyone knew about: Eddie Arcaro.

Many of those immersed in thoroughbred racing considered Arcaro among the most accomplished jockeys in the history of the sport in America, if not indeed the finest of them all. Such, for example, was the opinion of Bill Corum, a prominent sports columnist, later becoming president of Churchill Downs, who was selected to write the foreword to the book “I Ride to Win” – Arcaro’s autobiographical account of his life and career, as told to Jack O’Hara. And a turbulent and rewarding career it was, beginning with a job as a stable boy and ultimately including successes which few riders could approach: among them five Kentucky Derby wins, the most wins in the Preakness and (tied) in the Belmont Stakes with six; three Travers Stakes; and two Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway and Citation). By earnings, “The Master,” as he was fondly named, received the award of U.S. Champion Jockey six times, in the period from 1940 through 1958. Over his career, his mounts earned more than $30 million.

In his book, he details the unusual, one may even say the fateful, set of circumstances which put him on Hoop Jr. that June afternoon, instead of ending up in the military like so many married men with children his age (28, at the time). Earlier that same year, he had been ordered to report to his draft board in New York. His physical examination revealed what he called “a number of minor defects” he had not known about; and so he was re-classified as 4-H.

All thoroughbred racing had officially come to a halt on Jan. 3, 1945, yet in hopes that the war could end and the ban soon ease, trainers continued light training of the stock throughout the industry. In May when the ban was officially lifted, Arcaro said, “there followed quite a scramble in transporting the horses to various racing centers.” Arcaro found himself, despite contracts, free to pick a Derby mount, and ignoring some offers he purposefully delayed his decision. He had noticed, in a race where he was on another horse, that the jockey on Hoop Jr. had “lathered” his mount with a whip, whereupon the horse stopped in his tracks and lost a race that he was clearly winning. Arcaro informed the trainer; and as it was discovered, the colt had highly sensitive skin and ducked away from any use of the stick. Ultimately, he rode Hoop Jr. to victory in The Wood Memorial – and was granted the ride in the Derby.

Among the indelible memories, I count not only picking the Derby winner but catching a monetary glance at Arcaro, flying down the back stretch in the lead, paying $9.20 to win. (I’ve since verified that.) But money was quite beside the point. To a naive 16-year-old, nothing could buy back the total thrill of that entire day. The following year, of course, saw a great many elements of our popular culture restored; and the Derby went back to its tradition of owning the first Saturday in May.

The aftermath

A week or so later in that June of ’45, while the war in the Pacific was still blazing, two of my friends and I went to work at one of the local Reynolds Metal plants. The company had posted a notice that they were hiring 16-year-old high school students at a competitive wage – 62 cents an hour for the day shift; 65 cents an hour for the evening shift. In our application interview, the personnel director emphasized that we were fully expected to return to school in the fall. We were informed also that we had to join the union; and thus we were hired.

I do not think it necessary here to detail the tasks of heat-treating huge aluminum ingots, but on the first day it was an explosive and terrifying process merely to watch, a bit like seeing Dante’s lower depths in operation, up close. To be physically involved took more than a little getting used to. But we were young, adaptable and working under the assumption that what we and the other unionized workers were doing was a direct and valuable assistance to the total war effort. And for that time, the pay wasn’t bad. So we drilled and wired and hoisted and opened and closed the tall vertical ovens and tried not to get hurt by the boiling water.

This collective effort, however, was interrupted in July by a collective meeting of the union and its officers, who finally voted to strike for higher wages. That decision shut us out of the plant for, as I recall, more than a week without wages; and shortly afterward we returned to that infernal routine. At the end of the first week of August, as we were on the second shift, the news was flashed throughout the plant that a new U.S. secret weapon had been dropped on a place called Hiroshima, with horrendous consequences. We did not know at the time what to make of it. A few days later, we heard the same kind of news about Nagasaki. Shortly afterward, we were ordered to tidy up our work stations. The plant was closing and our work was through. Soon the prospect of victory was celebrated across the country, although V-J Day was not officially declared until Sept. 2.

The long ordeal was finally over.

That entire sequence of events – the strike, the layoff, the news about the bombings, the sudden end once more to a war halfway round the world – all occurring within such a short few days left us ecstatic, bewildered, disappointed, with no more paychecks.

I can vaguely recall that the three of us lazed around swimming pools and clubs for the next few weeks, spending what little money we saved, and suddenly it was time to go back to school – a promise we made to the personnel director at Reynolds Metals.

And so I did. I took that road, which turned out to be a long one; but my friends decided otherwise and other ways. As Robert Frost once concluded, “That has made all the difference.”

It was indeed a memorable, remarkable year.

About the author

Thomas C. Ware is a professor of English, specializing in Irish and Victorian literature, at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He holds degrees from the University of Louisville and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published numerous articles and reviews and is the co-author of Theodore O’Hara: Poet-Soldier of the Old South (University of Tennessee Press, 1998). He and his wife live on Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Kentucky Humanities magazine. To receive the magazine, e-mail Editor Julie Nelson Satterly at julie.satterly@uky.edu. To download a PDF, visit www.kyhumanities.org.


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