On Saturday, Arlington Park hosts its Million Preview Day, featuring the $200k Arlington Sprint (a Breeders’ Cup “Win And You’re In” Challenge race), the G3 Arlington Handicap, G3 Modesty Handicap, and G2 American Derby. The latter three are preps for Arlington’s premier turf races which will be run on August 8—the G1 Arlington Million, G1 Beverly D., and G1 Secretariat Stakes, respectively.
Yet, once upon a time, the American Derby was viewed as momentous in its own right, being from nearly its inception in the nineteenth century the richest race in the United States, and thus more prestigious than the Kentucky Derby. It also became a battleground for bragging rights between East and West:
The Southerners, the Californians, and the Easterners annually face each other there in this battle for three-year-olds, with their weights up, over a mile and a half of running; and this American Derby of ours annually presents to us one of the grandest outdoor sights to be seen in America..—Charles E. Trevathan, The American Thoroughbred (1905) p. 413
In his book, City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America (1997), Donald L. Miller mentions how the Washington Park Jockey Club meeting also served as an important social event for Midwesterners:
On the annual June running of the American Derby, the first call of summer to the fashionable set, they would gather with their families at the Hotel Richelieu on Michigan Avenue and form a cavalcade of shining carriages that would make its way out the boulevards to the racecourse, the walkways lined with spectators straining to catch a glimpse of a famous Chicago beauty or businessman. (p. 291)
The very first winner of the American Derby, in 1884, was a filly—Modesty, winner of the Kentucky Oaks. She was ridden by the great African-American jockey Isaac Murphy, who added three more American Derby victories to his oeuvre, one more than the number of Kentucky Derbies he won. Fascinatingly, Modesty, through her daughter Daisy F, was the grand-dam of the great Regret, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
The great filly Black Helen, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks and Florida Derby, won the 1935 American Derby, and CCAO victress Dawn Play followed up that achievement in 1937. The fourth and final filly winner was Askmenow (1943).
Over the years, several Kentucky Derby winners won the American Derby—first among them, Spokane (1889), the only Montana-bred to win the Kentucky Derby. The others include Cavalcade (1934), Whirlaway (1941), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949), Swaps (1955), and Forward Pass (1968). Among the other top 3-year-old American Derby winners were Hill Prince (1950), Native Dancer (1953), Swoon’s Son (1956), Round Table (1957), Tom Rolfe (1965), Buckpasser (1966), and Damascus (1967). The last classic winner to take the American Derby was 1985 Belmont Stakes victor Crème Fraiche.
Only since 1958 has Arlington hosted the American Derby. Originally run on dirt, the race has been run on turf since 1992 (and for a period during the 1950s and 1970s), so it’s unlikely we’ll see the same type of classic horses take on this race again, nor will it have the same importance it once did, particularly as it’s positioned as a prep for the G1 Secretariat. However, it is a race with a fascinating history.
A decade after its inaugural running in 1884, the American Derby was nearly no more, as the New York Times prominently announced on its October 15, 1894 front page: “No More American Derby. Chicago’s High-Class Jockey Club Abandons Racing.” The article elaborates upon the reasons, including “the popular clamor against poolselling and the degeneration of racing from a harmless and high-class sport to a species of gambling,” as well as uncertainty regarding the legality of operating a racetrack in the state of Illinois, as “the people who own Hawthorne are under indictment.”
After a three-year hiatus, the American Derby returned to Washington Park in 1898, as a crowd of 30,000 watched St. Louis Derby winner Pink Coat triumph. Alas, the days of Washington Park were numbered; the track closed in late 1904 due to enforcement of anti-betting laws, and the American Derby was held only once at Hawthorne in 1916, before going on another hiatus until 1926. Interestingly, that 1916 race was tightly regulated:
Strict precautions to prevent open betting at the track will be taken by promoters of the meet, with the co-operation of the Sheriff of Cook County. The latter has promised to have a force of deputies on hand to work with a squad of private detectives in enforcing the State laws [against gambling]. The meet, according to the promoters, is to be an honest attempt to restore racing here without the so-called evils. (“Derby at Chicago Today” NY Times, July 15, 1916, p. 7).
Talk about sucking the fun out of the event—still, the New York paper noted in its subsequent race summary that “betless though it may be” the event saw 20,000 people in attendance. Fourteen men were arrested by the Sheriff’s deputies and transported to the Oak Park police station on charges of gambling. Apparently, these were merely the careless as:
Despite the presence of Deputy Sheriffs in considerable numbers betting was indulged in by those who felt so inclined, and there was not a little activity in this connection. The betting was of the wink and nod variety, however. Thousands of dollars are said metaphorically to have changed hands by the mere raising of eyebrows. No money actually was passed….Officials of The Jockey Club disavowed any knowledge of betting, and no one seemed to know whence the odds emanated. (“Dodge Romps Home in American Derby” NY Times, July 16, 1916, p. 8).
Anti-gambling laws put the American Derby on hold for another 10 years, before 38,000 people welcomed the 1926 revival, and watched Boot to Boot (in his 12th start as a three-year-old) defeat Preakness victor Display over 1-1/2 miles, with Kentucky Oaks winner Black Maria in third. The $100,000 purse that day was the richest ever offered in America, although interesting the $89,000 winner’s share check bounced when Boot to Boot’s owner failed to hold it for two weeks, until the club adjusted its books (“Derby Check Returned” NY Times, August 13, 1926, p. 13).
Ever consistent with track owners who are masters of spin, it was announced the following year that since the $100,000 race “attracted only a mediocre field”, the 1927 American Derby purse would be cut to $25,000, hoping “that the glory of winning an American Derby again will overshadow its monetary value.” (NY Times, February 11, 1927, p. 26).
By 1931, the purse had risen to $50,000, when 40,000 people witnessed Preakness winner Mate nosed out Pittsburgher for the win. As the NY Times noted, amazingly considering it was the height of the Great Depression, approximately $975,000 was wagered on the race card, down from $1,123,000 in 1930. A board game for the race was also introduced that year.
Among other highlights:
• 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation went off at 1-10 odds when he won the American Derby on August 28.
• After winning the 1953 Travers on Native Dancer, his jockey Eric Guerin was suspended, so the American Derby marked the first race in which Eddie Arcaro rode the "Gray Ghost".
• Before Kentucky Derby winner Swaps met Preakness and Belmont victor Nashua in their great 1955 match race on August 31, Swaps tuned up by tying the U.S. turf record for 1-3/16 miles in winning the American Derby.
• In 1957, Round Table avenged his Kentucky Derby loss by defeating Iron Liege over the Washington Park turf.
• Out from March to June due to a quarter crack, Buckpasser came back to win the 1966 American Derby, carrying 128 lbs and conceding seven to eighteen pounds to his foes.
• Due to a temperature, Dr. Fager missed his matchup with foe Damascus who won the 1967 race with Willie Shoemaker aboard, his fifth and last American Derby victory (tied with Eddie Arcaro for most wins).