Unforgettable Visit to Vault in Kentucky Derby Museum

Events / Travel
Kentucky Derby trophies won by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas at the Kentucky Derby Museum. (Julie June Stewart photo)

The vault! The word “vault” conjures up some great images. When one is at the Kentucky Derby Museum, it’s very easy to wonder, “What else is there?” The imagination can run wild for adults who were once (and still are) horse crazy. Kentucky Derby historians — most fans are in one way or another — can riff on little-known facts about now obscure horses who were once feted as the top 3-year-olds in the country on the first Saturday in May. So when I got the opportunity to visit, I dropped everything and practically galloped to the museum. 

My lip quivered when I was informed that no photographs are allowed in the vault due to security. No matter as I was still determined to see it. In the basement of the Kentucky Derby Museum (KDM), I met a trio of superheroes who protect memorable Kentucky Derby artifacts. In a room with no natural light, they catalog, curate, and care for keepsakes that are both valuable and invaluable. I learned that Churchill Downs previously maintained a museum and transferred their assets to KDM, which is the basis of what they opened with in 1985. Some of those items are the finest in the collection. 

Chris Goodlett is the senior curator of collections. He is blessed with an amazing rolodex of a mind and is able to quickly access dates, names, and races without looking it up on the computer. While he draws no attention to himself, he is no stranger to the spotlight. An elegant man in his immaculate white gloves, you will often see him setting up the Kentucky Derby trophy at the post-position draw. You may even spot him in the Derby coverage as he sets up the trophies in the Derby winner’s circle for the presentation. 

1876 Gentleman’s Cup won by Misdeal.
1876 Gentleman’s Cup won by Misdeal. (Julie June Stewart photo)

The museum currently has more than 10,000 items in its collection. Goodlett explains the collection process. “We actively collect. When we first opened, we needed more things. We need less now, so we collect in very specific ways and we are still looking for important and significant items.”

Of course, the museum can’t display everything at once. Items are carefully selected to tell a story with artifacts, images, and audiovisuals. I expressed an interest in a vintage purse that I always look for in the historical portion of the museum. They instantly knew what item I was referring to. It is part of the Tom Meeker Collection. Since it is a textile, it is displayed on a rotation basis due to sensitivity to light. I absolutely adore this purse and if I ran into it at an antique store, I would instantly buy it.  It features two running horses (a gray and a bay) with jockeys and the Twin Spires grandstand with a crowd.  Overhead there is a jaunty red airplane towing a Churchill Downs banner. 

Some items have been found at Churchill Downs. During a recent renovation, an American flag was found rolled up in newspaper in the northern Twin Spire. A company in Maryland pressed it out and put it under preservation glass and it is now on display on the first floor. When Lynn Whiting, trainer of the 1992 Kentucky Derby winner Lil E. Tee, passed away, his barn signs were donated to the museum by his staff. 

What are some of the oldest items in the museum collection? There is the 1940 mint julep glass with the date. Goodlett says “it is viewed as the most rare of the julep glasses (the tradition goes back to 1938). It usually commands a high price at public auctions.”

They have the 1925 Derby Gold Cup won by Flying Ebony and jockey Earle Sande. There had been a dreadful downpour that year that turned Churchill Downs into a quagmire. Not a problem for Flying Ebony who "flew" to the finish line. 

Matt Winn, the president of Churchill Downs, commissioned the trophy for the 1925 50th “Golden Anniversary” of the Derby. It is topped by an 18-karat gold horse and rider and includes horse shoe handles. It is 22 inches tall (excluding its jade base) and most of it is 14-karat gold. 

Deep in the vault are two paintings of some very interesting looking people. They are Mary Martin Anderson’s parents — Caroline Scott Timberlake Anderson (1825-1856) and Orville Martin Anderson (1828–1857). Mary Martin Anderson (1852-1934) was married to Col. Meriwether Lewis “Lutie” Clark Jr., who was the founder of Churchill Downs and the Louisville Jockey Club. (And yes, he was the grandson of General William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.)

Historians will be thrilled to learn that the archives contain the files of the late racing historian Jim Bolus, who was well known and well respected as the unofficial historian of the Kentucky Derby. “Bolus had a love affair with the Kentucky Derby that was unmatched. He authored several books and was often deemed the ‘go-to guy’ when one needed Derby info.” Goodlett says that they continue to use his files frequently. “They answer a lot of research requests. Just today someone was asking us how a horse was named. [Bolus] did very thorough research on the names of Derby winners and how they got their names. They have been transferring his files to acid-free material. They also received his substantial interview collection (many were cassettes) and are still in the process of getting them digitized.” 

1925 Kentucky Derby trophy won by Flying Ebony.
1925 Kentucky Derby trophy won by Flying Ebony. (Julie June Stewart photo)

So what’s it like in the vault? It’s kept cool because the textiles and various artifacts have to be maintained at a certain temperature and humidity for their preservation. It is slightly dark. There are no bright lights. The first thing one notices are the large, industrial, mobile, rolling shelving storage systems. Goodlett reaches out and starts to spin the large handle on the side of the rolling carriage. Your mind simply explodes as you try to comprehend what you are seeing. Horse figurines side by side. Trophies in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Crystal Vases. Crystal Bowls. Awards. Plates and platters. You turn your head and see saddles. You step past a small Conestoga wagon famous for its many sojourns to the infield.  You turn around and come face to face with Cora Jacobs’ (a local real estate agent) 1974 Derby dress, which is inscribed with the 99 names of past Derby winners. (Jacobs is credited by Goodlett as the instigator of the Derby’s outlandish hat tradition.) 

One shelf features a set of commissioned bronze horse sculptures by Kathleen Wheeler (1884-1977).  She was a prominent artist known for life-size portraits of horse race winners. I have to smile at the sudden image of myself as a child, sitting on my bedroom floor playing with my horses. I have this huge desire to sit on the floor and surround myself with all the horses I see until my adult side sternly takes over my brain and we continue walking through the vault. 

Goodlett deftly and soundlessly shifts the storage units from one side to another and asks what I would like to see. My brain struggles as the Derby-crazy fool inside me wants to scream, “ALL OF IT!” while I try to be professional and look for items that I could ask him to bring outside the vault to be photographed. We probe deeper into the vault. 

We come to the shelves of the Bill Shoemaker Collection. When Goodlett started at the museum in 1999, he was a staff of one. Caroline Collins initially joined as an intern and is now responsible for cataloging the Shoemaker collection. The collection was donated to the museum by his daughter Amanda and contains more than 1,300 items. Collins said, “I can’t believe how extensive the collection is! It ranges from the items you would expect to see (trophies and his racing memorabilia) to the most mundane of items.” One of his most unusual trophies is the 1980 Woodward Stakes, which he won in an extremely rare walkover (when there is only one horse racing) on Spectacular Bid.

Now, we are looking at the shelving units containing Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ collection. It contains more than 1,200 items and documents more than five decades of racing history, including his four Kentucky Derby trophies (Winning Colors, 1988; Thunder Gulch, 1995; Grindstone, 1996; and Charismatic, 1999). It’s interesting to study the trophies for one fascinating detail. Prior to the 125th Derby in 1999, the 18-karat gold horseshoe pointed downward. In a response to a horse racing superstition, the horseshoe was turned upward so that luck will no longer run out of it. 

Cataloging the Lukas collection is a monumental task. It includes trophies, photographs, fine art, and many more mementos of recognition. Carefully curating and creating the accession files is Tanner Williams, who is the third important member of the museum’s collection team. It will take years for him to catalog the entire Lukas collection which he approaches with great enthusiasm and care.

Items from the D. Wayne Lukas collection.
Items from the D. Wayne Lukas collection. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Goodlett brought out the 1876 Gentleman’s Cup won by Misdeal that was presented by the Louisville Jockey Club. I said I was going to sit down to steady my camera. In reality, I was taking a second to simply stop and stare at the beauty of this trophy and marvel in silence at its history. The cup is etched with exquisite detail and includes a lovely laurel wreath with small berries. From the center of the chalice stem, there are four horse heads protruding with open mouths and long forelocks. The trophy was received by the museum from Leslie B. Combs II of Lexington, founder and owner of Spendthrift Farm, as part of a bequest of racing trophies spanning 110 years. The trophy was had been given to Combs’ grandfather.   

Recently, the museum announced that the James Graham Brown Foundation has awarded the museum a $1 million grant for its renovation and expansion project. The construction will add more than 11,000 square feet to the museum and renovate another 5,000 square feet. This is the largest expansion since the museum opened in 1985. Adding more space will certainly bring more treasures out from the vault.  

Goodlett is very proud of the work that Collins and Wilson are contributing to the museum. “We are a team here at the Derby Museum, taking care of the collections and working the curatorial department. It takes all of us to make it happen. I have been here 15 years, but without the work that Caroline and Tanner do, we couldn’t take care of these items appropriately. We couldn’t get them documented properly. What they do is so important to the operation at KDM.” In reflection he said, “You are always doing something different. You are not doing the same thing every day even when you are working on a collection. You are working with different types of items and different eras of items, so I think it’s never the same thing two days in a row.”

The next day, I watched as Collins walked past the crowds in a perfect floral spring dress complete with a fascinator. She was wearing her museum white gloves as she held (with care and authority) the elegant Kentucky Oaks trophy. It was the same kind of concern and consideration that Goodlett had demonstrated as we selected various artifacts to photograph the day before.

Goodlett, Collins and Williams are preserving today’s treasures for tomorrow to enjoy. There are millions of Derby stories to be told and their work is absolutely astonishing. You can make a bet that the next time I visit, I hope to see the Meeker purse again. Along with all the other artifacts and memorabilia, it’s a perfect place to celebrate the heritage and history of the Kentucky Derby.  I can’t wait to see the expansion! 

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