The First Saturday in May: Since 1946

Pop Culture
A view of the crowd at the 2017 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The night before the 1945 Kentucky Derby, the city of Louisville was packed with racing fans. They booked every hotel room in the city, where people were crowded in three or four to a room. They filled the parking lots with cars with out-of-state plates. The biggest club in town, Club Madrid, was sold out with a capacity crowd of more than 1,400 people to hear an orchestra flown in from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Restaurants around town ran out of food. And the Kentucky Derby, set to be run the following day, had sold all 35,000 tickets in advance, a feat not even achieved when the race had a record attendance of 95,000 that showed up in 1941.

It wasn’t unusual for there to be such enthusiasm for the Kentucky Derby. Horse racing was one of the most popular sports in America, and the Kentucky Derby its most prized affair. What made the crowds preparing for the 1945 Derby unusual was that the government had declared a ban on horse racing, a ban on large crowds, and a ban on out-of-state travel to the race due to World War II. The crowds that jammed the bars and restaurants of Louisville the night before the Derby were mostly there in violation of the prohibitions. No law, no government decree, not even a war was going to keep the fans away from the Kentucky Derby.

They called this, and every Kentucky Derby since the outbreak of war had led to travel restrictions, a “Streetcar Derby,” meaning it was a race held only for Louisville-area locals to enjoy – only those who could reach Churchill Downs by streetcar. Those streetcar Derbys in past years had much smaller turnouts, and while some die-hard fans may have slipped in, it was clear the travel restrictions had an effect. In 1945, however, the situation was different. The government had outright banned horse racing in 1945 until VE Day, May 8, when the Allies declared victory. That day came too late for the Kentucky Derby, which was traditionally held on the first Saturday in May. So Colonel Matt Winn, president of Churchill Downs, moved the race to June 9.

While the travel restrictions remained, the ban on the sport had been lifted, and fans who were starved for some racing action flocked to the track like never before. Because of the victory in Europe, it’s very likely racing fans were more willing than in past years to ignore the rules on travel. Colonel Winn only made tickets available to Louisville locals, however. As a patriotic American, he wanted to abide the laws and keep it a “Streetcar Derby.” But there was nothing stopping locals from buying up the tickets and distributing them to out of towners. Nor was there anything keeping an out of towner from entering the gates on race day and taking in the Derby from the infield, which tens of thousands did. While the crowd didn’t reach 95,000, it was still an eye-popping 75,000 people who were on hand during that most unusual of years.

The following year things got back to normal in America, as well as at the racetrack. The 1946 Kentucky Derby saw over 100,000 fans for the first time in its history. The race also returned to its usual place on the first Saturday in May, where it has remained every year since.

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