Stephen Foster is an American icon; in fact, you can argue he’s the definition of Americana. The legendary songwriter (fittingly born on Independence Day in 1826) penned such famous songs as “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Oh! Susanna,” but in the sport of horse racing, Foster is best known as the author of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which is played every year before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs. It’s always an emotional sight watching the horses and jockeys parade on to the track while Foster’s famous song echoes around Churchill Downs and the crowd sings along; in fact, it’s one of the most iconic annual moments in racing.
Thanks to his contribution to American culture, Stephen Foster is honored in the United States every Jan. 13 with a “Stephen Foster Memorial Day.” Thanks to his contribution to the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs honors Foster with a prestigious Grade 1 stakes named in his honor: the Stephen Foster Handicap, held every June and won by such well-known horses as Curlin, Saint Liam, Blame, and Street Cry.
Horse racing has a long history of honoring famous people, horses, and places with stakes races. Even the Kentucky Derby itself owes its name to that of a famous individual; the Kentucky Derby is the American equivalent of “the Derby” in England, which was named for the 12th Earl of Derby.
But with so many races paying tribute to so many legends from the past, some of the connections have been forgotten by modern racing fans, who are unaware of the greatness behind each name. Have you ever stopped to think about meaning behind the name of the Lecomte Stakes, a Grade 3 Kentucky Derby prep held at Fair Grounds (this year’s renewal is on Jan. 21)? The Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes is a prestigious sprint at Saratoga, but do you know who King’s Bishop was? The Fred W. Hooper Handicap, a Grade 3 stakes in Florida, was clearly named after a person, but not just any person – are you aware of Hooper’s vast contributions to the sport of horse racing?
With so much history sitting unnoticed behind the names of famous horse races, exploring the meaning of these names can be a fascinating and rewarding experience. That’s why America’s Best Racing is launching a new weekly series called “What’s in a (Race) Name?”
Every Monday, this series will take a look at some of the best upcoming races in the United States and delve into the history behind their names. You’ll learn about the brilliance of Lecomte, who made a name for himself in “heat races” more than 150 years ago. You’ll learn about Fred W. Hooper and his decades-long success as a breeder and owner. You’ll even learn about a nearly-forgotten horse by the name of Preakness.
I hope you’ll join me every week to learn about and celebrate horse racing’s rich history!
The 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands post parade and "My Old Kentucky Home" sing-along: