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Lisa Unleashed: Kentucky Derby On The Radio For More Than 80 Years

Published: May 14, 2017

Every year I drive home in the afternoon from a dog show in Pennsylvania on Derby Day. Most years I’m able to get back to Connecticut in time to tune in to the Kentucky Derby, dubbed “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” Last week, I knew I wouldn’t be able to watch the ultimate Thoroughbred race on TV for the first time in many years because our showing time at the dog show was late in the afternoon. As post time approached I was heading up Interstate 287 in New Jersey toward the Tappan Zee Bridge when I thought, “Hey, I can listen to the race on the radio, how retro!”

Fortunately, NBCSports radio came up easily on my display screen. I heard the TV broadcasters analyzing the race until the official race announcer took over for the call. Since I couldn’t see the sleek dark coats of the Thoroughbreds or the brilliant colors of the jockey’s silks as they made there way to the starting gate, I began to listen, really listen. I could hear when the horses got to the gate, and when they were all loaded up, the crown roared just before the bell. “And they’re off in the Kentucky Derby,” proclaimed track announcer Larry Collmus.

My mind mesmerized for two minutes listening to the names of the horses trade places “in the early going” and “on the backstretch” as they approached “the crucial first turn” in the “run for the roses.” Then the excitement began “at the far turn” it was Looking for Lee “digging down deep” but Always Dreaming “was holding on” and then down the final stretch “the dream comes true as Always Dreaming wins the 143rd Kentucky Derby.”

First Radio Broadcast

After the race I was curious as to when the first race was broadcast on radio and who called it. Churchill Downs didn’t hire its first track announcer until 1940, so on that first live broadcast back on May 16, 1925, most likely, the race was called by a radio broadcaster sitting in the grandstand. According to The New York Times: For the first time in history the Kentucky Derby will go “on the air,” three radio stations having announced their intention to broadcast the famous classic tomorrow afternoon, beginning shortly before post time, 4:45 o’clock, Central Standard Time. WGN, The Chicago Tribune station, will broadcast the race on a 370.2-meter wave length. WHAS, the Louisville Times and Courier Journal station, will broadcast on a wave length of 399.8 meters. WHT, Chicago, will pick up the signal from WHAS and rebroadcast them on a 238-meter wave length.”

But how the race unfolded on air during the 51st running of the Kentucky Derby in 1925, we’ll never know for sure. For one thing, the Preakness came first, followed by the Derby in mid-May. According to The New York Times coverage of that race, it was listed as the second biggest piece of “Turf” news in the Week in Sports on May 18, 1925. The headline news was that the late Major August Belmont’s famous Nursery Stud of Thoroughbred racing broodmares and sires had recently been sold as a whole to Mr Widener. That was big news back in 1925, more so than a single race.

From the Times: The Kentucky Derby, unique among American turf fixtures, was more brilliant, more colorful than ever before in the more than half century of its history. But at the end the brilliance was dimmed, the rain putting a damper on the enthusiasm which always characterized Derby Day. A field horse as an easy winner, with the favorite nowhere — such was the result of the race. It was a triumph for the veteran trainer, William Duke, recently returned from a long sojourn abroad, and one that is begrudged to him by no horseman. That he should saddle the winners of the Preakness and Derby in less than a fortnight is most remarkable under the circumstances. Flying Ebony had never raced more than six furlongs, nor trained more than a mile. Duke was merely hopeful that Sande would be able to hold him together and stick it out. Flying Ebony was stopping at the end, as the last quarter in 0:28 shows. The 1925 Derby winner merely outlasted a lot of poorer horses.

Radio listeners in 1925 already knew that the favorite, Coventry, who won the Preakness, earning $52,700, trained by William Duke, was not running in the Derby. I imagined they heard the same markers around the track, first turn, backstretch, and far turn in the call. But I wonder if all the horses got a mention on air or if the winning trainer got as much media attention back then. I suspect the owners were more in the limelight than the trainers or jockeys. But in 1925, it would be the last racing season for William Duke, the trainer for Cochran Stables, who not only won the Derby and Preakness, but the Travers Stakes at Saratoga with a horse named Dangerous. Just six months later, on January 26, 1926, he died of pneumonia at his upstate New York estate. The inaugural Kentucky Derby radio broadcast was the first and last to have any announcer call a winner trained by William Duke.

What that first live radio broadcaster did was begin something eloquently echoed in a May 1, 2014, New Yorker article “The Voice of the Kentucky Derby” written by David Hill. The piece was about Larry Collmus, the current Churchill Downs track announcer, who said, “We’re not the story. The story is out there. The horses, the riders. We’re just the narrators.

Lisa Peterson writes about horses, hounds and history at lisaunleashed.com; contact her at lisa@lisaunleashed.com.

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