134 Days! 1885 Joe Cotton was the 3rd of 5 Kentucky Derby winners to be bred by A. J. Alexander, although he never owned a starter in the race. He was the 2nd winner sired by King Alfonso, the sire of 1880 winner Fonso.
Joe Cotton was purchased for $800 as a yearling by J.T. Williams, owner of Stockwood Farm. Named after a famous New York bookie, Joe Cotton would win the Kentucky Derby the first year that “Tip Sheets” made an appearance at Churchill Downs. Tip Sheets were amazingly accurate and compiled and handed out by young boys at the track.
Alex Perry, the 5th African-American trainer to win the Kentucky Derby, was Joe Cotton’s conditioner. As a 2YO, Cotton would race 12 times, winning two of those races. At three, he won his first four races, one of which was the Kentucky Derby.
An estimated 30,000 people came to Louisville to see the Kentucky Derby, and they were treated to a beautiful day after a day of rain that made the track muddy. The track superintendent at the time, Mr. Manlius Taylor, had worked the track at length so that it was fine and in soft condition. He wanted it to be a relief for the horses that had come from the Lexington meet that had been running over a hard track.
The horses made a fine display as they were presented in front of the grandstand to the throng of spectators that filled them. The best impression, however, was made by Joe Cotton as they were stripped of their blankets, his chestnut coat making a striking appearance as that of a shiny copper penny. Joe Cotton was made the favorite, but he had a poor start and ran toward the back of the field in 7th for most of the race. He raced with long strides and was being hard restrained. A horse named Keokuk, took the lead and ran the fastest splits of any of the 1 ½ mile Derbies. He ran the first quarter in: 25.1/4, 6 furlongs in 1:17.1/4, and the mile in 1:44.
After setting such fast fractions for the race, Keokuk would finish 6th. Jockey Erskine “Babe” Henderson made his move with Joe Cotton at the head of the stretch, saving every ounce of energy the horse had for the stretch drive. He took the lead before the 1/8 mile, and managed to hold off the late charge of Bersan, winning by a neck in a time of 2:37 ¼, the fastest since Lord Murphy in 1879.
It was said by those who watched the race that Joe Cotton had stumbled a bit coming into the head of the stretch, which caused him to falter and go off-stride. Had he not, they believed, he would have won by more. After his 3YO season, Joe was purchased by the Dwyer Brothers and he would win four stakes races for them over his 4 and 5YO seasons. The Dwyer Brothers sold Joe Cotton to Frank Taylor, who raced the colt for two more years. He was the first Kentucky Derby winner to have raced through his 7YO season, having started 54 times with 17 wins.