Tac-ling Derby History

Tac Pin CollectionHello, Derby-lovers! I’m Jessica, the new Retail Website Coordinator at the Kentucky Derby Museum, and this is the story of how working in retail helped me find a new home.

The Kentucky Derby Museum’s Finish Line Gift Shop offers a slew of great products, but one of my very favorites is the exclusive collection of tac pins honoring every Derby winner since the race’s 1875 inception. Until now, these products had not been available online, so I made it my goal when I arrived to make these one-of-a-kind products available.

As I prepared to upload them to the new website, the mere number of pins, each representing a rich story, reinforced the overwhelming amount of history I still didn’t know about Louisville and horse racing.

You see, I can’t really call myself a Kentuckian yet. Not really, because I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby; and in fact, until moving to Louisville in October, I had never even seen footage from one.

Shocked? You and everyone else in this city.

When I first took my job here at the Kentucky Derby Museum, I felt like I had just stepped off a plane into a foreign country with an outdated phrasebook in my pocket. “Do you speak Derby,” I felt everyone was constantly asking me; and my answer was decidedly “no.” Fillies? Silks? Bits? Parimutuel betting? What were these?

“At least you know who Secretariat is,” said someone on my first day, “right?”

I nodded my head. “He’s a horse, right?”

Fortunately folks were very understanding about my Derby naivety, but I was still eager to find a deeper path into the lore and language that surrounds the Kentucky Derby. While some people have found it by growing up in Louisville or attending the fall and spring meets each year, I found it through 137 little one-inch pieces of metal. I found it through tac pins. Of course, the colorful array of the silks and the clever names of the horses on the pins intrigued me. But it was more than that: I wanted to know about the kinds of people who would name a horse Sunday Silence, or the jockeys who would throw a punch atop a galloping horse. I wanted to feel what it was like to be in the stands at Churchill Downs, maybe next to an owner or trainer of a promising three-year-old, clutching a cold mint julep with excitement in 1932. I wanted to smell the wet dirt and hear the call to post echoing across the infield and beyond. I wanted to picture the successes and the failures; I wanted to know who won against all the odds.

I needed to engage with all of their stories before they could touch mine.

And so I set off on a gigantic research project: I was going to learn the story of every Derby winner as I put the pins online, teaching myself about the “greatest two minutes in sports” while simultaneously creating an abbreviated resource for our customers on our gift shop website.

Like a hazing ritual, uploading the tac pins made me feel like I’m on my way to proper Commonwealth citizenship. I can now, with only a little cheating, name for you the jockeys, trainers, owners and breeders of almost any horse. I can tell you records, rankings and Hall of Fame inductions. I can spout an anecdote about nearly every winner; and I can probably (but don’t test me) do it in order.

Best of all, I can feel part of that great family of Derby-lovers who, when the time is right, can call on any number of inspiring facts about the Kentucky Derby to make them feel proud of their city and state.

As they say in the old song (you know which one), “We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home; for the old Kentucky home far away.”

No one sings that refrain, I hear, like a true Derby-lover on the first Saturday in May. I can’t wait to start singing it too.

By Jessica Whitehead Retail Website Coordinator

To read some of Jessica’s new found racing wisdom visit the tac pin section of our website at derbymuseumstore.com.