109 Days!!! In 1910, the earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet, and air flights were moving forward with much interest. In June, Aviator Glenn Curtiss flew his “Hudson Flyer” airplane from the infield. The following day, he along with J.C. “Bud” Marr would fly planes around the track at speeds reaching 60 mph, much to the amazement of all that were in attendance.
It was also a year that the Derby would be timed in fifths instead of quarters, making the time of 2:06 2/5 that was posted by the winner, Donau, 3/20ths off of the track record set by Lieutenant Gibson in 1900. The practice of fifths was started in 1906. Donau, was bred by Col. Milton Young, the owner of McGrathania Stud in Lexington. He would be the second winner bred by Young, with the first being Montrose, the winner in 1887.
Young sold the colt at auction as a yearling, getting $350 for him from William Gerst, originally of Germany. His sire was Woolsthorpe, an imported stallion from Britain that was owned by Young. He raced 63 times in his career, which was much less than Al Lone, Donau’s dam. Al Lone raced 128 times, finishing in the money for 54 of those starts. Gerst named the colt Donau, which means Danube in German. He founded Gerst Brewing Company in Cincinnati, and then moved to Nashville. Once he purchased Donau, he was shipped to Gerst’s Vinehill Stables for conditioning. Trainer George Ham would do the honors, and he would race Donau in California and New York for the duration of his 2YO year. While in California, he would set a world record for the half-mile, covering the distance in :46 1/5 on March 13, 1909 at Santa Anita. He raced 41 times at 2, winning 15 and finishing second or third 20 times.
At three, a week prior to the Kentucky Derby, Donau would defeat several Derby foes in the 9 furlong Camden Handicap which was held in Lexington. Derby day was nearly perfect, and the track was speedy. Records were being set, the clubhouse was newly remodeled, and for the first time fashion editors from Eastern papers showed up to view and report on the costumes of the ladies. The infield was packed, and upwards of 25,000 arrived to view the Blue Ribbon race.
Seven horses would make their way to the starter for the Kentucky Derby, with Canadian jockey Fred Herbert having the call upon Donau. The horses were at the barrier but for a moment, when they were sent off at first asking to a perfect start.
From the History of The Kentucky Derby 1875-1921: “At the end of the mile in 1 :39 4/5, and heading for home, Donau led by half a length, with Joe Morris a head in front of Fighting Bob, and he four lengths better than Boola Boola, the others clearly out of contention. There it looked as any one of the first four might win, for Boola Boola was carrying the Camden colors with the speed of the wind and loomed up big and strong. Down the stretch they came, whips whirling and resounding even above the roar from the stand and the field, and those jockeys rode desperately for the prize that hung at the end of the tiring, heartbreaking journey now less than a sixteenth of a mile away. On and on they came near to the black mark of the white board that should proclaim the finish; flying, yet struggling gamely and determinedly under the punishment of the bending striving riders to be first to that goal where hung fame, glory and gold.”
Gerst said of Donau, "[he] has the speed of a sprinter, the courage of a bulldog, and the gameness of a fighting cock." While he was a fast horse that was a fighter on the track, he was also known for his unwillingness to be rated and a very unruly temperament. He got to where he would lay down on the track if he was being made to do anything he didn’t want.
Because of his disposition, he was sent to the farm for a vacation. While there, the decision was made to geld him, but it did little to change his temperament. He would continue to race on the flat until he was five, being retired with 30 wins from 111 starts. While at the stable and being retrained for steeplechasing, a virus went throughout the barns, causing irreparable damage to Donau’s spleen, as a result, veterinarians were unable to save him.