(Above photo: Bob Hope and Bill Corum at the Kentucky Derby)
Animal sports are no stranger to celebrity. Since the age of gladiators and “bread and circuses” powerful leaders have called for grand spectacle for their people, but horse racing elevated crass blood sports to an elegant spectacle of athleticism and strategy fit for a king. In fact, racing has long been called the “Sport of Kings,” an homage to its age-old patronage by the leaders and influential movers and shakers of society.
To this day, the royal family of Britain opens each day of the premiere week of spring racing at Ascot Racecourse with a ceremonial procession. British royalty has also graced the Churchill grandstand multiple times since 1875: the 17th Earl of Derby—whose ancestral title is the namesake for the Kentucky Derby—attended in 1930, the Duke of Windsor and his tabloid-darling wife, Wallis Simpson, attended in 1951, Princess Margaret attended in 1974, and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip attended in 2007.
Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon (center)
Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson
American racing—thanks to the early pioneers of major U.S. tracks like Churchill Downs’ Col. Meriweather Lewis Clark—took many of its cultural cues from the courtly traditions of European tracks. However, without a monarch presiding over the turf in the States, America looked to its own unique kind of royalty: delegations from Hollywood.
One of the first notable celebrities to attend the Kentucky Derby, for example, was stage actress Helena Modjeska. As actors and actresses flocked to Los Angeles to star on the screen instead of the stage, California racing exploded with Hollywood engagement, and the shockwave didn’t take long to make it to the Louisville. The Golden Age of American racing, from the 1930s-1950s, owes much of its success to the film industry; dozens of motion pictures either featured or referenced racing, and major stars and producers like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Cecil B. DeMille, and Samuel Goldwyn were the lifeblood of Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park. (For a great history on this subject, pick up a copy of Alan Shuback’s Hollywood at the Races: Film’s Love Affair with the Turf).
Bob Hope and Eddie Arcaro in a publicity shot together for an American Red Cross blood drive.
Program signed by Bing Crosby
Crosby Derby boardgame, Kentucky Derby Museum Permanent Collection
The Kentucky Derby attracted many of the same faces with its reputation as the premier American sporting event, and continues to bring the who’s who of Hollywood, like director and producer Stephen Spielberg and actor Jack Nicholson. But it also attracted other kinds of celebrities. Grapes of Wrath Novelist John Steinbeck referred to Derby as, “a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced.” Stanley Kirk Burrell—or as most of us know him, MC Hammer—entered one of his horses in the 1992 Kentucky Derby and made quite a stir in the stands.
Oaktown Stables silks (Stable owned by MC Hammer)
In 1998, internationally-acclaimed actor Jack Nicholson attended the Kentucky Derby. Here he is taking a bow to the stands during the Post Parade.
Politicians have always loved the Derby, too. State senators, mayors, officials, and governors remain a staple of Derby Day, and the occasional national figure will also attend. President Richard M. Nixon attended the Kentucky Derby while he was in office, and Carter, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, Sr. attended either before or after they became Leader of the Free World.
Richard Nixon at the 1969 Kentucky Derby.
So why do celebrities attend the Kentucky Derby? A simple answer could have something to do with seeing and being seen. Celebrities at the Kentucky Derby could also appear to be the last vestige of the bygone Golden Age of racing. But celebrity Derby goers could also stand as a testament to how a deeply American public spectacle like the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports continues to bring people from all walks of life together in Kentucky for one day a year. Who would want to miss that?