Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 136 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 136 days to go!

136 Days!  1883 was the first year that Churchill Downs was used to landmark the track, as the Louisville Commercial, a local newspaper, would label it as such when writing about the meets. It was also the only time that the running of the Kentucky Derby was delayed a day because of the track condition. Three days of rain made the track a sloppy mess, so it was decided to postpone the race until Wednesday.  Leonatus was the first of two Kentucky Derby winners sired by Longfellow (Riley is the other in 1890).

He was bred by J. Henry Miller on his farm. Miller was a small breeder, but he owned some very good bloodstock, as was the case with the mare, Semper Felix, by import *Phaeton, whom he bred to Longfellow. He named the foal Leonatus, meaning “Birth of a Lion”.

As a 2YO, Leonatus finished second in his only start, the Maiden Stakes at Churchill Downs, which was run in September. He would be beaten by the highly regarded Cardinal McCloskey over a muddy track.  It was the only time in his career that he didn’t win.

In the winter after his 2YO campaign, he was purchased for $5000 by George Morgan and Jack Chinn. He was then trained by Raleigh Colston, one of the 13 African-Americans that rode in the first Kentucky Derby. His mount, Searcher, ran 9th of 15. His first start at three was in the Blue Ribbon Stakes at Lexington, as race that had only three starters, winning easily by ten lengths.

From here the narrative takes a turn that leads to the reason why the rose is official flower of the Kentucky Derby. New York turfman, Barry Wall, was known for being flashy when he appeared at the track. He took some time off to visit a friend in Lexington, and while attending a dinner, was invited to Colonel Chinn’s Morgandale Stock Farm to view his horses. There, Wall fell in love with Leonatus and wanted to purchase the horse. Chinn, having reservations about selling Leonatus, said he would for $10,000. Wall immediately drew out his checkbook and wrote the check, but Chinn changed his mind and wouldn’t take it. Wall insisted that a deal was made, but Chinn refused to go through with it. Wall stormed off and went to the Louisville bookmakers, place huge wagers on the colt to win the Derby, dropping his odds from 8-1 to 6-1.

After he returned to New York, he continued to place wagers on the colt. Chinn, hearing of his wagering, wanted to 50% of the betting action. Wall refused, citing the lack of sale. He placed so much money on the colt that others started betting on him as well, including Chinn. The favorite had been Ascender, but Leonatus took so much action that he would go off as the favorite off of two races.

After the race was over, Wall would refuse to answer how much money he had actually won, just saying that he had a lot of money to spend. He threw a party for 30 couples, and he was known for his unique gifts that he would present to the ladies of the group. He sent to New York City to have bouquets of the rose that became known in the states as the American Beauty. It was a French rose that had only been in the states since 1880 and was known in France as the Madam Ferdinand Jamin Rose. The roses that color had never been seen in Kentucky were a huge hit that the ladies loved; however, they also drew the admiration of Colonel Clark who had never seen such rich looking blooms. The following year the rose was named as the official flower, all over a dispute over a Derby winner that led to a major betting haul.

After three continuous days of rain, and the day’s postponement, Derby day was sunny and cheery, although the track was heavy. Patrons came out in number with at least 10,000 making their way to the race. Around 525 horses were said to be on the grounds, and there was a new chute that had been constructed that the horses were using in their morning exercises. Leonatus had been made the 2-1 favorite, mostly due to the bets that Wall had been placing on the colt.

With 16YO “Billy” Donahue in the saddle, they made their way to the start. The seven starters were all well-behaved, leading to a quick start on the first attempt. Leonatus broke behind Drake Carter, but caught him within the first quarter mile, and never looked back. They won easily in a gallop by three lengths, registering a time of 2:43. Donahue was said to have bet his life savings on Leonatus, but many people assumed that wasn’t much since he was only 16.

Five days after the Kentucky Derby, the famous jockey Isaac Murphy took over piloting duties for all of Leonatus’s remaining races. The duo easily won the Tobacco Stakes which was two heat races at a mile. The first heat they won by three lengths, and the second by one.  Three days later, on May 31st, they would take the Woodburn Stakes at a mile and an eighth. On June 9th, Leonatus won the Hindoo Stakes (later renamed as the Latonia Derby), additionally, on June 13th, at a mile and quarter won the Ripple Stakes, and two days later he took the mile and three-eighths Himyar Stakes.

Shipping next to Chicago, Leonatus won the 1 ¾ mile Dearborn Stakes on July 2, the 1 1/8 mile Green Stakes on July 4th and finally the mile and a half Illinois Derby the next day, July 5th. Leonatus won ten stakes races in 49 days. He was shipped East to take on their challengers; however during a morning gallop in which a light-weight jockey was used, Leonatus tossed the jockey and proceeded to run free for a mile and a half, pulling up with a shoulder issue. He didn’t go to the track for several days, and fearing that he might do the same thing, they brought Isaac Murphy to the track to ride him in the morning. The horse seemed fine, galloping through his work, when he stumbled and caught a shoe, hitting a foreleg. It showed up as a small spot, but continued to swell. He had injured his tendon and would be forced to retire.

For the first year or two, he stood at Chinn’s Farm, which he renamed Leonatus Stock Farm. He was then sold to Clay and Woodford, standing at their Runnymede Farm. He sired 1898 Suburban winner, Tillo, as well as 1898 American Derby winner, Pink Coat. Pink Coat was the sire of 1907 Kentucky derby winner, Pink Star.

This great poem was written by James Whitcomb Riley and published in The Thoroughbred Record in 1944:

“I love the Hoss from Hoof to Head,From Head to Hoof and Tail to Mane. I love the Hoss, as I have said, From Head to Hoof and back again. I love my God the first of all, Then Him that perished on the Cross, And next my wife and then I fall Down on my knees and love the Hoss.”

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum