Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 110 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 110 days to go!

110 Days!!! 1909 Wintergreen was the first and only Ohio bred to win the Kentucky Derby, although Montrose was the first to win with Ohio owners, when he took the Derby in 1897 for the Labold Brothers. Wintergreen was bred and owned by J.B. “Rome” Respess, a beer baron of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Respess owned Wintergreen’s sire and dam, Dick Welles and Winter. Dick Welles was named for Orson Welles father who was an inventor. Dick Welles was a big star in racing at the time, once called the “swiftest thoroughbred ever seen on the American continent” by the Lexington Herald in 1904.

At three he won 14 of his 15 starts and set a track record for the mile, stopping the watch in 1:37 2/5. Winter, his dam, was owned by Wayne Joplin, until Respess claimed her from him. It was hard on their friendship; however they got past it as Joplin came to watch the Derby with Respess. As with most owners, Respess wanted to win the Kentucky Derby above all other races. So much so, that there are too differing stories about the colt. The main one is that Respess was so taken with the colt that when he was only a few weeks old, he dubbed him the Kentucky Derby winner of 1909. The other is that Wintergreen was nominated to the Derby because of Mrs. Respess.

When the colts were a few weeks old, Respess was said to be going through them and picking who he wanted nominated. Mrs. Respess told him to nominate Wintergreen, who was unnamed at the time. Respess said that he was too small, and she said he would grow. He told her that if she could pick a suitable name for the colt, he would. She looked at the landscaping at the farm, jumped up and said, “I have it! We will call him Wintergreen.” This was part of the story that was in the Lexington-Herald at the time, nevertheless, he was nominated and it was a good decision by whoever made it!

As a 2YO, he was trained by Charles Mack, but he had help from Respess. The colt would win five of his 10 starts, having finished second once and third three times. Wintergreen was piloted by Vincent Powers, who in 1908 was that leading jockey having won 324 of 1260 races at the age of 16. He won his first race at Churchill Downs when he was 15. He would eventually go on to ride and train steeplechasers, being named the top steeplechase rider in 1917, and 10 years later was named the top steeplechase trainer. He trained the famous Jolly Roger, who became the first steeplechase horse to win more than $100,000.

Coming into the Derby, Wintergreen finished second in his Derby prep at the Lexington Association track, but he would still go off as the 2-1 favorite. Respess was confident in his charge, describing him as having courage without limit and an everlasting disposition to go a distance. He would train him for his last work of one mile, wanting to track his progress.

Many Cincinnati people trekked to Louisville to see the Ohio-bred take on the challengers. They arrived by steamboat and train. There was a morning rain that did little to dampen the crowd’s spirits; however it did make the track slow. While down in the paddock with Joplin, Respess would give jockey Powers his final instructions. He was told to go to the lead and stay, but to be careful because Wintergreen had a tendency to loaf when on the lead.  10 horses would face the starter, and after a good start, Wintergreen was bumped early.

Quickly overcoming that small hurdle, he quickly got back on track and took the lead, winning easily in a time of 2:08 1/5 over the slow track.

The Thoroughbred Record: “As Wintergreen all alone pranced by the judges’ stand the crowd roared and cheered, for it was recognized that the best horse had won. The usual scene followed. Jockey Powers went into the judges’ stand to receive his bouquet of American Beauties. Judge Price said to him: “You rode a nice race, though it was an easy win.” “I got a bit scared, so I hit,” said Powers, “for Mr. Respess told me that he was liable to loaf, and he was starting when I made him forget it.” Rome Respess was there when all of the doings were going on, and he was warmly congratulated by many of his friends, and apparently was exceedingly proud of his colt.”  

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum