Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 88 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 88 days to go!

88 Days!!! 1931 Twenty Grand was a bay colt by the imported stallion *St. Germans, out of the *All Gold mare Bonus. Greentree Stable, run under Helen Hay Whitney who had taken over after her husband’s passing in 1927, owned and bred the outstanding colt. Helen’s husband was Payne Whitney, brother to the well-known Harry Payne Whitney, who had won the Kentucky Derby with Whiskery and Regret. Harry Payne’s son, C.V. Whitney, took over his father’s operation when he passed after the 1930 racing season. C.V. owned the famous Equipoise who would compete in storied races with Twenty Grand.

Twenty Grand’s name could have possibly been after the popular cigarette brand Twenty Grand; however it’s more likely that it was for an offer of $20,000 that was made for the colt, as everyone referred to him as the twenty grand colt. A well-bred beginner, his early training was handled by the once famous harness racer, Thomas Murphy. In a crop of very talented youngsters, Twenty Grand held his own. He started eight times; winning four, two of those wins stakes races; the Junior Champion Stakes and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, in which he defeated Equipoise in both. In the KJC, Twenty Grand locked up with Equipoise in a stretch battle that was talked about for many years, as many veteran track goers considered it to be one of the best races ever run at Churchill Downs. The two horses ran nose and nose throughout the stretch, with Twenty Grand just prevailing as the winner, the showdown resulting in a record for the fastest run mile by a 2YO in 1:36. It would stand for 11 years. 

His 3YO season proved more fruitful when he got a new trainer, James Rowe, Jr, son of James Rowe, who had saddled the Kentucky Derby winners, Hindoo and Regret. Thomas Murphy left Greentree Stable at the end of the 1930 racing season, resulting in the new conditioner for their string of horses. Twenty Grand won his first start of the year on May 2 taking the Wood Memorial. One week later he ran in the Preakness, a roughly run contest, in which he was the victim of heavy interference that resulted in a second place finish behind the talented Mate.  The two horses, as well as Equipoise, made their way to Churchill to compete in the 57th Kentucky Derby.

Even though the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression, thousands of people still made the journey to Louisville to witness the famous spectacle that is the Derby. A crowd of 60,000 people filled every area of the track, enjoying the sunshine that warmed the day. The track was fast, the first time since the 1926 running.

The Whitney entry of Twenty Grand, Surf Board, and the Man O’ War colt Anchor’s Away, were made the favorites at $.88 to $1, Mate was second favorite, while Equipoise was scratched due to an illness. Twenty Grand went to post under the Louisville jockey, Charley Kurtsinger, who received his training from Roscoe Goose, the rider of 1913’s 91-1 longshot victor, Donerail.

As a youngster, Kurtsinger sneaked through a hole in the fence to watch his first Derby, won by Regret. His trainer James Rowe, Jr.’s father had saddled Regret, but almost 50 years to the day (May 17, 1881 / May 16, 1931) of Twenty Grand’s Derby, he saddled his first Derby winner, the great Hindoo. 

The 12 horses broke from the starting gate with little delay, all fighting their way to the front, while Twenty Grand and Kurtsinger trailed the field. They stayed toward the back of the pack while the speedster Sweep Away led through quick fractions over the fast strip. Once they left the backstretch, entering the far turn, Twenty Grand with a blazing turn of foot, starting threading his way through the throng, passing the others like they were standing still. He won the race easily, winning by four lengths, shattering the Kentucky Derby record as well as the track record for a mile and a quarter, in a blazing time of 2:01 4/5. He raced near the back, and then came flying past them all to win. In winning, he broke the Kentucky Derby and track record for the distance; lowering the Derby record set by Old Rosebud by one second and 3/5, and the track record by one second and 2/5.

The 1931 Kentucky Derby was said to be another of the best races run at Churchill Downs, both involving Twenty Grand. The way that he started his run as they left the backstretch, continuing to power on through the stretch to the finish dazzled those in attendance.

Twenty Grand would continue on to win the Belmont by 10 lengths, just missing becoming the third Triple Crown winner because of the Preakness second.  He only lost one other race that year, the Arlington Classic to Mate once more. The loss came after a victory in the Dwyer, where he wrenched his back.

After healing, he would earn victories in the Travers, the Saratoga Cup, where he beat older horses, the Lawrence Realization, and again defeating older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which was his last race of the season as he was injured during the win. The impressive season that he put together led to his being crowned as the 3YO Champion Male in addition to Horse of the Year. His trainer, James Rowe, Jr. passed away in October of 1931, leading to Twenty Grand being put in the hands of a new trainer. He never came back the same. Twenty Grand was retired in his 4YO season when the injury reappeared.

At stud he proved to be infertile, as did a number of stallions from the (GB) St. Germans line. They tried to return him to the races here as well as overseas, never returning to form. He was retired again; sent to spend his days on his owner, Mrs. Payne Whitney's, Greentree Farm. He became one of the famous Greentree Farm's “Gas House Gang” of notable pensioners.

From the AP of May 17, 1931 "Roaring acclaim echoed down the stretch of historic Churchill Downs today as Twenty Grand, bounded in giant stride to victory in the fifty-seventh running of the Kentucky Derby. Belying his name, Twenty Grand looked like the proverbial million as he galloped down the stretch to a decisive victory over Sweep All, the west’s surprise contender, and the heavily backed Mate, the Preakness winner. Twenty Grand, owned by Mrs. Payne Whitney and the outstanding favorite in a field of 12 contestants, came with a smashing burst of speed to beat Sweep All by four good lengths, and shattered the Derby as well as the track record for the mile and a quarter. The big eastern colt, under a masterful ride by Charley Kurtsinger, riding his first Derby victory, covered the distance in two minutes and 1 4/5 seconds on a track that was fast under a blazing sun. The performance displaced the former Derby record of 2:03 2/5 made by Old Rosebud in 1914. It also knocked off the track mark of 2:03 1/5, credited to Woodgap, a half dozen years ago. It was short of the world’s record of two minutes flat, held by the mighty Whiskbroom II."

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum