Kentucky Derby Museum: Celebrating “The Greatest Race”

Kentucky Derby Museum: Celebrating “The Greatest Race”

Above photo:  Model of the Kentucky Derby Museum, circa 1983 (Credit: Kentucky Derby Museum)

For decades, the Kentucky Derby Museum has shared the experience and the traditions of the world-renowned sporting and cultural event known as the Kentucky Derby. In late 1978, Churchill Downs leadership disclosed plans for a new non-profit Kentucky Derby Museum funded by the J. Graham Brown Foundation. A model of the proposed $7 million facility was unveiled in 1983 and opened to great fanfare on April 28, 1985. An auditorium called the Great Hall was the centerpiece of the Museum and home to its feature film, The Greatest Race, a multi-projector slide show shown on a 360 degree screen. It was a unique presentation that immersed the viewer in the Derby Day experience.

This new non-profit was the successor of a museum owned and operated by Churchill Downs and located at the historic racetrack. Opening in 1962, the first museum housed important artifacts related to the Kentucky Derby.

Original Kentucky Derby Museum, 1960s (Credit: Churchill Downs Racetrack)

Curator Mary Ann Cooper in the original museum, 1960s (Credit: Churchill Downs Racetrack)

 In a 2011 interview, original curator Mary Ann Cooper discussed the early years of that museum and the acquisition process. She recounts a meeting with Elizabeth Stone Greer, granddaughter of Kentucky Derby winning owner Kinzea Stone. On her way out after a visit, Ms. Cooper engaged Ms. Greer in conversation and asked if she enjoyed her time at the Museum. Ms. Greer was eager to tell Mary Ann about an “1880-something silk purse” from the Kentucky Derby given to her by her grandfather. The museum curator exclaimed, “You mean you have the silk purse that the money went in to go the winning horse?” That was indeed the case. This silk purse, presented to owner Kinzea Stone after Kingman won the Kentucky Derby in 1891, marked the final time the great jockey Isaac Murphy won the race. This significant artifact came to the new Kentucky Derby Museum in 1984 and still has a prominent place in the Jockey Stories exhibit.

1891 silk purse (Credit: Kentucky Derby Museum)

The new Kentucky Derby Museum built upon the legacy of its predecessor. In addition to The Greatest Race, the Museum celebrated the art of the horse through juried competitions and artist features. In 1987, a student competition and exhibit titled Horsing Around with Art debuted. Still a valuable part of KDM programming in the present day, the Museum hosts hundreds of students at the annual awards ceremony honoring the winners. Of course, the history and tradition of the Derby also held a prominent place in the facility. In 1992, KDM opened African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing, a partnership between the Museum, the University of Louisville and the local and racing industry communities. It gave particular focus to the African American jockeys that dominated the Derby in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This landmark exhibition analyzed the institution of slavery and the era of Jim Crow and segregation while also celebrating the achievements of some of America’s earliest professional athletes. This exhibit also retains a prominent place in today’s Museum.

Aerial shot of the 2000 renovation (Credit: Westerfield Studio)

The Museum has met with great success and has expanded on multiple occasions. The first came in the year 2000, when KDM added 10,000 square feet to its facility. A complete renovation of the first floor exhibits transpired, highlighted by the transition of The Greatest Race to high definition film. In 2009, the Museum experienced a devastating flood that resulted in an over eight month closure. KDM used this time to completely renovate its first and second floor exhibitions and reopened weeks prior to the 2010 Kentucky Derby. In 2015, The Greatest Race was updated again to a 4k “ultra HD” experience. The year 2018 brought the Museum’s largest-ever expansion of 11,000 square feet, featuring exhibitions comprised of KDM’s two largest artifact collections, those of trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Bill Shoemaker.

Museum Expansion Progress

(Scroll through 2018 expansion progress photos)

With a current mission “to ENGAGE, EDUCATE, and EXCITE EVERYONE about the extraordinary experience that is the Kentucky Derby,” the Museum provides a variety of educational and entertainment options for its audience and the wider community. KDM provides curriculum-based programming for over 30,000 youths annually. It offers unique tours of Churchill Downs that highlight the historic structure, the horses and people of the backside community and areas of the track that few others get to see. KDM also brings in thousands for special events and is a top source for unique Kentucky Derby souvenirs and collectibles. In fact, KDM’s most recent fiscal year brought a record attendance of 242,841.

As all of us are currently experiencing life changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the KDM team still works fervently to fulfill its mission, just as it has throughout its history. This very blog is part of that endeavor, as we provide a virtual museum to engage, enlighten and entertain while many of you are at home. We hope you continue to stop by our virtual museum during what would have been KDM’s annual highlight: Kentucky Derby Week. Please spend your Saturday with us as we partner with Churchill Downs to bring you a Virtual "Derby at Home", where we’ll spend the day immersed in the traditions of the Run for the Roses until that time when we can see you come through our doors once again.

Chris Goodlett

Chris Goodlett

Director of Curatorial & Educational Affairs for the Kentucky Derby Museum.