Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 117 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 117 days to go!

117 Days!!! 1902 was a year of change at Churchill Downs. The Maxwell Starting machine made its first appearance at the track. It consisted of a band that stretched across the track, and when the device was activated, the barrier sprang up and away from the horses. In 1903, the Kentucky Derby would use it for the start.

The biggest change would involve the certainty of the track. A well-known tailor in Louisville, that had seen every Derby from the beginning, was told that the track was on the verge of closing as a result of the handling of its affairs. Col. Matt Winn would gather a team of investors to buy the track for $40,000. Due to Winn’s great ideas and promoting of the track, it turned its first ever profits and he was behind making the Kentucky Derby what it is today.

Alan-A-Dale was the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby that was sired by a Kentucky Derby winner, 1895 victor, Halma. Named after a character in Robin Hood, he was the third winner that was foaled at Ashland, with his breeder, owner and trainer being Major Thomas C. McDowell, great-grandson of Henry Clay. McDowell’s father, Maj. Henry Clay McDowell, was fond of raising Standardbreds, so both breeds of horse were plentiful at the estate.He was responsible for the great Standardbred sire, Dictator, who is buried at the farm with Alan-A-Dale next to him. Thomas McDowell bought a few broodmares when he started out, one of them being Sudie McNairy, the dam of Alan-A-Dale. (He also purchased the dam of Alan-A-Dales’ stablemate and fellow Derby entry, The Rival, as well as buying Reine d’Or, the dam of Rush who won the 1899 Kentucky Oaks.)

At two, Alan-A-Dale won three of his four starts, including the Brighton Junior Stakes, but a sore knee would keep him from racing any more that year. In his training up to the Derby, Alan-A-Dale would be worked at a harness track in Memphis with a sulky rather than a rider to keep the weight off of his legs.

As it got closer to the Derby, he started working, mainly with jockey Jimmy Winkfield on him. Jockey Nash “Ice” Turner was hired by McDowell to ride his pick of the two horses, Alan-A-Dale or The Rival. Turner was considered to be the best rider in America at the time, so everyone waited to see who he would ride. It was to be that Winkfield was going to ride whoever Nash didn’t pick.

There was so much speculation going on about who was riding who, that multiple sources had Nash on Alan-A-Dale. Even in a May 2 Louisville paper, Nash was listed as the jockey for Alan, J. Ransch was listed on The Rival, the favorite, Abe Frank was to have the riding services of Coburn, Henry New (that didn’t run)was to have Winkfield, and Inventor was to be ridden by R. Williams.Derby day was clear, and so many horses had arrived for the meet that some had to be kept at nearby Douglas Park for the reason that there wasn’t enough room for them at Churchill Downs. Admission was $1.50, and the stands were full.

The favorite was the Tennessee horse, Abe Frank, at 3-5 who had won the Tennessee Derby and multiple stakes at two. Alan-A-Dale and The Rival were the second choice, although The Rival was the much better regarded horse. Winkfield would have the mount on Alan-A-Dale, while Nash was aboard The Rival.  The start was good, and by the time they reached the quarter pole, Winkfield had moved Alan-A-Dale to the lead. They set a terrifically fast pace, having a 6 length lead on the backstretch over Abe Frank. As they turned for home, they still clung to a big lead, although Alan-A-Dale began to tire from the furious pace that they had set. Inventor would rally, falling just short, with Alan-A-Dale hanging on to win by a neck in a time of 2:08 ¾. The Rival was third with Abe Frank trailing the field, although the four were closely bunched at the finished.

Jockey Jimmy Winkfield would become only the second jockey to win back-to-back runnings in what many would say was the best Kentucky Derby that had ever been run.  Alan-A-Dale would be the third consecutive horse to win the Kentucky Derby at first start in their 3YO campaign.

The Kentucky Derby would also be his only race at three, as he came out of the race lame, and was feared to never be able to race again. He didn’t show his lameness until he was returning to the barns, as the bay colt paraded proudly in front of the stands with his garland of ferns and pink and white carnations. I’m not sure what happened and how each jockey ended up on their mount.

After the Derby, Winkfield was said to have worked both horses, and knowing that Turner would have his choice of horses, intentionally worked Alan-A-Dale slower so that he would choose The Rival. Turner rode Alan-A-Dale in his final work, which was slower by a second than The Rival’s. After the Derby, Turner said that McDowell put him on The Rival, who was the worst horse, so as to confuse everyone. The other riders trailed him, thinking that he was planning something and that he had more horse underneath him, which allowed Alan-A-Dale to go to the front unchallenged.

In the stretch the others realized that he had no horse and it was too late to catch the leader. Either way, McDowell finished first and third with his two horses that he owned and trained, and repeated the outcome in the 1906 Kentucky Oaks with his fillies King’s Daughter and Lady Anne. Alan-A-Dale would race again at four, five, and six. He won one more stakes race and set a world record for the mile in 1902 with a time of 1:37 2/5 at Washington Park in Chicago.

He would retire with a record from 37 starts of 17-7-1, and earnings of over $25,000. He was retired to Ashland where he stood at stud.

This is the best race description that I found detailing the stretch drive, from “The History of the Kentucky Derby, 1875-1921: “It was a great race to watch from start to finish. At the finish of the race all four jockeys were riding like demons, and the favorite, Abe Frank, was beaten because he was not the best horse at the weights that day. Inventor and The Rival, second and third horses in this race were well ridden and ran gamely, but there is no way they could have been closer up at the finish no matter in what way they would have changed their running.”

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum