(Pictured above: Kentucky Derby winner Elwood in 1904; Public domain.)
My hometown of New Albany, Indiana, sitting just across the Ohio River from Louisville, has several famous sons. There’s baseball Hall of Famer Billy Herman and, of course, a former high school basketball coach named Edwin Hubble who went on to become one of the world’s most well known astronomers. But New Albany can also claim a Derby winner, the trainer of the little known 1904 champion named Elwood.
Durnell trained and raced Elwood (also his middle name) primarily in California. He had respectable success out west, but nothing to suggest he was a top level Thoroughbred. Anyway, it was widely believed that traveling from California to Louisville was too hard on a horse; the Derby was not a viable option.
But Elwood’s female owner (we’ll get to her name in a minute) had other ideas. After a ten day break in Chicago, the horse seemed refreshed. The female owner took matters into her own hands and sent Elwood to Louisville to challenge for the thirtieth Kentucky Derby. There were only four other horses in the race – but Elwood was the longest shot of the five.
Still in last place at the top of the stretch, jockey Frank Pryor asked Elwood to go, and go they did. Nearing the finish, it was “nose to nose and eyeball to eyeball” with Elwood’s nose crossing the finish line first.
Maybe no one was as surprised as trainer Charles Durnell as he headed to the winner’s circle holding his young son, to the roar of a crowd of 20,000. Meeting him there was the horse’s owner - and his wife – Laska Durnell, the first female owner of a Kentucky Derby winner. Elwood was a wedding present from husband to wife, three years before.