The first Kentucky Derby occurred in 1875 and had very few of the features and elements of today’s modern race. The contests weren’t run on the first Saturday in May; they weren’t run at the distance of 1¼ miles; and there were no roses. The race wasn’t part of The Triple Crown; there was no playing of “My Old Kentucky Home”; and the track wasn’t even named Churchill Downs. But over time, these elements fell into place and gave us the May party that we are familiar with today.
In 1896, Ben Brush was the first horse to win at the “new” distance of 1¼ miles, having been shortened from the previous distance of 1½ miles. The red rose became the official symbol of the race in 1904, and the floral blanket used today was first added in 1932. In 1924, “My Old Kentucky Home” was introduced into the Derby day festivities.
Prior to the 1930s, the Derby and Preakness were often run on the same day, or only one week apart. Therefore, few horses ever raced in both contests. But in 1930, Gallant Fox shocked the racing world by winning The Preakness (which was run before the Derby then), The Kentucky Derby and The Belmont Stakes back to back. In 1931, the racing establishment set the current Triple Crown schedule in stone, so that the Derby would always precede The Preakness by two weeks and be followed by The Belmont Stakes three weeks later.
Racing was just plain rough in those days — and there is no better example than the 1933 Kentucky Derby, also known as the “Fighting Finish.” But as rough as the riding was in that era, I doubt the crowd on hand expected to see 18-year-old jockey Don Meade and 22-year-old rider Herb Fisher street fighting atop two horses down the length of the stretch during the big race.
As the horses straightened out off the final turn, Meade sent Brokers Tip through a narrow seam on the rail and got on even terms with the leader, Head Play, with Fisher aboard. Fisher tried to make it tough for Brokers Tip and pinned him on the rail. The jockeys grabbed and tussled with each other, and Fisher even whipped Meade after the foursome crossed the wire only noses apart.
There were no cameras on the wire to determine a close finish in those days. The winner was determined by the stewards, who announced that Brokers Tip had won the race by a nose. But Fisher was sure he and Head Play had won the race and he also thought he was fouled. His claim was disallowed and the rider was in tears at the decision.
By the time the riders got back to the jockeys room, their emotions boiled over and a fistfight ensued. It was eventually broken up by fellow jockeys and news reporters. Both riders were suspended for 30 days and Fisher received an extra five for starting the fistfight.
Meade would speak of the drama many years later:
“I couldn’t push him away from me because he had a hold of me, so I had to get a hold of him,” he told The Courier Journal. “So, from there down to the wire, that’s what it was, grab and grab and grab. … It was more or less everyone for themselves in those days.”
Don Meade, the ‘Bad Boy’ of racing
Meade also had some previous run-ins with the stewards and was called the “Bad Boy” of horse racing by Time magazine due to his chronic spell of suspensions and frequent fines. In 1936, The Florida State Racing Commission banned Meade from all the Florida tracks for betting against his own mounts. Three years later, he pleaded his case his case to the commission, citing financial hardship and reformation, and Florida lifted the ban.
But Meade shouldn’t just be remembered for being a troublemaker or for the drama that occurred in that Derby. The man was a very accomplished rider, leading the nation in victories in 1939. In 1941, Meade was the leading jockey in the U.S. in wins and earnings.
“I have only one ambition,” he once told a reporter, “to be the top ranking jockey in America.”
But as Fisher and Meade retired and got older, they showed up at various horse-racing events and neither could let bygones be bygones. Fisher still insisted he won the race with Head Play by a long nose — and even if he didn’t, he felt he should have been awarded the win due to the infraction by Meade and Brokers Tip. He also believed a conspiracy theory that the only reason Brokers Tip wasn’t disqualified was that he was owned by Col. E.R. Bradly, a popular horseman and philanthropist, who was already a three-time Derby winner. It would be 30 years from the questionable event until the two would shake hands and make up.
As for the top-two Derby finishers, they met up again in The Preakness. Head Play proved superior while romping in the race, and Brokers Tip ran dead last. Head Play would go on and have a productive career and was named 3-year-old champion of 1933. Brokers Tip would never win another race and remains the last maiden to win The Kentucky Derby.
Wallace Lowery, a Courier Journal photographer, managed to snap the only head-on picture of the melee, while lying under the rail. Like the race, the photo is known as the “Fighting Finish” and is one of the most famous in horse-racing history. The picture was developed and later printed in The Courier Journal. The publication was out on the street within one hour and 40 minutes of the race ending.
While we will never know who actually won the 1933 Kentucky Derby, one of Don Meade’s comments was enlightening for me. “His (Herb Fisher’s) reins were dangling perhaps the last sixteenth of a mile. If he’d have just ridden his horse, he’d have won by two or three lengths.”
Yes, indeed. If he had just ridden his horse!