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Some of the Kentucky Derby's Most Colorful Characters

One of the most interesting elements of covering the Kentucky Derby year after year is finding out how (relatively) accessible it is. Sure, you have to have the right 3-year-old Thoroughbred peaking at just the right time with just the right trip around 1 ¼ miles, but the Derby has been won by racing veterans and relative newcomers; by the rich and the less-rich; the bluebloods and the blue-collar types. This also means that the Kentucky Derby's history is filled not just with bland, buttoned-up connections, but with vibrant and interesting characters.

It's hard to narrow 141 years of history down to a few notable connections, but here are some of the more unusual members in the race's cast of characters:

•“Big Ed” Corrigan: History recalls Ed Corrigan, Chicago industrialist and owner of 1890 Kentucky Derby winner Riley, primarily for his temper, and it's not hard to see why. Corrigan was the owner of Hawthorne Racecourse, and that didn't stop him from giving a punch or a slap to whomever he felt deserved it — riders, competing owners, racegoers, journalists. Writer Jim Bolus documented one prolonged incident in which Corrigan took a disliking to the way a writer for the Kansas City Times portrayed him, so he confronted the man, punching and kicking him so severely that Corrigan thought he had killed the reporter. Frantic, Corrigan splashed water on him, and when the unlucky writer roused up, Corrigan went back to work on him. 

Unsurprisingly, Corrigan struggled to keep trainers or jockeys under his employ for very long (a problem not helped by the fact that in 1905, by which time he was 63, Corrigan seized an apprentice rider by the ears in the paddock and seemingly tried to twist them off the boy's head for what he judged a poor ride). He did manage to keep an upbeat (and, it seems, non-violent) relationship with Isaac Murphy, who rode the majority of Corrigan's horses in the 1880s, when the stable amassed winnings of $1 million. Rumors were flying in 1890 that Murphy had passed his prime, but that didn't stop Corrigan from keeping him on the horse. Murphy and Riley won, but it was to be Murphy's last triumph in the Run for the Roses. The following year, Murphy and his horse failed to finish the race, and many people speculated that his anorexia and bulimia had finally caught up with the rider.

•Juan Arias: Venezuelan Juan Arias didn't expect to go to the Kentucky Derby in his career, and it's safe to say he probably wouldn't have guessed that Canonero II would be the horse that would take him there. The colt was well-known for his diminutive size and crooked leg. When Arias got him, he also had a cracked hoof and a bad case of worms. Whether he reached his potential because of Arias's unusual way with horses (or in spite of it) is hard to say. 

When Canonero II arrived in Kentucky, he had had a disastrous trip from Caracas, where he had begun his career — first on a re-routed plane, then taking a van from Miami to Louisville. That he ran in the Derby at all, with his poor weight and chronic foot problems was surprising to some. Once he got to Kentucky, Arias gave Canonero II long, slow gallops in the days leading up to the race, sometimes without a saddle. To top that off, Arias would have conversations with the horse in Spanish in between chain smoking cigarettes, sometimes basing the colt's training schedule on what he said the horse “told” him. If Canonero II seemed to indicate he wasn't interested in training, he didn't train. The horse, with his blunt-cut forelock that reminded some of Moe from the Three Stooges, was universally mocked for his bizarre entourage, none of whom spoke any English. Arias was unfazed. “Nobody knows my horse,” he said hours before the Derby. “But after today the world will know him.” And after Canonero II charged home 3 ¾ lengths in front, Arias became correct.

•Meshach Tenney (pictured above): The trainer of 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps won the hearts of many American horse fans when he appeared in Life magazine preparing to sleep in the colt's stall in the days leading to the Run for the Roses. That picture, Sports Illustrated later reported, was staged, but Tenney's cowboy attitude and disregard for high-minded conventions were not.

Tenney, a lifelong cowboy from Arizona arrived in Louisville in his trademark wide-brimmed straw hat and cowboy boots, fresh from California. He told SI in 1955 that he never walked horses in his shedrow, fed his horses twice a day (rather than three times) from the ground, and broke his yearlings by riding a cow horse into a yearling's stall and crowding it before galloping the pair together. He popped horses in the nose if they peeked over their stall doors, preferring them to stay indoors. He refused to graze them outside the barn, having some kind of scorn for the grass on the racetrack. Tenney didn't go to the track unless he had a horse running and paid no attention to how his horses' competitors ran. Whatever his training regimen was like, the cowboy tactics worked for Swaps, who won the Kentucky Derby after victories in the Santa Anita Derby and San Vicente. For his part, the association with Swaps proved helpful for Tenney, who was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, was the leading trainer in the country in 1962-63 and sent three more horses to the Derby, finishing with two thirds.

•Charles Day: Very little has been written about Charles M. Day, a Texas oil man who took Saigon Warrior to the 1971 Derby. Day came to the Thoroughbred racing game late in life and found himself excited by the prospects of having a colt in the Derby. Day was so excited in fact, that he took over training of the horse himself, and even when the horse had just one win from 17 starts in the spring of his 3-year-old season, Day paid the entry fee and hauled the horse to Louisville. He also insisted that Bobby Parrott pilot the horse. Parrott had been on the sidelines since a bad accident in 1969 but did his best to get back in shape in time to ride Saigon Warrior.

When it came to the first Saturday in May, Parrott tipped the scales at 127 pounds. He gave Day the option to remove him from Saigon Warrior, but Day declined. Then, Saigon Warrior threw Parrott in the post parade and reared in the starting gate before wandering out to finish the Derby 84 lengths and a full 17 seconds after winner Canonero II. Sadly, Saigon Warrior died of a neurological issue later in the year which Day attributed to that moment of unrest in the starting gate, and it's unclear what became of the owner/trainer afterward.
Leslie Combs is caught off-guard during a photo shoot with Swaps and Nashua

•Leslie Combs: It's impossible to write a story about colorful characters in racing without including Leslie Combs III, founder of Spendthrift Farm and co-breeder of 1969 Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince. Combs had the gift of gab, which came in handy when he started Spendthrift Farm and found himself short of cash to purchase the stallions he wanted to stand there. Combs was one of the first Americans to practice and master the art of stallion syndication and became a sought-after bloodstock advisor for some of the best-known owners and celebrities in the racing world. 

Combs was also known for being a fantastic interview subject: straight-shooting, hard-selling and full of tall tales. A few of my favorite Combs-isms:

“This used to be a gentleman's game – you could syndicate a horse with two telephone calls and a three-page contract. Now the contract's 30 pages and you've got seven lawyers all saying: ‘No that's not how I understood the agreement.' Hell, I wouldn't fool with it now for all the tea in China.” ~To the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1984

“I never bet on any of 'em. I just raise 'em for the monkeys to bet on.”~Variations of this statement appeared in several different interviews throughout Combs' life, though this was the most colorful version.“The real joy in the game and the true spirit of the sport, is love of the horse and the wonderful people who are in it. As has truly been said: Take this away and there will be no racing – only races.” ~1968 speech before 450 of his peers at the Thoroughbred Charities of America.

- by Natalie Voss,



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