“He alone made it what it is today.”

So says a 1949 New York Times article by Arthur Daley on the passing of Matt Winn. The article was called “The Passing of a Legend,” and what he “made” is the Kentucky Derby.

Matt Winn, a racing impresario if ever there was one, worked at a dozen or more tracks in his life, but this Louisville native’s heart was always at Churchill Downs. As a boy of 14 in 1875, he saw the first Kentucky Derby, and he saw every one after that until his death in 1949. He hung on to catch the race’s 75th birthday.

William H.P. Robertson, in The History of Thoroughbred Racing, called Winn “a Moses who led the sport through trying times”; his business acumen, rather than his passion for racing, led him to join a group that bought the failing Churchill Downs in 1902, and the revival of the race track and the rise of its signature race are often attributed solely to Mr. Winn.

His single-mindedness was legendary. Dissatisfied with Churchill’s racing dates, he took on the Western Turf Association in Kentucky; later, joining forces in New York with James Butler, he did the same thing on behalf of Empire City, this time battling the Jockey Club. He won both times.

When asked by the United States government to suspend the Kentucky Derby in 1943 because of World War II, Winn declined. That year, Count Fleet won the Roses and the Triple Crown.

A 1974 article in Sports Illustrated by Frank Deford quotes Brownie Leach, who served as Winn’s public relations director:

“He was a showman and he sold the Derby, but he cared for it, too. His major concern for the Derby was making it bigger year by year and having nice people come to it.’”

By several accounts, 1915 was the year that Winn turned the Derby from, in Daley’s words, “a bush track horse race into the turf’s No. 1 event.”

In 1915, Regret headed west from her New York base to try to become the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby in its forty year history, and on May 8th, she succeeded. Winn viewed the victory through his dual prism of racing fan and shrewd businessman, according to Edward Hotaling in They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, in which he quotes Winn:

[The Derby] needed only a victory by Regret to create for us some coast-to-coast publicity, and Regret did not fail us…The Derby was thus “made” as an American institution.

This Kentucky-bred prophet preached the gospel of racing through the United States and into Mexico, and those of us back on the East Coast, where Winn worked as a steward at Empire City, like to think that it was our filly that helped put America’s premier horse race on the map.

But as Arthur Daley points out, we can’t take too much credit: “The Kentucky Derby is a monument to him. It’s his baby and his alone.”

This post originally appeared at The Rail.

Daley, Arthur. “The Passing of a Legend.” New York Times. 19 Oct 1949. 2 May 2009.

Deford, Frank. “The Sun Shines Bright.” Sports Illustrated. 29 April 1974. 2 May 2009.

Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.

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