While the national stakes calendar was upended to a degree, the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown remained largely unaffected [due to WWII]. However, an edict from Byrnes shortly before Christmas 1944 changed all that.
James F. ‘Jimmy’ Byrnes had represented his native South Carolina in Congress for 24 years when President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated him to serve on the Supreme Court in June 1941. After a little more than a year on the bench, Byrnes ended the shortest tenure of any Supreme Court justice in history by taking the reins of the Office of Economic Stabilization, a post he held until May 1943 when he became Director of the Office of War Mobilization.
In this newly established position, Byrnes exerted an outsized influence on the production and transportation needs necessary for the United States to prove victorious in World War II. By late 1944, with the Axis Powers in Europe showing signs of inevitable defeat, Byrnes felt a final push by American industry could bring hostilities to a close within a matter of months.
An antidote for a weary American public
Listen to Ted Huesing call the 1945 Kentucky Derby on WHAS
As a wartime diversion, Thoroughbred racing had not only provided an antidote for a weary American public, but also generated millions of dollars for war relief and the purchase of war bonds.
However, all was not normal within the sport in the years immediately following Pearl Harbor. Racing grounded to a halt entirely in some jurisdictions, while some race meetings were consolidated for the duration of war.
Tracks located in suburban areas, like Arlington Park near Chicago, were forced to run their assigned dates at tracks closer to the urban core. Other notable examples included Churchill Downs hosting the Keeneland spring meet and Belmont Park running Saratoga’s traditional dates for several years.
While the national stakes calendar was upended to a degree, the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown remained largely unaffected. However, an edict from Byrnes shortly before Christmas 1944 changed all that.
…bring present race meetings to a close…
On Dec. 23, Byrnes released this statement:
“The operation of race tracks not only requires the employment of manpower needed for more essential operation, but also manpower,railroad transportation as well as tires and gasoline in the movement of patrons to and from the track, and in the movement of the horses and their attendants.
“The current war situation demands the ‘utmost effort’ the people can give to support the armed forces and the production of needed war materials. The operation of race tracks is not conducive to this all-out effort.
“Therefore, with the approval of the President, I urge that the management of these tracks take immediate measures to bring present race meetings to a close by Jan. 3, 1945, and to refrain from resuming racing at all tracks until war conditions permit.”
The Associated Press later reported that the temporary banning of horse racing was not an indictment against the sport by Washington, but that “the most compelling factor in the stoppage is war plant absenteeism.” There might have been a lot behind these concerns. At a time when all legalized wagering was done on track, the wire service reported that tracks in 17 states had generated more than $1.1 billion in handle during 1944, the equivalent of nearly $16 billion today.
Although officials at Tropical Park fussed by noting that “Florida has no great war industries” and that “the state is not in an area affected by war labor conditions,” the Miami-area course dutifully shut down its racing operations after its Jan. 2 program. Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the only other track operating at the time, did the same.
Bob and Bing
Some topical levity to a serious economic disruption for the racing industry was provided by comedian Bob Hope who, in a newspaper column a week after the racing ban came into effect, wrote:
“Well, they stopped horse racing. That’s to give Crosby’s a chance to come in.
“Seriously, Bing got rid of his horses quite a while ago. When the gas shortage got serious, he sold them back to the brewery.
“The jockeys won’t have to worry, though. They can all go back to their old jobs modeling for Pullman uppers.
“Closing the tracks will also save me a lot of two-dollar bills. I used to make all my bets on the nose.
“Of course, a lot of people didn’t have my natural equipment and just stuck a hat pin through the form chart.”
When will V-E Day be declared?
The government promised a lifting of the racing ban shortly after V-E Day, but as spring arrived the exact date of that was still very much uncertain.
The originally scheduled date of the Kentucky Derby, May 5, was sure to be missed by the time Churchill Downs sent out entry blanks for the race on Apr. 11. Churchill president Col. Matt Winn insisted the Derby would be run, if possible, with a general consensus among horsemen that a month to six weeks would be required to prepare Derby contenders after the date of the race was definitively known.
Racing was finally granted its reprieve on May 10 in an announcement by Kentucky native and future U.S. Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Byrnes’ successor at the Office of Economic Stabilization. Within weeks, racing resumed at nearly a dozen tracks across the country.
On Memorial Day, May 30, more than 315,000 fans attended racing across the country and wagered more than $13 million (nearly $185 million in today’s dollars). More than 76,000 of those crowded into Santa Anita, where racing had just resumed after a four-year absence.
Derby has a date!
The race was soon on to prepare the classic crop of 3-year-olds for the Triple Crown events. The Kentucky Derby was rescheduled for June 9, with the Preakness slated for June 16, and the Belmont Stakes on June 23.
The compact window virtually ensured there would be no serious threat of a sweep, and only one horse wound end up competing in all three races. Sea Swallow, a son of Seabiscuit owned by Charles S. Howard, finished unplaced in all three classics after working around the U.S. ban by running twice at Caliente, in Tijuana, Mexico, in April.
Pavot, who was voted champion juvenile colt of 1944 off an 8-for-8 campaign, was long considered by his connections an unlikely Derby participant. Even with the delay, his connections chose not to nominate him and instead aimed for the Preakness and Belmont.
Amazing by the standards of today, a large number of the 16-horse field for the Kentucky Derby squeezed in anywhere from two to four preps after the lifting of the ban. The betting favorites included Pot o’ Luck, Calumet Farm’s Ben Ali Handicap winner against older horses; Hoop, Jr. and Jeep, each of whom won divisions of the Wood Memorial at Jamaica; and Darby Dieppe, who had defeated Pot o’ Luck in the Blue Grass Stakes at Churchill.
Hoop, Jr., sent off as the second choice, was among the first batch of yearlings Fred W. Hooper ever bought. A self-made southerner with a background in farming and construction, Hooper decades later would campaign Hall of Fame runners Susan’s Girl and Precisionist. The son of *Sir Gallahad III was one of five yearlings Hooper purchased in 1943, with Hoop, Jr. commanding a hefty price of $10,200.
“I just liked his walk, and his looks, and the smartness of his eye and all…,” Hooper recalled to The Blood-Horse many years later.
Hoop, Jr. won twice and placed in three stakes at two, and had turned in a 2 1/2 –length win in his Wood Memorial division on Memorial Day before a record Jamaica crowd of more than 64,000. Eddie Arcaro retained the mount for the Kentucky Derby.
Except for a brief respite at midday, Derby Day proved a wet one for those in attendance. Wartime transportation restrictions in place for several years remained, so the estimated crowd of 75,000 was largely a local one.
The running of the 1 1/4-mile classic was relatively uneventful. Proving that speed is especially dangerous on a muddy track, Arcaro sent Hoop, Jr. to the lead immediately, held a one-length advantage for a mile, and then let the colt rip through the stretch. The Ivan Parke-trained Hoop, Jr. won by six lengths in sundial time of 2:07 over the deep going.
“I just let him run,” Arcaro said to United Press International. “It was a breeze.”
Not only did Hoop, Jr. bankroll $64,850 for the win, but Hooper later revealed he had made much more courtesy of a $10,000 win bet on the colt.
Did the Preakness move too?
As the rescheduled Preakness fell outside Pimlico’s allotted race dates, the track received permission to run a special one-day card on June 16. Presaging the arrival of the ubiquitous “big event” programs of today, the stakes-laden card also included the Pimlico Oaks and Dixie Handicap.
Hoop, Jr. and Pavot, who had lost his first race when a close second to Polynesian in the June 6 Withers Stakes, both started at odds of 1.35-1, but it was the speedy Polynesian, later the sire of Native Dancer, who walked away victorious at odds of 12-1.
Hoop, Jr., who took a run at Polynesian in deep stretch, bowed a tendon near the finish and never raced again. Pavot, who finished fifth, returned the next week to win the Belmont Stakes by five lengths under Arcaro.
Impacts of the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown moves
Compressing the 1945 Triple Crown races into such a short timeframe kept them as close to their original dates as practically possible, but they ultimately proved to have little bearing on the outcome of year-end championships.
Polynesian and Pavot continued to race after their respective classic victories, but neither won another stakes the rest of the season. The 3-year-old male championship instead went to Fighting Step, who had run eighth in the Kentucky Derby but came on late in the year to win the American Derby and minor stakes at Hawthorne and Churchill Downs.
The real star of the abbreviated 1945 season was in fact another 3-year-old, the filly Busher. Campaigned by Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, Busher would win nine stakes from June to October, including the Arlington Handicap, Washington Park Handicap, and Hollywood Derby against males.
Despite the loss of nearly 4 1/2 months of sport to the start the year, 1945 proved a record season for Thoroughbred racing with nearly $1.4 billion wagered following the lifting of the ban.
We don’t yet know what the repercussions will be of the causes that led to the rescheduling of the 2020 Kentucky Derby. The circumstances are very much different from 1945, and objectively the outlook appears much gloomier.
The hope remains, though, that the Derby will enjoy a successful renewal on Sept. 5, that in some way it’s delayed but reliable appearance can contribute to boosting national morale, and that the sport’s economic fortunes will come out stronger as was the case three-quarters of a century ago.