Byroad to the Kentucky Derby: The Presidents

March 3rd, 2020

Editor's Note: Byroad to the Kentucky Derby examines history, culture and their ties to Americana. Weekly installments will mention how the Kentucky Derby crosses the threads of time.

This week’s feature focuses on our commanders-in-chief and the Run for the Roses.

The sport of kings is also the pastime of presidents. Richard Nixon is the only president to attend the Kentucky Derby while he lived in the White House, but eight others witnessed the most exciting two minutes in sports.

The first was Harry Truman, who attended before he became president in 1945, although the exact year is unknown. He indicated he would like to return, because he enjoyed it and thought it a great tradition.

Lyndon Johnson was present in 1952, while he served as a United States senator from Texas. He described it as his day off and was reluctant to talk to the press.   

Nixon was in the 1968 audience during his presidential campaign. He said if he were elected, he would return the following year, and he did. Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California, also attended in 1969, and the two men watched the sixth race together.

Gerald Ford also attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1969. The most prolific presidential fan of the Run for the Roses, he attended 13 times. He saw two eventual Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Several times his host was his longtime friend John Galbreath, a former Churchill Downs chairman of the board and owner of Darby Dan Farm and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Jimmy Carter came in 1983. He started his day by jogging at breeder Tom Gentry’s Lexington farm. He helped saddle Flag Admiral, one of Gentry’s horses in the fourth race on the Kentucky Derby card, and he won. Carter purchased an interest in the horse, and two weeks later he ran in the Preakness.

George W. Bush (right) at the Kentucky Derby in 2000 (Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)

George H. W. Bush was also at the 1983 Derby as a guest of Will Farish, the founder of Lane’s End Farm and his longtime friend and hunting buddy, who gave the Bushes their White House dog, Millie. It was the first of Bush’s four visits to the Derby. He also attended in 1993 (when he presented the trophy for the Churchill Downs Handicap), 1995, and 2000. In 2000 he and his son, George W. Bush, who was Texas governor, presented the trophy for the Humana Distaff and dined together in the Skye Terrace.

“I’m really glad I came," George W. told the Thoroughbred Times. "The energy of the crowd is magnificent. The horses are beautiful. It’s a fantastic experience.”

Bill Clinton never attended the Kentucky Derby, but he became the first president to call and congratulate a winner in 1994. The 1992 Kentucky Derby trophy, won by Lil E. Tee and owner W. Cal Partee of Magnolia, Arkansas, was a gift to Clinton from Partee’s son and is on display at his presidential library in Little Rock.

Donald Trump and eventual first lady Melania Trump attended in 1999. Trump told reporters he planned to bet on Stephen Got Even, a horse owned by his friend Stephen Hilbert, who finished 14th.

Donald and Melania Trump at the Kentucky Derby 1999

Below is an excellent infographic by the Kentucky Derby Museum, which displays the presidents who have attended the Kentucky Derby.

Presidents at the Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum)