How Matt Winn Saved Kentucky Racing with Those Paris Machines

February 16th, 2024

Kentucky Derby Day features a plethora of sights: mint juleps in signature glasses; spectators dressed to the nines; and white betting slips stuffed in pockets and purses. Along the paddock rail the crowd stands watching the horses, eager to find a candidate for their next bet. Whether we stand in line or bet online, we must thank one man for the chance to bet on the Kentucky Derby: Colonel Matt Winn.

His efforts to save the race and its place went beyond marketing the Derby experience. When fans’ ability to bet on the big race was threatened, this influential figure went to great lengths to preserve that part of racing and save the Kentucky Derby in the process. 

Money, Money, Money

Betting has been a part of racing since the 17th century and has evolved along with the sport. As the sport itself became more organized, wagering also developed systematized ways to bet, with bookmakers becoming the predominant means for wagering by the late 19th century. 

In a nutshell, bookmakers are individual gambling markets. Bettors can view each bookmaker’s odds on a particular horse and then put their money with the one offering the best odds. These are separate from the racetrack’s odds and are limited to that particular bookmaker. Bookies made their money off both unsuccessful wagers and the fees they charged for each bet.

A falling out over fees each bookmaker must pay meant that none were unavailable for the 1886 Kentucky Derby, leaving auction pools as the lone means for wagering on the big race. In an auction pool, each starter is put up for auction and bettors bid on their chosen horses. The highest bidder won each horse, and the money would go into a winner-take-all pool. Whoever had the winning horse won that pool. 

Pari-mutuel wagering also uses pools but in a different way. Bettors wager on their chosen horses and that money goes into a pool for that particular type of bet. So, if you place a win bet, that money goes into the win pool only. When the race is over, the pool is distributed equally among all of the people who placed that winning wager, minus a statutory cut (called takeout) for the track, horsemen, and state. 

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. learned about this type of wagering during his time in France and imported four pari-mutuel machines from Paris with the intent of using them on that first Derby Day. Reports about their use in 1875 and onward are mixed, but by 1908, bookmakers remained the main means for betting and the primary target of reformers. 

The Show Must Go On

In the first decade of the 20th century, the Progressive Era's effort to cure Americans of their vices sought to eliminate gambling altogether. Anti-gambling advocates became politically involved and passed laws that severely limited or abolished wagering in any form. When the reform-minded James Grinstead became mayor of Louisville, his administration soon passed a law prohibiting bookmaking. Churchill Downs depended on the commissions they collected from the money wagered each race day. With the 1908 Kentucky Derby just days away, Winn needed to find a solution and fast. 

Back in 1886, with bookmakers unavailable, the track relied on auction pools, and in 1908, the track could have gone that direction again – if the city government would allow it. Suspecting those would also be outlawed, Winn and track president Charles Grainger scoured law books to find the loophole that could allow the use of the only option left: pari-mutuel wagering. They found it, but city officials still tried to block their solution. Fortunately, a judge issued an injunction that allowed pari-mutuel wagering at Churchill Downs. 

With the injunction in place, Winn faced another problem: Clark’s Paris machines were missing. With no time to import new ones from France, Winn put fellow Louisville residents to work locating those four machines. Once those were found, Winn was able to bring in two abandoned machines from New York for a total of six. All were in terrible shape, so mechanics worked quickly to repair them for race day. 

Curiosity brought a sizeable crowd to the track despite the rainy weather and muddy racetrack, and any initial hesitations about this type of betting were soon tossed aside. With pari-mutuel wagering in place, racing in Kentucky would go on. 

A New World

In fetlock-deep mud, Stone Street parlayed his affection for a wet track into a four-length Derby victory. The minimum $5 win wager paid a whopping $123.60 for the 24-1 shot. His was the slowest one yet, 2:15.20 for the 10 furlongs, but that did not matter. Pari-mutuel wagering had saved the day. 

The next year, the ban on bookmakers was still in effect so the track once again depended on those machines, which soon became the predominant type of betting at American racetracks. This May, as you place a bet on track or on your phone, thank Colonel Matt Winn for his grand idea to bring back those Paris machines.