The Kentucky Derby should have been held yesterday.
After reading this page, you should have been able to flip to the sports section and read all about the “Run for the Roses.”
The Derby is one of those staples of the sports calendar: Super Bowl in early February, NCAA basketball in March, Masters in April, Kentucky Derby in May … you get the picture. We’ve come to expect these events, and we plan accordingly.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, though, our calendar has been tossed aside like a losing Derby ticket. Unlike the British Open and Wimbledon, two stalwarts of the summer sports calendar that were canceled because of the virus, the Kentucky Derby is hoping to be held in September.
With Aiken’s reputation as a fine training ground for young thoroughbreds, the Kentucky Derby is of particular interest here. Aiken-trained horses have competed the first Saturday in May plenty of times, and a few have even gone on to wear the roses in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
In browsing through the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum website, you’ll see more than three dozen horses that went on to become champions after spending time in Aiken.
In the list of horses enshrined in the local hall of fame, there are more than a few who have won on racing’s biggest stages: Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, which make up the Triple Crown.
Some of the highlights:
• Pleasant Colony, owned by Buckland Farm, won the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
• Swale, trained by Woody Stephens, won the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
• Capot, owned by Greentree Stables and trained by John Gaver, won the 1949 Preakness and Belmont races.
• Conquistador Cielo and Stage Door Johnny each won the Belmont.
My coverage of the local horse racing scene dates to the mid-1980s when I first started working for the Aiken Standard. A lot of those horses above were before my time, but I quickly became familiar with their stories.
The first thoroughbred of any prominence that I covered was Dogwood Stable’s Summer Squall. He was the toast of Aiken in the spring of 1990, with a close second at the Derby and his stirring victory at the Preakness Stakes.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Cot Campbell and Dogwood struck again with Palace Malice’s win in the Belmont Stakes.
In between there was Sea Hero’s victory in the 1993 Kentucky Derby. It was a popular win because his trainer, Mack Miller, was an Aiken legend.
Collectively, those three horses won a Triple Crown. But as great as they were, they don’t qualify for the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. That’s because they didn’t win Eclipse Awards during their careers.
When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, I always think of Campbell and his quest to win America’s most famous race.
Campbell’s passion for the Derby came honestly. His grandfather placed a bet for him on the race when he was just a child, and he attended Derby Day in 1942 with his father.
“My father was in the horse business at the time, and he went broke in the process,” Campbell, who died in 2018, once told me. “I was exposed to it and got hooked on it and never got over it.”
Campbell moved his Dogwood operation to Aiken in the mid-1980s. With his penchant for publicity, he soon had plenty of Aikenites wearing Dogwood’s colors of green and yellow. And whenever he ran a Dogwood horse in a big race, you can be sure he mentioned Aiken.
Campbell and Dogwood sent eight horses to the post in the Kentucky Derby and came away with a second, third and a fourth.
“It’s the one race that every human being in America knows about,” Campbell liked to say. “It would be great fun to win it.”
Campbell never did get that elusive victory, but he sure had fun trying.
Thanks for reading.
John Boyette is executive editor of the Aiken Standard. Reach him at email@example.com or 803-644-2364.