Tomorrow marks the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, celebrated around the world (except maybe in England, where they mean something else entirely when they speak of “the Derby”) as the “greatest two minutes in sports.” Having grown up in the Louisville area, I can assure readers that, no matter what my mood has been in the days before the first weekend of May, my heart always has felt a little lighter and my step has always been a little livelier around this time of the year.
Seven Presidents have visited Churchill Downs for the legendary race. But, with one exception, these have all been future or former Chief Executives. Just one incumbent has stood with the Governor of the Bluegrass State when “My Old Kentucky Home” was played, and then watched the colts thunder down the track. That happened forty years ago this Sunday, when Majestic Prince, easily one of the dozen or so finest thoroughbreds never to win the Triple Crown, defeated a field of eight to receive the garland of roses. The rest of the story comes from the race’s official website, as told by Vance Hanson of the Daily Racing Form:
The Kentucky Derby and the political world became intertwined less than two weeks before the race, when presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler announced that President Richard Nixon, fulfilling a campaign promise made to Kentucky Governor Louie B. Nunn during the previous year’s election, would attend the Derby along with First Lady Pat Nixon. Among those in the presidential entourage of legislators and executives were Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate; and Governor and Mrs. Ronald Reagan of California, themselves future occupants of the White House.
Nixon, a well known sports buff, was no stranger to the racetrack. In 1957, while serving as vice president, he presented the winning trophy to the [owners and trainer] of Bold Ruler following the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, and had also attended the 1968 Derby as a candidate for the nation’s highest office. It was reported at the time that Nixon’s attendance at the Kentucky Derby was the first by any sitting president at any horse racing event since Rutherford B. Hayes attended the races in Lexington in 1879. While past and future presidents have been present at affairs of the turf before and since the 1969 Kentucky Derby, including more recent editions of the Run for the Roses, Nixon remains the only presiding chief executive to attend America’s most famous horse race.