The 1891 Kentucky Derby, AKA the Funeral Procession

There have been 141 editions of the Kentucky Derby with 142 just around the corner. People always talk about which are the best revivals, they always talk about Secretariat’s, or Barbaro’s, or the “Fighting Finish”, or Affirmed and Alydar, Alysheba’s, whatever. Its the same old chatter every year but lets talk about something no one brings up.

What is the worst Derby ever?

Without question it is Kingman’s from 1891. With only 16 previous races the Derby had seen a lot of drama already. Good horses were coming in to race, including the Dwyer brother’s great horse Hindoo. But there were a lot of problems too, mostly with gambling.

The original clubhouse at The Louisville Jockey Club, the name “Churchill Downs” wouldn’t become official until 1937.

In 1886 when Ben Ali won, this guy C. M. White bought pool rights for $30,600 and demanded bookies pay a $100 to operate high dollar wagers on the track which they refused, and as a result no one could bet big money. Ben Ali’s owner, James “Ben Ali” Hagan (quite the ego, eh?), was so enraged that he couldn’t bet on his horse and one thing led to another and he vowed to never race another horse in the Kentucky Derby, which he never did. Between that incident and when Matt Winn took over in 1902 Churchill Downs was in a lot of trouble and nearly closed. Paired with the track’s failure and the stock market crash in 1893, founder Meriwether Lewis Clark killed himself in 1899. It was a bad time.

Kingman and his horrible Derby sure didn’t help.

1891 Kentucky Derby winner, Kingman.
Kingman’s only portrait is as terrible as his Kentucky Derby

May 13, 1891 was a pretty gross day and the track was listed as “slow” which is a massive understatement. In those days the Derby was 1 1/2 miles, but Kingman running against three other horses managed to crawl home in a time of 2:52 1/4. Seriously. One newspaper called it a “funeral procession.”

All four horses raced side by side, each with orders to stay off the lead. This created an insanely slow pace, running a mile in 2:01 and a mile and a quarter in 2:26 3/4. Spirit of the Times wrote of the opening half mile “It was simply a canter, not even a respectable gallop, each jockey apparently having orders to stay in the rear and let the others cut out the work.” Anytime a horse inched forward his rider would hold him back. Eventually Kingman’s jockey Murphy let him run and he went on to win by half a length. A Lexington paper called it a “bum Derby” and the New York Times even called it a “farcical.”

While Churchill was built in 1875, the spires didn’t pop up until the grandstand was rebuilt in 1895. This is what the original grandstand looked like.

There was some notable happenings in that race no matter how bad it was. It was Isaac Murphy’s last Derby victory, and Dud Allen was the last of seven African-American trainers to take it home while being the first to own a winner. While the owner is listed as Jacobsin Stable, Kingman was owned by Allen and Preston Kinzea Stone, who later went on to be mayor of Georgetown, KY.

Kingman himself wasn’t that bad of a horse. He won the Latonia Derby as well as the Phoenix Stakes. In 28 starts he won 10 races after retiring after his three year old season. He was sold for $5,000 the same year he won the Derby in a Jacobsin Stable dispersal sale and died two years later at the age of five, with the cause of death impossible to find.

While the jockey, trainer, owner and even horse were all very good in their own right, they managed to team up and win the worst Kentucky Derby of all time.



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