Reading Down the Stretch
By Eliza McGraw
This is Colonel Matt Winn’s time of year. As we approach the Kentucky Derby, his name comes up, as in Hello Race Fans contributing editor Teresa Genaro’s 2009 article from the New York Times’ Rail blog. He’s the father of the Kentucky Derby, the one-time manager of Churchill Downs, and, in 1945, the subject of an autobiography, written with Frank G. Menke. Menke was not just any ghostwriter: he covered sports for the Hearst newspapers from 1912-1932 and worked with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. By the time he and Winn sat down to work, he was the publicity director at Churchill Downs, so he was very familiar with Winn and his legacy. Menke’s name added punch to Winn’s own on the cover of the book they called Down the stretch: The story of Colonel Matt J. Winn.
Bob Considine saw the duo in a less-than-romantic light in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post in 1944. “There have been so many romantic legends about the Kentucky Derby–circulated by publicity drones like Frank Menke and by writers (including this one) who were either too filled with the virus pollyanna or the contagious julep–that it is an annual shock to realize what a bloodless, commercial thing the whole proposition is.”
If you are in a Derby-industry hating mood like Bob Considine was that day, this book is not for you, which is a shame, because it’s good. Down the stretch may be one of those “romantic legends,” but it’s still a worthwhile read for people interested in racing history and who wonder about how Winn’s name came to dominate Derby history accounts. The contemporary review in the New York Times wrote, “Approaching 84, Col. Matt J. Winn, alias Mr. Kentucky Derby, retains all but four of his teeth. After reading ‘Down the Stretch,’ the Colonel’s life story, one will be pardoned for concluding that the four missing molars aren’t wisdom teeth.” The reviewer’s folksy tone is a mirror to the book’s; in it, Winn discusses wide-ranging topics such as his love for citrus fruit to the way in which he went from Martin to Matt (the nickname went from Marts to Mart, and somehow stopped at Matt). Winn also illuminates the roles of starters in a way that can sometimes be ignored. “I don’t know of anything more difficult than to send a field of fretting, excited, nervous horses away to a perfect start, especially with every jockey trying to get the best of it at the getaway, and all of them calling on their strategy to insure an advantage for their own mount,” he writes.
I first came upon Down the Stretch when I started researching Exterminator. Winn loved Exterminator, who took a stablemate’s place in the 1918 Kentucky Derby to achieve one of the longest-shot victories in Derby history. He called Exterminator the “greatest all-round American thoroughbred I ever saw,” valuing him over horses such as Man o’ War (could he have held a grudge because Man o’ War made his 3-year-old debut at the Preakness instead?), Sysonby, and Whirlaway. In the book, Winn is unafraid to make bold statements like this one on August Belmont: “No man in the history of racing loved the thoroughbred more than Belmont, and none was a more potent force in the development of the sport.”
Winn’s legacy might be part of a nostalgia machine for the Derby, but he’s as much a part of it as the Exterminators and Belmonts he heralded as great.