As racetracks across the country operate without spectators, as the precautions surrounding
coronavirus mean that we find ourselves in what feels like unchartered territory, I wanted to
harken back to another time when the traditions we enjoy had to be put away for a moment.
In 1944-45, the country focused its energy on a singular concern: World War II. Then, America faced similar uncertainty about these traditions like the Kentucky Derby as the wars in Europe and the Pacific reached critical points that demanded we put aside the usual and focus our efforts on the greater good for a time.
In the midst of the Christmas season, 1944, Allied forces found themselves at the heart of what we know as the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign on the western European front. The battle lasted 40 days as the Germans attempted to split the Allied forces and push them toward negotiating peace with Germany and its allies. On the homefront, the United States was deep in war mobilization mode, pushing all available resources toward the war effort. A labor shortage and a desperate need for available transportation pushed the Office of War Mobilization, headed by James F. Byrnes, to announce on December 22nd that all racetracks must close on January 3, 1945 to save both labor and other critical resources. This shutdown was to last for the rest of the war or until the federal government gave permission for activities to resume.
With that historic declaration, with the sport of kings shuttered, it became abundantly clear that 1945 was not going to be a typical year for sports. As the calendar ticked closer to the first Saturday in May, signs pointed toward World War II’s final days, but still the prohibition of racing was in effect. Soon racing fans were asking if they would even see a Kentucky Derby that year.
As we face questions about when life will return to normal in 2020, let’s look back at 1945 and a classic season that was different from any other before or since.
It All Shuts Down
Hollywood Park in Inglewood, California sat in the center of seven factories charged with
producing equipment for the war effort. In addition, with so much manufacturing in such a small metropolitan area, Inglewood also had a traffic problem. It became clear that the track took up valuable resources, including serving as a temptation for laborers at a time when absenteeism was an issue. Hollywood canceled its summer meet at the request of a number of government agencies and then all parties agreed to meet before scheduling the fall meet. Instead, Hollywood Park held its fall meet without the sanction of those government agencies, a violation of their agreement. While the meet was successful, the War Department was left with enough evidence to “request” that racing cease, especially when the Battle of the Bulge began.
With the country focused on winning the war, even diversions like horse racing, which was
enjoying its status as the country’s biggest sports industry, had to take a break with no
predetermined resumption date in mind. This put upward of 1,800 jockeys, 15,000 stable
employees, and 10,000 track workers on an indefinite hiatus. The country’s one hundred
racetracks were shuttered. The shutdown went into effect on January 3rd; at the same time,
Byrnes had his Office of War Mobilization investigate the draft status of thousands of athletes and the possibility of a temporary shutdown for other sports, like golf and hockey. While the reason for the 1945 shutdown may differ from our current situation in 2020, we certainly see parallels in the effect that a shutdown of the sporting world has on its fans. While racing fans missed their favorite sport, the country needed their time and effort for other tasks.
The Allies declared victory in the Battle of the Bulge on January 25, 1945 and began their march toward Berlin with the ultimate intent of ending the war in Europe as soon as they could. As the Americans and the British marched toward Berlin from the west and the Russians from the east, the remaining German forces were crushed and the conflict drew ever closer to an inevitable conclusion. Germany finally surrendered on May 7 th and Victory in Europe, or V-E Day, was declared in the United States on May 8th. The next day, Fred M. Vinson, who had taken over the Office of War Mobilization after James F. Byrnes had taken another position within the Roosevelt and then Truman administrations, announced that horse racing could resume operations. By the following Saturday, Santa Anita and other racetracks were running again and the questions about when the Kentucky Derby would be run answered: Colonel Matt Winn announced that the race would be run on June 9th . The Derby had 155 nominations, but the field was quickly whittled down to 16 horses.
An Abbreviated Season
On a rainy summer day in Louisville, Eddie Arcaro rode Hoop Jr. to victory in the 71st Kentucky Derby in front of 80,000 spectators. A week later, on June 16th , the scene shifted to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. Hoop, Jr. would finish second to Polynesian and opted to skip the Belmont Stakes, scheduled for the following Saturday. On June 23, 1945, Pavot and Eddie Arcaro sailed to an easy six-length victory in the Belmont, marking the end of an unusual Triple Crown season. Fifty-two days later, the Japanese surrendered and World War II was brought to its official end.
At this point in 2020, we still may have the Kentucky Derby on the traditional First Saturday in
May, its home since 1946. However, as we contemplate what might be next for American sports this spring, a look back at the delayed Derby of 1945 reminds us that the joy comes not from when America’s most famous race occurs, but from the very fact that for the last 146 years we have been able to celebrate the best that American horse racing has to offer regardless of the date it may happen. Our great traditions, the moments we hold dear, will go on in 2020, a shining beacon of joy in this time of uncertainty.
[Video: Watch Hoop Jr. win the 1945 Kentucky Derby]
Jennifer Kelly is the author of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, published by the University Press of Kentucky. After years of teaching writing and literature, she has now devoted her career to researching and writing about horse racing history, with a focus on the Triple Crown.