Kentucky Derby history

How An Insane Asylum May Have Inspired the Iconic Twin Spires of Churchill Downs

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By Ken Zurski

In 1794 a man named Isaac Hite, a Virginia Militia Officer, came to the Kentucky frontier with other surveyors to stake claim on scenic tracts of land given to them for fighting in the French and Indian War. They founded the properties as promised, but also encountered more Indians. And so in his newly adopted home now known as Anchorage, just outside of Louisville, Hite was killed by the hostile natives.

Or was he?


The introduction of a book containing Hite’s personal journal disputes claims he was struck down, but rather died from “natural causes,” at the age of 41. His companions, the book asserts, “had died years before, and violently, while taking Kentucky and holding it against the Indians.” One theory is that Hite was injured by Indians and later died from his wounds. But how he died isn’t as important as what he left behind. A parcel of land where he settled, started a family, and ran a mill and tannery.

Through the years, and for many generations, Hite’s descendants tended the land known as Fountain Bleu and an estate they dubbed Cave Springs Plantation. Then in 1869, the family sold the parcel to the State of Kentucky. The reason the state wanted it was explicit: open a new government institution for troubled youths near its largest city.

The rural, secluded site of Hite’s Cave Springs was the perfect setting for such a facility. Originally known as the  “Home for Delinquents at Lakeland,” it was named after the path that led to it’s front gate, Lakeland Drive. It was converted – or just transformed – into a mental hospital in 1900 and renamed to reflect the often misunderstood and misdiagnosed residents who inhabited its 192 beds. “The Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum,” as it was now called, became the state’s fourth facility for such a purpose.

As with any institution for the mentally challenged, in the early 20th century, the day-to-day operations were marred by allegations of abuse, malfeasance and deaths. Massive overcrowding was reported in the mid 1900’s and in 1943 the state grand jury found the asylum was committing people that were neither insane nor psychotic. One man was reportedly admitted for simply spitting in a courtroom. While the scientific merits of electric shock therapy and lobotomies were morally judged, the reports of fires, murders, and multiple escapes at the facility consistently filled the newspapers. It was a horror show.

Since many died on the grounds, many were buried there too. So stories of ghosts and haunted spirits are attributed to the site. “Have the mournful souls that died at Central State remained at the only home most of them ever knew?” a local ghost hunter asked.

The grounds, however, are also tied to the storied history of the Louisville underground.  Literally, a series of caves and tunnels used before prohibition to move shipments – perhaps contraband during the Civil War – from the river docks to downtown buildings. Since a small cave existed before a tunnel was added, Hite was probably the first to discover the hole through the rock on his newly claimed property.  Later after the state took over, the cave was reinforced with brick walls and pillars and used as cold storage mostly for perishable items like large cans of sauerkraut. The inside was reportedly lined with so many sauerkraut cans it was given a name by the locals: Sauerkraut Cave.

In the back of the cave a tunnel was built which has its own back door, so there was a natural entryway and a man made exit. Many morose stories about the lunatic asylum involve Sauerkraut Cave, including tales of residents who may have used it as an escape route or more graphic reports of pregnant patients who went there to give birth and abandon their babies. Those who visit the site today say without lights the cave would have been too dark and too flooded to navigate. Still, desperate patients may have drowned or froze to death trying.

Regardless of how many people perished on site or off, the general scientific worth of the experiments, and the ghastly stories that followed, the building itself was considered a architectural wonder at the time it was built.

Morton 2

Looking like a medieval castle in the front, the three story structure with wing additions on each side was made of solid red brick with stone trim. The small pane windows in the main building had segmental arches with brick molding and the facade was highlighted by a columned porch and railing. On the side of the main building is two identical towers, shooting high into the air and inspired by the Tudor revival style used in its original design. It quickly became one of the Louisville area’s most distinctive and important buildings when it opened its doors in 1869. By the time it came down, in the late 20th century, it had represented something else entirely.

But it’s legacy may be more lasting than you think.

Enter Joseph Dominic Baldez.

Baldez  wasn’t even born yet when the asylum building was built, but eventually worked for the firm that created it. D.X Murphy & Bros was an offshoot of another firm established by Harry Whitestone.  In the 1850’s. Whitestone, an Irish immigrant, designed some of the city’s elaborate homes, hotels and hospitals, including the Home for Delinquents on Lakeland Drive. When Whitestone retired in 1881, his top assistant Dennis Xavier (D.X.) Murphy took over the business. Baldez began working for Murphy at the age 20.

In 1894, Baldez, a native of Louisville and a a self-effacing, self-taught draftsman, started work on a project at the area’s racetrack known as Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the prestigious race for three-year-old thoroughbreds held every year at the beginning of May.

For 20 years since the track was built, the seating had been on the backstretch, facing west, a mistake, since the late afternoon sun would be directly in spectators eyes. So a new larger structure was planned on the other side, facing east, or directly near the one-eighth pole on the stretch. The D.X. Murphy firm was hired and the young Baldez, at 24, was commissioned to design the new stands. He went to work constructing a 250-foot long slanted seating area of vitrified brick, steel and stone with a back entrance wall lobby which on its own was not only fancy and stylish, but efficient too. It was graciously received: “The new grandstand is simply a thing of beauty,” raved the Louisville Commercial. The new grandstand included a “separate ladies section” and “toilet rooms,” the paper noted.

The Courier-Journal also chimed in: “With its monogram, keystone and other ornate architecture, it will compare favorably with any of the most pretentious office buildings or business structures on the prominent thoroughfares.”

Then there are the candles on the birthday cake, so to speak.

The Twin Spires.

Whether Baldez was asked to include it, or came up with the idea on his own is unclear. His diagrams clearly show what he intended to do: put one large spire on either side of the grandstand for ornamental decoration. Each spire would be 12 feet wide, 55 feet tall, and sit 134 feet apart from center to center. The base shape was octagonal for strength and surrounded by eight rounded windows which were designed to stay open (although later were glassed over to keep birds out). Above the windows was a decorative Feur-de-lis, or a “flower lily” shape, flanked by two roses which were decorative rather than symbolic since the race didn’t become the “Run for the Roses” until the late 20th Century.

Although others, like the track president at the time Col. Matt J. Winn,  greatly admired the spires, Baldez was indifferent about his work. “They aren’t any architectural triumph,” he argued. “But are nicely proportioned.”


Although no one can be absolutely certain, and little about Baldez is known other than his designs, the building which housed the mental patients on Lakeland Drive on the former property of one of its first residents may have sparked the idea for the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs. The comparisons are justifiable. Both have large steeples, two in fact, and the tops of each are similar in design.  Plus, Baldez knew the asylum building well by working at the firm that built it.

Perhaps as some suggest, the name Churchill Downs was also an inspiration for Baldez’s “steeples.” Churchill, however, was not a religious connotation, but the surname of the original owners John and Henry Churchill who leased the land to their cousin Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark who subsequently built the track on the property.

Unfortunately, only pictures can tell the story now. The original asylum building was torn down in 1996 to make way for expansion. The Sauerkraut Cave is still there , but only as a curiosity. It’s entrance is marred by graffiti and only the brave – or crazy – dare enter it today. Other than the cemetery, the cave is the last vestige of the old grounds.

Baldez never told anyone what drew his interest in adding the adornment to the roof of Churchill Downs, but he gets credit for a lasting legacy, not only to horseracing, but to American culture in general.

Col. Winn knew it. “Joe, when you die, there’s one monument that will never be taken down,” he reportedly told Baldez.

He was talking about those famous Twin Spires.



From the Kentucky Derby to the First Triple Crown Winner to You’re in the Army Now

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By Ken Zurski

Sir Barton

Sir Barton is officially the first horse to capture the elusive Triple Crown, a feat that requires winning  three prestigious races as a three-year-old: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Sir Barton did it in 1919, but the distinction was not given until 1948. That’s because at the time there was no award for winning all three races, only accolades for being a good horse.

But all that changed in 1930.

That year, Gallant Fox won each of the three races in a row and the New York Times proclaimed:  “[The jockey] gave all the credit to his mount which by winning the Preakness, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont had equaled the feat of Sir Barton. These two horses are the only ones to win the ‘triple crown.’ ”

That’s the first time, claims the Times, that the words “triple crown” were used in relation to horseracing.

It’s interesting to note that the term has often been ascribed to Charles Hatton, a writer for the Daily Racing Form, who started using “triple crown”’ five years later when Omaha accomplished the same three race sweep as Gallant Fox. “‘Triple Crown’ was a journalistic device,” Hatton later recalled. “It kind of fell out of my typewriter.”

Regardless of who penned the phrase, after Omaha’s victories, the words “Triple Crown” were widely used to describe the three race achievement  – and has been ever since. Later, when the racing board officials went back to assign the very first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton was retroactively given that stature nearly 28 years after accomplishing the feat.

Sir Barton had good bloodlines, but entered the starting gate in Churchill Downs on May 10, 1919 as a maiden, meaning he had never won a race. He was expected to be a rabbit, or a horse that sets the pace for a stablemate horse who presumably has a better chance of winning. Sir Barton’s job was simple: Take the lead, keep a quick pace, and let his stablemate Billy Kelly benefit from a fast time up front and come running hard down the stretch at the end. There was nothing illegal about such a ploy. Both horses had the same owner and were coupled in the betting. But unpredictably reigned supreme that day.  Sir Barton took the lead as ordered, but never relinquished it, beating all eleven horses in the field and capturing the 45th Kentucky Derby by five lengths. “Sir Barton raced into the lead at once and well, ridden, led under restraint until reaching the stretch, where he was shaken up and easily held Billy Kelly safe in the eighth (pole),” the race notes read.

Four days later Sir Barton was entered in the Preakness Stakes and again led all the way. He won another race, the Withers Stakes, before easily taking the Belmont Stakes in New York and setting an American record for a mile-and-three-eighths, the distance for the Belmont at the time (it’s now the longest of the three Triple Crown races at a mile-and-a half). Sir Barton accomplished all this – four victories in all – in just 32 days. Today the time distance between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont is 35 days.

Man O’ War beats Sir Barton in a match race

The following year Sir Barton continued his winning ways, but a match race against another accomplished racehorse Man O’ War effectively ended his career. The contest between the two horses was run on the notoriously hard surface of Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario. Barton, who suffered from hoof problems, never challenged Man O’ War and lost by seven lengths. He was retired to stud after the defeat and although sired several foals who won stake races,  there were no Triple Crown winners in his stock. He was considered a failure in the barn.

So in 1933, at the age of 17, he was enlisted.

Technically, Sir Barton became a “working” horse.

Officially, he had joined the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army Remount Service was originally a part of the Union Army and began during early days of the Civil War. Its purpose was clear: to train horses for battle. It’s objective obvious: provide all Calvary and artillery units with useful horses. By contrast, on the Confederate side, each participate was asked to bring his own horse.

But there was more confusion than organization at the Union Remount Service depots. No one knew exactly what to do or how to do it. Questions and debates, rather than solutions, kept piling up.  Like how many horses were needed?  What type of training was necessary? Where will the horses come from? And how much would the government pay? Plus, there were staffing issues, poor leadership and as usual with any new institution without historical legalities to back it up– corruption.  But it was useful. Horses were a vital tool in ground warfare and the Remount Service provided quality horses. Each depot could handle between 10-thousand and 16-thousand horses each. There were about a half dozen depots in the country.

The government purchased Sir Barton from a stud farm in Wyoming for just under $500 and assigned the colt to the depot in Nebraska, named Fort Robinson, a makeshift horse farm.

Fort Robinson

What Sir Barton did in the Army is not exactly clear. After the Civil War ended, the Remount Service was used mostly for breeding and not much else. Many horses died in the war and needed to be replaced. So there was a purpose.

When America entered the first World War, the fighting took place overseas so men, not horses, traveled to Europe. The British used horses extensively during the Great War, but they had their own reserves. With nothing to serve and foals outnumbering demand, the U.S Remount Program was finally disbanded in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II.

Sir Barton likely had little do as military horse. He sired horses and was used for training mostly. Also, being a champion racehorse may not have had its advantages either. Sir Barton didn’t have to run fast or beat others, he simply had to work. Most of the horses were thoroughbreds, like Sir Barton, so he fit right in, despite being the only Kentucky Derby winner.

His time in the Army was short, however. He served less than a year before being sold to a Wyoming horseman named Doc Hylton who brought the champion colt back to his ranch for more stud duty.

In 1937, Sir Barton died of colic at the age of 21.

Eleven years later, after being posthumously honored as the first Triple Crown winner, his story became one for the record books.