Kentucky Derby offers history lesson from Great Depression

The Kentucky Derby has long been considered recession proof.

It was not, however, Depression proof.

The Derby saw wagering plummet during the 1930s, as many people lost jobs, savings and homes. (Sound familiar?)

But the Depression era saw great popularity for the Derby, three Triple Crown winners and an expansion of horse racing in general.

"The quality of the race didn't suffer. The recognition of it as a national sporting event didn't diminish," said Ed Bowen, a journalist and author of 19 books about Thoroughbred racing. But there signs of economic struggles. There were fewer nominations of horses to the race – indicating that owners felt pinched and might not have been willing to pay entry fees to enter. The Derby's purse fell from $50,000 to $37,000 during the Depression years.

Times were hard for most everyone, but as in today's tough economy, Kentuckians seemed especially hard hit. Before the 1929 stock market crash, Kentucky's annual per capita income of $371 was only slightly more than half the national average. By the start of 1933, it had fallen to $198, still about half the national average. To put that figure in context, a used late-model Chevrolet might cost $495 in Fayette County in 1933, wrote George T. Blakey in his book, "Hard Times and New Deal in Kentucky."

With fewer discretionary dollars, the amount wagered on the Derby and for all Derby Day races fell in 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1933.

Wagering was not a casual decision. The Courier-Journal described a scarce number of bettors in line in 1932.

To read the complete article, visit

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer