The Kentucky Derby has 146 years’ worth of stories behind it.
Some of the tales are spookier than others.
Sitting across from Ronnie Dreistadt, the manager of education services at the Kentucky Derby Museum, is almost like flipping through a racing book of horrors.
He’s the in-house expert on racing-related murders, lingering specters and gruesome injuries that bloodied the historic Churchill Downs track back in the days where jockeys didn’t wear helmets. It’s not all crushed skulls and broken bones, though.
“Some of them are just really horrible stories of people doing really horrible things,” he told me.
“So if there’s not a ghost from this there should be,” I asked him.
His office is a modern unimpressive space in the basement that seemingly would only spark a chill if you turned out the lights. That room, and really the whole Kentucky Derby Museum at 704 Central Ave. in south Louisville, is on the grounds where the racetrack’s hospital once stood.
Based on what he told me about how many people have died on the grounds where the museum rests, I personally wouldn’t be eager to wander around down there in the dark.
I first met Dreistadt in February back when the 146th Kentucky Derby was set to run on May 2 and no one would question whether writing ghost and horror stories in the middle of a pandemic might seem distasteful.
There’s no denying things have changed. When I went back and listened to the tape of my interview with Dreistadt, I didn’t hear the subtle cries of a ghost whispering on the recording like you’d hear on a paranormal television show.
Instead, I heard the laughter and chatter of children on a field trip, a sound I don’t expect we’ll hear for quite some time due to the coronavirus pandemic.
What started out as a fun Kentucky Derby-time feature looked a lot different through the lens of COVID-19.
But make no mistake, it’s no less fascinating.
‘A lot of characters’ and a few ghosts, too
Dreistadt started digging into Churchill Downs horror stories about 12 years ago when the museum asked him to create a new tour for incoming freshmen at the University of Louisville. So he dove into The Courier Journal archives, looking for deaths and murders tied to the track, and eventually, he uncovered enough to write a book about it. He was still trying to attract a publisher when we spoke in February, but the 13 or 14 creepy stories about the track and the people around it were essentially done.
“The people who are around the track are really interesting,” he told me. “The people who make this their living are really interesting people anyway. There are a lot of characters and a lot of really strong personalities.”
I figured in 146 years, Churchill Down had to have its own “Lady in the Blue Dress,” the woeful, lovesick spirit that’s said to haunt the Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville. There must have been some sort of distraught jockey with striking silks still lingering on the track after all these years.
That’s not quite the case at Churchill.
You’ll hear stories from exercise riders about seeing a nondescriptive trainer on dark mornings with thick fog. He’s always on the far turn where the shoot comes onto the main track, Dreistadt told me.
Maintenance people at the museum, too, will say they’ve seen or heard people in the building well after the crowds and workers have left for the night. Right after the museum opened in 1985, a few spooky, unexplained things happened in the basement where Dreistadt works. On most nights in the early days of the museum’s opening, someone … or something … would go into the gift shop storage area and throw jockey-related items to the floor.
That stopped once the executive director threatened to fire whoever was involved, but then the menace turned its attention to the technology room across the hall. One of the technicians was piecing together a film from a previous Kentucky Derby when the race footage faded out from the screen and all of sudden the sound of a woman crying came through the speakers.
Not long after Dreistadt heard that story, he discovered a map that showed the museum sat on the same land as the old Derby hospital. Injured jockeys had been carted off the track and died right on that land back when it was the racetrack’s hospital.
OK. That made sense. But while over the years he’s heard several stories that could be good candidates for these specters, it’s impossible to know who that trainer on the track, the agitated jockey in the gift shop storage or that sad woman could be.
Because genuinely horrible things have happened to so many people connected to Churchill Downs, he told me.
Crushed skulls and a hoof on the nose
In 1906, jockey Bert Miller was killed while riding Dresden on the track. My Courier Journal predecessors didn’t sugarcoat it when they outlined his fatal injuries in an article, either.
(I’m going to stop here, and invite anyone with a weak stomach to skip over the next paragraph.)
“Hundreds of men and boys rushed to (Miller), and he was carried to a stable in an unconscious condition. Dr. J.A.O. Brennan, the track physician, attended the jockey and it was found that the boy’s skull and head had been crushed. He had almost bit his tongue almost in half. One horses’ hoof had been implanted on his nose, and his face was a sickening sight.”
That’s enough to make anyone haunt a track.
Another jockey, Frank Poretto, was killed on the opening day of the autumn meet in 1921.
“It appeared that he was kicked by his own horse or by one passing, as he struck the ground, for he sustained a fracture to the skull without regaining consciousness,” according to an article in the Oct. 13, 1921, edition of The New York Times.
This case was particularly sad, Dreistadt told me. The jockey’s parents had traveled from New Orleans to see him ride that day.
A Triple Crown and a murder charge
Talking with Dreistadt, I’m not sure I believed any of these mangled jockeys were haunting the track.
But as he told me story after story, what I came to learn is that historical facts in these tales are largely more chilling than speculating about a messy gift shop floor.
Particularly in the case of William “Smoky” Saunders. Every time Dreistadt gives one of those haunted tours at Churchill Downs, he makes a stop at the jockey mural, and he gives a brief biography of some of the more well-known riders in the picture, such as Pat Day and Eddie Arcaro. Then he tells the group that one of them was a cold-blooded killer.
Saunders, who won the Triple Crown aboard Omaha in 1935, appears in The Courier Journal archives quite a bit that year. Sure, he became the third jockey to hold the crown, but during the second half of the year, he was also charged as an accessory in the murder of Evelyn Sliwinski.
The whole sordid tale takes place out on River Road, and it involves a lot of drinking and an exercise rider running Sliwinski’s body over with Saunders’ car twice, according to Courier Journal archives. The clippings describe Saunders as the 24-year-old woman’s “companion” the night of the accident, and a witness said after the car ran over the body both men said, “Don’t you think she deserved it?”
But Saunders got off.
The whole trial was a sham, Dreistadt told me, because Saunders was a celebrity, and this young woman ended up in a grave back in Owensboro without any justice. It’s one of the most chilling parts of his tour, he told me, and often it brings people to tears.
As part of his research, he even went to Owensboro and put flowers where she rests.
The ‘unlucky Derby’
It’s hard not to talk about ghosts and superstition without looking at the 1932 Kentucky Derby, which is known as the “unlucky Derby.” Eighteen-year-old Eugene James won aboard Burgoo King, and it was the first time the 13th horse ever won the storied race.
James drowned in Chicago about a year later, which some believe was actually a mob hit.
A string of terrible things happened to people associated with that particular Kentucky Derby, Dreistadt said. Another jockey went delirious during a hospital stay and jumped out of a window to his death.
There’s a legend, too, about Spokane, the horse who won the 1889 Kentucky Derby. That story starts 31 years before, near the Spokane River near the modern border between Washington and Idaho, when the U.S. Army under the leadership of Col. George Wright gunned down a local Native American tribe. As if that wasn’t enough, he gave the order that the survivors slaughter hundreds of their horses as further punishment.
It’s said that the chief went into a trance and saw all the spirits from the dead horses rise up and take the form of a superior horse, whose name was Spokane, Dreistadt told me.
The chief wrote down a “31” after he came out of his vision, and then this horse won the Derby 31 years later — but only after another horse that was on track to win got spooked and ran off course.
A little Googling on my part showed that the rumors about Spokane started surfacing after he’d won the race and not before, and honestly, much of what we talked about that afternoon had layers of suspicion to it.
I suppose that’s what makes a good ghost story.
No, I didn’t find a true resident ghost at Churchill Downs or feel the elevator move up and down on its own during my visit to the museum.
What I did get, however, was a morning of racing lore that had me on the edge of my seat even more than last year’s historic finish of the Kentucky Derby when Country House won after Maximum Security was disqualified.
The stories Dreistadt told me are made up of fragments of history, circumstances of the times and characters of those periods.
And it made me wonder what kind of lore might eventually surface from last year’s unprecedented win.
Or even what tales my arise from running the race in a pandemic without fans in the stands.
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you’ve got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at email@example.com or 502-582-7137. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/maggiem.