There are no words quite as exciting as these, especially when you are right there at Churchill Downs. The sun is shining brightly and all the rich and prominent women are dressed to their teeth, topped off with the bonnet-of-the-year. It is the biggest race day of the year, the renowned "Kentucky Derby". For me, it not only became a tradition to go every year, but it also made a collector out of me.
The tradition started with my father back in 1953. He and his friends went that year and made a pact to go every year, the first weekend in May. When my brother came home from the service and the other men's sons were getting older it became a father and son tradition. I went to my first Derby in 1962 and just like the winner "Decidedly" I decidedly decided that I, too, would be back the first Saturday in May.
When you're just a young buck you only think about the partying, all night card games in the hotel rooms and hanging onto enough money for gas home. You don't think about that ticket stub in your pocket, the program laying with the newspaper on the hotel dresser, or the glass you carelessly tossed into your suitcase when packing to come home.
Somehow, I lucked out. I have quite a few old programs. I even have the 37th Dinner Program of the Honorable Kentucky Colonels in 1970. Ticket stubs, I have a few, but thankfully I have all of my glasses, including those I took from my brother's room. These were from 1953, 1957 and 1959. I also have a plastic "Last Place Finishers" cup from 1967. Funny the things we box up and keep in our mother's attics.
Very few complete collections of Kentucky Derby Glasses are known. The Libby Glass Company produces the glasses, and even they do not have a complete set. The Harry M. Stevens Company distributes the glasses, and they do have a complete set. They are on loan to the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Some collectors will argue that the first Kentucky Derby Glass was actually produced in 1938. This argument stems from the fact that there ere glasses used as "water" glasses in the dining room that year that actually had the words "Kentucky Derby" printed on them. Many people took them home that year, as souvenirs.
Actually, according to Kentucky Derby history, the first mint julep glass was made in 1945. They were not made in 1946 and 1947 due to the post war shortages, but the glasses were reintroduced in 1948 and have been the most popular souvenir ever since.
Up until 1978 you had to purchase a Mint Julep in order to have a glass. They were not for sale separately. Today, you can buy the coming year's glass through a catalog. The glasses have a different design and coloring every year. The design, however, is always similar, in that it depicts the horses and track or Churchill Downs. The only glass made without this depiction was in 1949.
The 1949 glass commemorated what was considered the "Golden Era" and honored Matt Winn, president of Churchill Downs with his picture on the glass. The glass also included the statement "He has seen them all". I saw this glass once on the back bar of a tavern in Louisville. I thought it was a picture of President Roosevelt, but I was promptly corrected.
In 1954 they began the listing of all of the previous years' winners beginning with the first Derby winner in 1875, "Aristides". Some glasses are frosted, others are clear. Pre 1978 glasses were recently on the popular television show "The Antiques Roadshow" on PBS. They were value at $200 - $250.00 per glass with Triple Crown glasses valued at $300 - $350.00.
I am waiting to hear from the Kentucky Derby Museum concerning my 1969 glass. For some reason it does not have the winning horses listed on it, and that in itself makes it pretty rare.
Up until 1972, in all of the racing programs, the second line of the song was printed (and sung) "Tis summer, the darkies are gay". In 1972 the word "darkies" was changed to "people". This caused quite an uproar and argument. Many felt that it changed more than just the word of how the song was originally written and sung, but also changed the Kentucky Derby tradition entirely and forever. A typical Southern argument.
However, this makes the older programs more valuable At the present time, programs appear to go for a higher price than the glasses because they are, of course, more rare. They are increasingly difficult to find, especially in mint condition.
Most importantly, no matter what you collect, PROTECT -INSURE - PROTECT -INSURE - INSURE - INSURE!