The Two Times The Kentucky Derby Was Postponed And Replaced By Turtle Races

In May 1945, Louisville Kentucky, the home of the Kentucky Derby, set two milestones. It held the Derby at night for the first time, which would have been precedent-setting on its own, except that this exceptional Derby didn't even involve horses. Every first Saturday in May since 1875, there had been a Kentucky Derby, but that year the country was still fighting World War II and the federal government had placed a total ban on horse racing, according to the Kentucky Derby Museum. There would have to be some other race involving four-legged creatures to replace it. The local American Legion had an idea.

Thus was born the very first Kentucky Turtle Derby. You could still bet on who would win, but the track for the reptiles was reduced in size to accommodate the equine's replacements due to their much slower pace. At Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is usually run, the horses streak down the mile-and-a-quarter track in less than two minutes, according to The Courier-Journal. The turtles only had to make it 20 feet.

A Kentucky Derby to remember 

The contestants had names like Broken Spring, Nutty Brittle, and Fine Liquors, in keeping with the spirit of horse racing, and ran (more like sauntered, shuffled, or ambled along) a specially-designed track, per The Courier-Journal. More than 6,000 race fans showed up for the Turtle Derby, which was held at the county armory but staffed by many of the folks from Churchill Downs. These folks included Ruby White, the starter for the actual Kentucky Derby, and horse trainers like Ben Jones, who took time out from working with horses to get a turtle into racing shape for the big event, per the Kentucky Derby Museum.

The race fans pumped nearly $200,000 in today's dollars into eight races that night, for bets capped at 50 cents each. The winner turned out to be Broken Spring, who had a winning time of 1 minute and 20.3 seconds, per The Courier-Journal. U.S. Royal was the best payoff at $14. In several of the races, turtles who had been in the lead headed back to the starting gate, making for maddening, raucous viewing. The American Legion raised more than $132,000 (in today's dollars) that they donated to a local children's charity.

A second Kentucky Turtle Derby 

Just two days after the May 6, 1945, Kentucky Turtle Derby, celebrations across the country and around the world broke out on VE Day after Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies and the war in Europe ended, per History (Japan would surrender four months later on September 2). This paved the way for the actual Kentucky Derby to go forward on June 9 of that year.

75 years later, for only the second time in its long history, the Kentucky Derby again ground to a halt when the pandemic prevented the race from happening on the first Saturday of May 2020. The actual Derby was held in September that year. This time, it was Old Forester, the Kentucky bourbon producer, that sponsored the second Kentucky Turtle Derby. "We took inspiration from the first time the Derby was postponed in 1945 when they raced turtles instead of horses," Campbell Brown, Old Forester President, told the Courier-Journal. Billed as "The slowest two minutes in sports" the race has become an annual event that can be viewed on Old Forester's YouTube channel.