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Eddie Arcaro recalls how he came to ride and win the 1938 Kentucky Derby on Lawrin

By Eddie Arcaro

By 1938, Eddie Arcaro ranked with the premier American jockeys, but he was still looking for his first victory in the Kentucky Derby. In this passage from Arcaro’s autobiography, “I Ride to Win,” published in the anthology “The Fireside Book of Racing,” by David F. Woods, Arcaro recalls the events of that spring of 1938 that brought him to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Arcaro’s first Kentucky Derby win would come when he hooked up with trainer Ben Jones and a horse named Lawrin, owned by Kansas City clothier Herbert M. Woolf. Arcaro wasn’t really sure Lawrin was good enough. But the rider, trusting in trainer Jones, was game to give it a go – and Lawrin got the job done.

In coming years, Jones would become the trainer for Calumet Farm, and Arcaro would be aboard more Derby winners, including Triple Crown champions Whirlaway and Citation. Eventually Arcaro won four Derbys, the most ever. Then added a fifth. (Later Bill Hartack tied Arcaro with five of his own.) Arcaro came to be called “The Master,” and is forever associated with the Run for the Roses.

But in the spring of 1938 all that looked a long way off for Arcaro. A California horse named Stagehand, who had won the Santa Anita Derby AND the Santa Anita Handicap, defeating Seabiscuit, looked like a cinch to win the Kentucky Derby. Arcaro was the contract rider for the powerful Greentree Stable, but Greentree didn’t have a good three-year-old for the Derby that year.

Then Ben Jones called …

Ben Jones had moved Lawrin from Florida to Kentucky for a crack at the Derby, and was after Wayne Wright to come down and ride the colt, but Wayne was committed to ride Caballero in the Excelsior Handicap in New York on the same day the Derby was to be run. Wayne was reluctant to give up the mount when, in his opinion, Lawrin had no chance in the Derby. Caballero won the Excelsior, by the way.

Jones contacted me and offered me the mount on Lawrin. Although I had never ridden Lawrin, I was even less enthusiastic than Wright. To me, and nearly all the other competent observers, Stagehand appeared a cinch. As for Lawrin, there had been whisperings down in Florida that he was not sound.

Since Green Tree had nothing to run in stakes races on Derby Day, I knew it would be a simple matter to get permission to ride Lawrin, but I was sure it would be a useless undertaking. However, I was prompted to give it some thought before definitely declining the mount. I'd learned through the years to respect and admire Ben Jones' keen judgment. I had known Jones while I was riding in the West where he had the reputation of being one of the shrewdest horsemen in the business.

Jones had been widely acclaimed for his ability to get horses "up" to certain engagements. He had given a recent demonstration of that ability by working Lawrin into top shape to win the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah. I reasoned that if Jones thought he had some sort of chance in the Derby, then maybe I could latch my star to his. Again, I relished the thought of taking part in the Derby. I'd not forgotten the tense excitement as the field parades postward for that race. I guess it's the ham in me and the ham in all of us. The carnival spirit of Louisville at Derby time does that to you.

Ben kept the phone wires hot, calling me to say that I mustn't sell Lawrin short, that if I would come down, he could arrange a fancy retainer. I wasn't interested in the retainer part and told him that if I decided to come down, I would do so for the usual ten percent of the purse or just my expenses if Lawrin got nothing. The Derby trial was run on Tuesday before the Derby. In it, Lawrin was beaten only a nose by The Chief, the second string in Colonel Howard's bow. The time was 1:35 and some change to the mile. Ben called that night and said that with good luck, Lawrin would have run the race. Besides, he confided, he had run Lawrin in bar plates which would be removed for the Derby. A bar plate, by the way, is a bar of metal that is supposed to keep the shoe from spreading. Bar plates are known to slow down some horses. The outcome of the Derby trial and Jones' constant pleadings prompted me to accept the mount on Mr. Woolf's horse, even though my decision was made with some reservations.

And then, the hard luck that had been dogging trainer Earl Sande struck again. Stagehand came down ill and would be forced to pass up the Derby. That left him with a fair entry in The Chief, but it elevated the hopes of other trainers even though Lawrin's stock did not rise materially. Stagehand's defection sent the punters scurrying for bets on Belair Stud's Fighting Fox and Calumet Farm's Bull Lea. They were the ones most in demand now. On the Thursday before the Derby, I breezed Lawrin over the track, but I couldn't tell much about what kind of a horse he might be at post time on Saturday. Jones endeavored to convince me that the colt had more of an outside chance. When it came dusk on Saturday, I would have ridden the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

One thing that Jones told me sticks out in my mind to this day. He said, "Eddie, I'm going to tell you one thing that you must remember. Any time you decide to make a move on Lawrin in the Derby, he'll give you an eighth of a mile in 11 seconds. Remember that."

I'm setting down the facts leading up to the Derby Day, May 7th, 1938 in their chronological order without trying to glamorize them. In the first place, I would not have even been at Churchill Downs if Wayne Wright had not refused the mount. For another thing, I'd been prompted to make the trip chiefly because I enjoyed the fanfare of the Derby scene. Through it all though, I knew I was going to do my best and if Lawrin would do his, then we would have some chance, maybe, at that.


Here it is. Derby Day again. Those good citizens to the number of some 65,000 are fidgeting and fussing, awaiting the clarion notes of the bugler that will send out the field of aspirants for the prize so rich in tradition, so steeped in glory, they have been waiting hours for this one moment. Trainers have been waiting months, of course, and breeders, some of them, a lifetime. But it is the fans who have made this Kentucky's day of days in one of America's most thrilling spectacles.

In the jocks’ room, the air is as electric as anywhere. Someone has just made the observation that all the Derby riders are maiden jockeys in the Derby. No boy riding in today's Derby has ever won the race. That fact lifts the morale of all the lads.

The Downs jockeys’ room looks just as it does on any other day. No flags are flying here, as in the stands. There is a dressing room and there are some body odors and leathery smells, the same as on any other day in any other jocks’ room in the country. The valets are polishing boots. The custodian of the room is hanging up the riders’ silks in the lockers. (Silks are the colorful riding shirts jockeys wear in each race, with each owner having his or her their own registered color scheme.) The valets are spreading out each rider’s tack – saddle, whip, and so on -- on a long, numbered table. The table is made up of a number of squares containing numbers, just like a giant checkerboard. The numbers correspond to the program numbers and the valets place the tack there to be carried by them to them to the saddling enclosure.

Jockeys are sitting around, some playing cards. "Hearts" is the popular pastime. Others are snoozing on the wooden benches that face the lockers. Each jockey has a locker for his personal effects. A long wooden bench is a community seat. In one section of the room, soft drinks are available or sandwiches, if a rider feels hungry.

Now riders are jogging up the stairs coming back to the jock’s room after their engagements in early races. They throw off their silks and don new ones. The silks, or colors, are the property of the owners. They have been registered by them and each set differs from the others in some respect - in cap sleeves, collar, cuffs, design on front or back, or in some other way. That's to help the onlookers spot the horses in the running of the race. Also, as an aid to the professional chart callers, or the public address and radio men.

As the hour for the 1938 Derby slowly nears, the Derby jockeys are awaiting the call. Over there is Jimmy Stout, a product of the sidewalks of New York, clad in the red-dotted white jacket of William Woodward's Belair Stud -- already twice carried to a Derby victory, by Gallant Fox and Omaha. Stout's mount is Fighting Fox, a full brother to Gallant Fox. He knows that he's on one of the favorites - the one they'll all have to beat in this run for the roses. Irving Anderson, a cherubic-faced lad, is in the Devil's Red and Blue of Calumet Farm, colors that I carried for Mr. Wright's stable for three years. He's on Bull Lea, a contender for sure. In another corner is George Woolf, "The Iceman", destined to become one of the great money riders of all times, later to lose his life under the flying hooves of a field of horses. Woolf is on Co-Sport. Jackie Westrope is here. I used to ride races for Jackie's dad out of Caliente. Jack's mount is The Chief, now that Stagehand is out of it. Tough break for "The Rope".

Sonny Workman, a husky blond boy and one of the idols of my early riding days, is attired in the blue and white silks of Hal Price Headley. He is to ride Menow, the Futurity winner of the year before. That's a jinx. No Futurity winner had ever won a Derby, but this horse is going to be on the front end and winging as far as he can go. Everyone concedes that. He's the speed of the party, is Menow. But a mile and a quarter? Ah, there's the rub. Will he be able to carry that speed those ten furlongs? There are many doubters, but the cunning Workman and Menow will have to be watched. Nothing will outrun them in the early part.

Maurice (Moose) Peters is sporting the sapphire blue and gold of Foxcatcher Farms. He's up on Dauber. They have been saying that this might be the horse to come on when the early speedsters are calling it a day. Lester Baluski, a New Orleans born boy, is in the silks of Myron Selznick. He's on Can't Wait. Alfred Robertson, quiet and unassuming, is resting in a corner nook. He's Mountain Ridge's jockey. Young Freddie Faust is the other Derby rider. He's up on Elooto, and he's any price. (Ended up 122-1, and finished next to last.)

There are some emotions in the roomful of young boys and men. You can be sure of that. The older and more experienced hands are poised and cool. The youngsters fidgety and nervous … Ten riders will leave the steaming jockey room clad in their brilliant silks. Only one of them is coming back the smiling hero.


Those ten boys, I among them, are now summoned to the saddling enclosure. Down creaking, wooden stairs they walk. At the paddock level, literally thousands are seeking a glimpse at the horses they are backing in this great race. All seems confusion in the various stall compartments that have been assigned to the Derby starters. Owners and their friends are chatting with trainers and stable hands and now, we Derby jockeys stride up on our appointed places.

Mr. Woolf's friends are introduced and all extend their hands for a clasp as a gesture of wishing you good luck. Ben Jones is the busiest man in the party attending to tying cinches and surcingles on Lawrin. A stable hand is helping him and a pony stands at attention outside the stall. Presently, Lawrin is saddled up and taken by the head to the pony's rider and lead around the walking ring in the paddock. Jones draws me aside. He reiterates what he has already said about Lawrin. "Any time, Eddie, you make a move on this colt, he'll give you an eighth of a mile in 11 seconds. Go out there and hurry back!"

The bugle blows "Boots and Saddles", a captivating air that sends tingles up and down the spine. I suddenly think of my wife Ruth at our apartment in Forest Hills, N.Y., ear glued to the radio. The folks over in Newport (Arcaro’s home town Newport, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati) are tuned in too. They wired this morning that they were rooting.

The band is playing "My Old Kentucky Home." Where else in all this land is there a moment so spine tingling, so packed with tension as when the field parades to the post in this great classic? It will never grow old with me. I love every bit of it.


Lawrin has drawn the rail post position. That can or cannot be an advantage. Menow, it has been figured out, should take the lead on this field. If he should come over at the break, he could pile you up on the fence. In cantering up to the post, I'm thinking only of getting my horse away from there. Indelibly etched in my mind is what Jones has told me. I keep repeating it to myself: "Eddie, he'll give you an eighth in 11 seconds, any time you decide to make a move with him."

There is a long delay at the post and one of the chief offenders in breaking up the starts is Lawrin. He has gone through the stall doors on a couple of occasions. When they would get him back in his stall, another of the fractious ones would kick up. The tension mounts as the seconds go into minutes and the minutes seem like hours. Actually, this post delay consumes only four and a half minutes as I was to learn later, but it seems like an eternity before the starter presses his button and shrieks, "C'mon, c'mon!" The 1938 Derby is underway.

When he yelled that, I was ready, and Lawrin came out of there ahead of the bunch by perhaps a length, but as we flew past the stand Lawrin was dropping back, and as we passed the finish line for the first time, I thought I was surely going right into that pole. I was knocked back to next to last - only Dauber was behind me. Perhaps that shuffling back I received at this point in the race was the deciding factor, although I must add that on this day and in this race, Lawrin was the best horse. When I was knocked back, I naturally found myself on the rail and I never left that position for the entire race. As I was getting through at the top of the stretch, Dauber was also making his move. Had I elected to come out at this point and go around horses, it's pretty certain that Dauber would have run me down in the stretch. In my opinion, saving all that ground on the inside proved to be the difference between winning and losing.

In reporting this Derby, Damon Runyon wrote, in part:

"At the first turn, Menow moves out in front and holds the lead almost to the mile post where they turn for home. Fighting Fox is dropping back like a fat policeman chasing a nimble schoolboy.

"The Kentuckians begin cheering wildly for Headley's horse. Few spectators are paying much attention to Lawrin, but there he is, close to the pace all the way, with the great race rider Eddie Arcaro holding him steady and waiting to make his move.

"He is third when they straighten away from home and suddenly out of the pack comes Lawrin to take the lead from Menow. In the meantime, Dauber, with Maurice Peters driving with might and mane, is coming through fast. He passes Can't Wait and sets sail for Lawrin, but Arcaro knows he is coming and he gives the Missouri colt a championship ride the rest of the way.

"Eddie Arcaro's ride on Lawrin is a masterpiece from start to finish. Every move he makes is perfect. He lets Menow and Fighting Fox run their heads off in the first quarter and he keeps back there fifth, with plenty of racing room and always within striking distance to the last turn.

"He seems to know exactly how much horse he has under him. When he makes his decisive move, it is sudden, but sure. The way Lawrin responds is a caution. He just roars to the front. Mr. Woolf and Ben Jones can thank Mr. Arcaro for this Derby.”


When I wheeled Lawrin into the winner's circle, Ben Jones was grinning from ear to ear. He roared up to me, "I told you so. I told you so!" Now he was pumping my hand. Mr. Woolf was excitement personified. Governor A.B. (Happy) Chandler was winking at me from the judges' stand. "If not a Kentucky horse, a Kentucky boy rode him!" he shrieked out.

Many nice things were to happen to me in later years, but looking back in retrospect, I guess this was my most thrilling experience. After all, you win your first Derby only once.

When I reached the jocks’ room, among a sheaf of wires, I found this one:

"Congratulations! Hurry Home! Ruth."

I'm quoted in the newspapers that after I read that telegram, I said, "Me for home and my sweetie - and that bubbly water." I suspect I was quoted accurately.