Chris Morris of Brown-Forman had an opportunity to let his hobby as a bourbon historian shine at the Twin Spires.<p>

Chris Morris of Brown-Forman had an opportunity to let his hobby as a bourbon historian shine at the Twin Spires.

Anne M. Eberhardt

The Derby Scene: Connection Between Racing and Bourbon

Brown-Forman, makers of Woodford Reserve, have a small tasting and tempting tent in the most congested area of the backside of Churchill Downs -- near the backstretch press center. Chris Morris , marketing manager for the Louisville-based distiller, is getting an opportunity to let his hobby as a bourbon historian shine at the Twin Spires.

Morris said the relationship between bourbon whiskey and horse racing go back to the 1770s when frontier men and women brought two things with them through the Cumberland Gap: horses and whiskey stills. "Sometimes the horse even carried the whiskey still!" Morris said.

The first known horse race in Kentucky was in 1773 in Harrodstown (now Harrodsburg, outside Lexington). Within the year the first distilleries also appeared. The combination and their link to socializing started before Kentucky was even Kentucky, in North Carolina and Virginia. At that time a Mint Julep was called a "Virginia dram."

Perhaps the most direct link between two of Kentucky's most well-known recreational activities is the existence of the first official Louisville race course on land adjoining the Hope Distillery in 1818. Before that, races had been held in the downtown streets of Louisville with mixed results. The horses might not have minded, but the shopkeepers and injured onlookers were not too pleased with the sports spectacle being front-and-center. So it moved to the Distillery, which owned a fair amount of undeveloped land west of the city.

In the early 1900s, bourbon advertising and the many racing-related names of Kentucky distilleries served to further bond the two activities. Morris said at the time there were hundreds of brands of bourbon including Kentucky Derby bourbon, Kentucky Oaks bourbon, Kentucky Sire, Kentucky Stallion, Kentucky-Bred Bourbon, and Ten Broeck Bourbon, named after the famous racehorse and sire. As a result, much of their advertising featured images of horses. Prohibition closed many of these establishments, and only a few re-opened after the repeal of that law.

Some more little-known bourbon facts:

  • Nine bourbon distilleries currently operate in Kentucky...but one distillery can produce more than one brand of bourbon (i.e., Brown-Forman has Early Times and Woodford Reserve, among others).

  • In 1962 an act of Congress made bourbon the "Official Spirit of America."

  • Old Rosebud, winner of the 1914 Kentucky Derby, was the first and only Derby to be won by a horse owned by a distiller (by trade). The name of owner H.C. Applegate's distillery? Old Rosebud.

  • Col. J.E. Pepper, former owner of what is now the Labrot & Graham Distillery where Woodford Reserve is made, owned 1892 Kentucky Oaks winner Miss Dixie.

  • The first known use of a silver mint julep glass as a trophy was in 1816 in Central Kentucky.

  • Woodford Reserve is the first and only official bourbon of Churchill Downs.

Team Millennium Wind was in full force Tuesday to watch the horse work. In addition to trainer David Hofmans, owners David and Jill Heerensperger were decked out in their Millennium Wind hats and jackets in support of their Derby hopeful. The orange, yellow, and white outfits were compared to those worn by NASCAR crews.

Jill named the horse about three weeks after they paid $1.2 million for him at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Ideally, he would turn two and make his first start in the year 2000. "I tried to get just plain Millennium, but it was taken," Jill said. While she was considering the options at her home near Bellevue, Wash., a strong wind blew outside her home. She thought it sounded good with Millennium, and the combination wasn't taken.

David and Jill arrived Saturday and plan on attending the standard pre-Derby festivities: tonight's trainer's dinner, the post position draw tomorrow, and Thursday night's Press Etc. party. However, they have taken a couple side trips to the Lexington area. A tour of Lane's End Farm was one of their stops. Bill Farish, whose dad, Will, owns Lane's End, was with the Millennium Wind group on Tuesday. Jill said no firm offers have been made to purchase breeding rights to her colt, but "four or five farms" have shown interest. She said all of those were Kentucky operations. Lane's End already stands 1999 Derby winner Charismatic, a half-brother to Millennium Wind.

Jill also said they had a number of offers to buy Millennium Wind after his first race, but after one offer was refused, they asked Hofmans to tell interested buyers he was not for sale. "It just takes so long to get this far," she said of her first Derby hopeful.

Tom Roach, who bred Millennium Wind with his father, Ben, at their Parrish Hill Farm near Midway, Ky., was also in Louisville Tuesday. He brought some early photos of the colt to the Heerenspergers, and was taking family-type photos of the horse for a scrapbook. He snapped David and Patty Hofmans with the horse, and got pictures of him grazing with his disposable camera.

The Parrish Hill operation has turned out a number of stakes winners, and has other products of the farm on the backside at Churchill Downs. However, Roach said this week "the focus is on him (Millennium Wind)...The others have been shortchanged, but after the Derby, we'll make up for it. It's not often you have one of these." Actually, that's not completely true--Parrish Hill also bred Charismatic (in partnership with Will Farish). In response to that, Roach said "we're not greedy. We just want one every other year!"

Unfortunately the dam of Charismatic and Millennium Wind, Bali Babe, died in 1999, and didn't leave behind any fillies. "I'm glad Millennium Wind wasn't a filly, but you'd think she'd have one," Roach said.

One of TVG's best on-air personalities will soon go off-air. Gary Mandella, a former assistant to his father, Richard Mandella, is heading back to the barn. Mandella said since the first of the year, the pull has been getting stronger and stronger to return to the track. He said in the last couple months he has been spending mornings on his days off at the track. In fact, he said he woke up this morning at 4:15 a.m. and couldn't wait to get to Churchill to check on the two horses which shipped in yesterday for his father. However, Gary is already using plural pronouns ("our horses" that "we're running") when describing the stable's charges.

Mandella got some on-air time during TVG's "Morning Works" program Tuesday to share his feelings on his dad's selection for Racing's Hall of Fame. Unfortunately Gary had to be on camera at the same time his dad's press conference was going on.