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The Kentucky Derby has only had one winner from Kansas: A horse named Lawrin

Lawrin in the winner's circle at Churchhill Downs. He was the only horse from Kansas to ever win the Kentucky Derby.
Lawrin in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. He was the only horse from Kansas to ever win the Kentucky Derby.

Lawrin was owned by Herbert Woolf, the president of Woolf Brothers, one of the most important clothing stores in Kansas City history. Woolf also had an odd connection to political boss Tom Pendergast.

Sometimes called the “Kansas Seabiscuit,” Lawrin won the Kentucky Derby in 1938 and played a role in the careers of a famous trainer and an even more famous jockey.

Lawrin was trained at the 200-acre Woolford farm, near 83rd Street and Mission Road in what’s now Prairie Village. Lawrin’s grandsire was Sir Gallahad, a French thoroughbred and one of the most important sires in American racing.

The 1938 Kentucky Derby was run on May 7. It was partly cloudy, and the track was fast. Lawrin was an 8-1 long shot, even though he had already won the Hialeah Stakes, the Hollywood Trial Stakes, the American Invitational and the Flamingo Stakes that year.

Lawrin came from behind and won by four lengths.

The Louisville Courier-Journal described the scene as Lawrin entered the winner's circle with 22-year-old jockey Eddie Arcaro astride and owner Herbert Woolf thrilled with the come-from-behind win.

“Straw-Hatted, wearing a dark blue suit and a maroon and gray striped silk tie, Mr. Woolf made no secret whatever of the fact that he was just about as elated as it was possible for him to get,” the paper wrote.

The headline the next day in the Kansas City Star said, “It’s Our Derby.” Below, the even flashier, “Lawrin’s Winged Feet Bring Turf Glory to Herbert Woolf and Kansas City.”

Arcaro told the Star he thought Lawrin was better than War Admiral, the champion Thoroughbred and rival to Seabiscuit who won the Triple Crown in 1937.

Horse racing often dominated sports coverage in 1938, but neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness nor the Belmont Stakes was the biggest race of that year. That title goes to the “Match Race of the Century,” a one-on-one battle between War Admiral and Seabiscuit at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Some 40 million people tuned into the radio to follow the race. President Franklin Roosevelt stopped a cabinet meeting to listen.

Lawrin was the first of five horses Eddie Arcaro would ride to Derby victory on his way to becoming one of the most famous jockeys ever. Arcaro is the only jockey to win two Triple Crowns.

Lawrin had no chance at the 1938 Triple Crown. Woolf did not register him for the Preakness or Belmont stakes.

Trainer Ben Jones left Kansas, where he’d schooled Lawrin, to train a record six Kentucky Derby winners at Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.

Lawrin is buried in Prairie Village, Kansas next to his sire, Insco also of Woolford Farm
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Lawrin is buried in Prairie Village, Kansas next to his sire, Insco, also of Woolford Farm

Herbert Woolfe loved riding and breeding horses. Political boss Tom Pendergast loved betting on them. Pendergast’s gambling addiction was so severe that he and associates opened the Riverside Jockey Club just north of Kansas City in 1928. In one month, Boss Tom lost $600,000 at the track.

In its heyday, upwards of 17,000 people packed the track for a full day of racing. Pendergast got involved in an insurance kickback scheme to help pay off his huge gambling debt — the same scheme that sent him to Leavenworth Federal Prison.

After Boss Tom got out of prison, he still had to serve five years probation. On Aug. 13, 1943, federal Judge Merrill E. Otis, the judge who sent Pendergast up the river, sent along a letter. A group of notable Kansas Citians wrote the Justice Department’s pardon attorney asking that Pendergast be released early from his probation. Banker James Kemper wrote a letter. So did developer J.C. Nichols and Monsignor Thomas McDonald, a prominent priest in Kansas City. Also advocating for Boss Tom: Herbert M. Woolf.

Did Woolf write because the two had some business connection or political connection? Maybe it was a horse connection. To this day, nobody knows.

This story originated in a 2017 episode of the history podcast Archiver, produced and hosted by KCUR’s Sam Zeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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