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Colonel Matt Winn, Businessman and Horse Enthusiast

2009 marks the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby – and in Et Cetera, we honor the man responsible for making it “the most prestigious race in the world” - Colonel Matt Winn.

Col. Matt Winn Colonel Martin J. “Matt” Winn was an executive of Churchill Downs for 47 years, serving as track president from 1938 to 1949.

He fell in love with horseracing when he attended the very first Kentucky Derby as a teenager in 1875 … and he witnessed every Derby afterward for the next 75 years.

A savvy businessman, Matt Winn helped save Churchill Downs from financial ruin in 1902, when he formed a group of investors to take over managing operations.

Through his hard work and promotions the Kentucky Derby became internationally known.

Matt Winn is credited with creating several Derby traditions: the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home”, presenting a garland of roses to the winner, and developing the souvenir Derby glass.

He also restored pari-mutuel betting at the Downs and lowered minimum wagers from $5 to $2. Both increased business.

Due to his accomplishments, Matt Winn was bestowed the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel, and in 1949 the Diamond Jubilee Kentucky Derby souvenir glass featured a picture of him.

Col. Matt Winn in 1949 He died later that year.

His lifetime love of horseracing is still reflected today — not only in the legendary Kentucky Derby, but through the “Matt Winn Stakes,” run in his honor each May at Churchill Downs.

More quick facts about “Mr. Derby”:

  • Matt Winn’s syndicate that saved Churchill Downs from closing in 1902 included hotelman Louis Seelbach and Louisville Mayor Charles Grainger.
  • The 1903 Spring Meet was the first meet to ever make a profit for Churchill Downs (in its 28-year history). A year later, Matt Winn sold his business and became the Down’s vice president and general manager.
  • According to WHAS11-TV, after Matt Winn became vice president of Churchill Downs, he never placed another bet on the races.
  • Winn opened up Churchill Downs for use by the Kentucky State Fair, starting with the very first Fair in 1902. The track hosted the Fair on four additional occasions, including during WWII.
  • During Winn’s tenure, the first recorded flight in Kentucky took place at Churchill Downs.
  • He grew potatoes in the infield during WWI.
  • Matt Winn founded the Kentucky Jockey Club/American Turf Association and under his leadership Churchill Downs was incorporated.
  • Colonel Matt Winn was able to keep the Kentucky Derby running even during WWII (although the 71st Derby was run on June 9, not the customary first Saturday in May). Because of his diligence, the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuously running sporting event in America.
  • In 1944, his biography Down the Stretch: The Story of Col. Matt J. Winn was published.
  • Winn’s final Derby in 1949 was the first Kentucky Derby to be televised.
  • Col. Matt Winn is buried in Louisville’s St. Louis Cemetery.

For an in-depth look at the life and work of Colonel Matt Winn, please visit the Churchill Downs website.

And don't miss our Season One Et Cetera segment on the Kentucky Derby's Black jockeys.

Program 323
"Louisville Life" features the first ever Derby fashion exhibition at the Kentucky Derby Museum, explores the River City with Mint Julep Tours, profiles past president of Churchill Downs Colonel Matt Winn, and visits with legendary jockey Patricia Cooksey. (#323)