Derby ‘Training’

This is Union Station, photographed on Friday, March 7, 2008 in Louisville, Ky.  Derby goers, in days gone by, used to disembark from  trains that took them Louisville for the Derby at this station.  (Union Station is now used by the TARC bus system in Louisville).   Photo by David Perry | Staff

This is Union Station, photographed on Friday, March 7, 2008 in Louisville, Ky. Derby goers, in days gone by, used to disembark from trains that took them Louisville for the Derby at this station. (Union Station is now used by the TARC bus system in Louisville). Photo by David Perry | Staff

By Maryjean Wall

LOUISVILLE — The lonesome whistle blows at Derbytime, recalling scenes like the one in 1936 from the railroad car of the winning owner.

Milton Schwartz and his wife were riding northeast from Louisville the day after their long shot, Bold Venture, had triumphed. The horse’s garland of roses adorned their private Pullman as the train rolled clicking and clacking across hundreds of miles of iron rails.

Train travel has largely disappeared from the Derby scene since the early 1970s, after jet service and private automobiles and buses became more widely used. They displaced the means of transportation that had brought Derby-goers to Louisville since 1875, when the race began.

But for all the convenience of boarding a jet to Louisville or driving up to Churchill Downs in a bus or your own car, nothing has been able to replace the train for the romantic, leisurely fashion of travel that the rails afforded Derby guests.

“It was a fun way to come to the Derby,” said Charles B. Castner of Louisville, a retired longtime employee of Louisville & Nashville Railroad.

Charles Castner walked across the mosaic tile floor of Union Station at 10th and Broadway on Friday, March 7, 2008 in Louisville, Ky.  Charles Castner, an L & N Railroad employee for 27 years who retired as a public relations manager, showed reporter and photog where people, in days gone by, used to disembark from the trains that took  them to the Kentucky Derby.  (The Union Station is now used by the TARC bus system in Louisville).   Photo by David Perry | Staff

Charles Castner walked across the mosaic tile floor of Union Station at 10th and Broadway on Friday, March 7, 2008 in Louisville, Ky. Charles Castner, an L & N Railroad employee for 27 years who retired as a public relations manager, showed reporter and photog where people, in days gone by, used to disembark from the trains that took them to the Kentucky Derby. (The Union Station is now used by the TARC bus system in Louisville). Photo by David Perry | Staff

Trains brought thousands of passengers into Louisville, beginning each year on Thursday with one called the “millionaires’ special,” arriving from Texas. For the 1956 Derby, won by Needles, the L&N Railroad employee magazine counted 344 cars from all railroad lines entering Louisville during Derby weekend.

The L&N, the Chesapeake & Ohio, and the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. were regulars at Derby weekend, bringing in passengers from Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati and other major cities.

Some of the railroad lines, including Louisville & Nashville, came into Union Station at 10th and Broadway; others dead-headed at Central Station at Seventh Street. Train yards at Louisville were so packed with cars on Derby weekend that people referred to the yards as Pullman City.

Many passengers slept in the railroad cars at night. The trains provided every comfort of a hotel — and more. Private cars, quite different from the passenger coaches, had their own cooks and butlers.

Walk by the cars in the evening and you could hear the hum of generators providing electrical service for those onboard. Cooking smells from outdoor grills and onboard galleys made the scene seem as cozy as home.

No more than three or possibly four special passenger trains arrive now for the Derby.

Union Station has transformed into the headquarters for Transit Authority of River City — the municipal bus service known as TARC. What was once Central Station is now the site of the Muhammad Ali Center.

Buses rule now — but a sign overhead in the old Union Station still says, “To Trains.”

Celebrating, all the way home

It was no doubt an enjoyable ride home for the Schwartzes in 1936 with Bold Venture’s roses after his Derby win. Their long shot had defeated Brevity, the favorite, by a head and paid a handsome winning mutuel of $43.

Passengers had plenty to talk about on the way home. An infield spectator had reached out and grabbed one jockey’s whip as the rider reached up to swing the whip at his horse; another jockey had fallen off his mount soon after the start.

As was the custom during this era of leisurely travel, the train pulling the Schwartz car stopped over at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the couple entertained with a luncheon. All the “right people” attended because they all happened to be present at the famous Greenbrier resort at White Sulphur Springs on their way home by rail from the Derby.

Among the luncheon guests: Isabel Dodge Sloane, owner of the 1934 Derby winner, Cavalcade. An heiress and socialite (her father had co-founded Dodge Brothers Motor Co.), she arrived in her own private railroad car.

William Woodward, a banker and owner of a major racing stable, was another luncheon guest, as was Earl E.T. Smith, financier, polo player and a man who would receive appointments from four U.S. presidents.

A large horseshoe-shaped table had been arranged in the Greenbrier casino in honor of all the Derby guests. They would relax at the mineral-springs spa, play table games in the casino, and tend to social obligations before boarding the trains for the remainder of the journey home.

Their manner of travel had not changed much since the Derby’s early days, except that their private cars were more comfortable, had air conditioning and were pulled by diesel locomotives.

The rich christened their private railroad cars as they did their yachts, giving them names like Wanderer (Harry Payne Whitney, horse owner) and Oriental (August Belmont, founder of Belmont Park). James Ben Ali Haggin, who built a grandiose mansion called Green Hills on Elmendorf Farm in Lexington, had a private car named after his favorite race horse, Salvator.

The rich and privileged decorated the Pullman cars lavishly, as they did their homes.

“The only thing that’s economical about our (railroad) car is the solid gold plumbing. It saves polishing, you know,” Mrs. Edward T. Stotesbury told reporters, as quoted in a book by Lucius Beebe, titled Mansions on Rails.

Beebe, a fancier of private cars himself, wrote that an inventory of items aboard private cars would have revealed such diverse curiosities as “French chefs, Italian marble bathtubs and wash stands, deep freezes, wood-burning fireplaces, antique Venetian mirrors, English butlers, crystal chandeliers, hidden jewel safes, wine cellars and gold table services from Tiffany.” They even included what was known at the time as “ship to shore telephones.”

Millionaires had it special

The train that customarily set the tone for Derby weekend was the millionaires’ special from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Like robins in spring, this train returned to Louisville on Thursday of every Derby Week, the first of the hundreds of Derby special cars that would pull into the city during the next three days.

Castner walked through a portion of the millionaires’ special one year and saw some of the accommodations.

One of the baggage cars had been converted into a shower car, with 15 or more stand-up showers. These showers were in addition to the bathing accommodations found in some of the private roomettes aboard the train.

The millionaires’ special claimed to furnish everything but the winners. In 1959, it even gave the winning numbers in advance. The Texas & Pacific, running the millionaires’ special, handed out decks of playing cards decorated with a picture of two running horses, numbered 10 and 8.

The numbers just happened to be the Derby exacta: Tomy Lee and Sword Dancer. Perhaps a few people paid attention.

“In addition to all the Derby trains, the regular passenger service had to be maintained. It was quite a challenge,” Castner said. The Derby specials remained on “full standby,” meaning they had to be provided electricity for lights, air conditioning and sanitary facilities if their passengers stayed there at night.

The challenge on Derby night reversed the earlier task of getting all the trains into the stations and serviced for their trips out.

Now the problem was how to move all the trains in the opposite direction in orderly fashion to get people on their way home. The outbound trains were assigned tight departure times to keep all of them moving.

One of those departing trains would have pulled the Sea Level, the private car of Dan Taylor. Like many private cars, his had a rear platform where one or two passengers could sit outdoors and watch the tracks disappear — just as the the trains have largely disappeared from the Derby.

Originally published Wednesday, April 30, 2008

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