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Our Rich History: Grand old Latonia Racecourse set records during its glory days, closed in 1939

The old Latonia Racecourse. (Photo provided)

The old Latonia Racecourse. (Photo provided)

This is part of a regular series especially for the NKyTribune on local history by three distinguished historians, Paul Tenkotte of NKU, James Claypool, NKU professor emeritus of history, and David Schroeder of Kenton County Public Library. They are co-authors of the new “Gateway City,” a 450-page history of Covington, marking its 200th birthday.)

By James C. Claypool
Special to NKyTribune

Amid the excitement of American Pharoah becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner at historic Belmont Park, it should be remembered that the old Latonia Racecourse in Covington is where Kentucky Derby and other champion horses once raced.

Affectionately remembered today as “Old Latonia,” the grand old course would lead the country in total purses distributed 12 times from 1915 to 1927, is credited with having instituted “the 2 dollar bet,” and hosted many of America’s top horses, trainers, jockeys, and owners.

Jockeys like Kentucky Derby winners Earl Sande, and locals Eddie Arcaro and Mack Garner were associated with Latonia during its heyday.

While many great races were run at Old Latonia from its opening in 1883, until its closure in 1939, none was more important than the Third International Race held there on October 11, 1924. This famed race, always covered in the standard histories of thoroughbred racing, took place when horse racing rivaled baseball and football as America’s top sport.

It was the golden age of thoroughbred racing and thousands of fans routinely attended the races daily to view and bet on horses like Exterminator and Man ‘O War, both of whom would become household names. In fact, the 1918 Derby-winner, Exterminator (1915-1945), who placed in the money 100 times, launched his storied racing career by winning a 6-furlong maiden sprint at Latonia in 1917 by 3 lengths.

The Third International, the concluding leg of 3 races held in America pitting the nation’s best horses against Europe’s best horse, was the continuation of a concept originating in 1923. So it was that Pierre Wertheimer’s European Champion, Epinard (which is the French word for spinach), was sent to Latonia to test some of America’s best horses. It certainly was “a feather in the cap” for the Covington track to be chosen to host this grand race and affirmation of the local track’s overall importance.

The old track never looked better. Its carefully manicured flower beds sparkled in the cool autumn sun, and the three spires above the grandstand stood majestically as the loud Klaxton sounded its final warning, and the field of eight horses drew near the starting line. 60,000 fans were in attendance that day, and their nostalgic recollections of having seen the great race were to carry forward long past the event itself.

At the start of the race home-town boy, Mack Garner, pushed the speedy Kentucky-bred Chilhowee to the front only to be passed at the 3-quarters pole by Sarazen, the pride of the East. It was a brilliant move that also helped to set an American track-record winning time for a mile race. Epinard, game throughout, made a gallant attempt to catch the leader but fell a length short and had to settle for second place. Days later it was announced Epinard had split a hoof on Latonia’s hard racing surface and would be retired to stud. Sarazen, named for golfer Gene Sarazen, would be voted 3-year-old champion in 1924 and later was inducted into The Racing Hall of Fame.

Latonia, meanwhile, continued on through the mid-20s as one of America’s top tracks but after the Depression of 1929 fell on hard times resulting in its closure in 1939.

The track grounds, located at 38th and Winston in Latonia, were sold to Sohio (Standard Oil of Ohio) in 1939 and today they are part of a shopping center.

James C. Claypool is Professor Emeritus of History at NKU. With other well-known regional historians, Paul A. Tenkotte and David E. Schroeder, he is a co-editor of the new 450-page Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015, now available at your local booksellers, the Center for Great Neighborhoods in Covington and online sellers.

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