Readers: If it’s the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, you’d better believe it’s time for our annual field trip to Corinth Downs.
So tomorrow, the eyes of the horse racing community — and a much broader swath of the nation at large — will be turned toward Louisville, Kentucky, for the running of the “greatest two minutes in sports.” And while Kansas no longer has any kind of a reputation for horse breeding, there was a period from the 1930s through the early 1950s when northeast Johnson County housed one of the most respected horse racing stables in the country.
In 1921, Herbert Woolf, a son of the family that owned Kansas City’s Woolf Brothers clothing store, bought a swath of land that stretched from present-day 79th Street to 83rd Street and Mission Road to Roe Avenue. By the early 1930s, Woolf had shifted his attention from showing horses to training them for high-stakes racing. He brought in Ben Jones, by then widely regarded as one of the best trainers in the game, to manage the operation at what he had dubbed Woolford Farms. In 1933, Jones’s son Ben accompanied Woolf on a trip to Lexington to scout studs for purchase. Eventually Insco, the sixth-place finisher in the 1931 Kentucky Derby, came on the block. Just before bidding opened, an intense thunderstorm blew into the area, scattering the attendees. Woolf stayed, however, and placed a bid for $500 — about $7,500 in 2016 dollars. No other bids were entered, and Insco headed back to Kansas with Woolf.
Insco fulfilled his post-racing career duties by siring a thoroughbred named Lawrin with a mare named Margaret Lawrence. And it didn’t take long for Lawrin’s strong bloodline to show itself. When Lawrin reached three years old in 1938, he took Hialeah’s Flamingo Stakes — a Florida race that served as an important precursor to the Kentucky Derby — in March. Here’s some newsreel footage from that run:
Two months later, Lawrin was one of the ten horses to line up in the Churchill Downs gates. Jockey Eddie Arcaro held Lawrin in the middle of the pack through the first three-quarters of the race, and then pushed him into a late charge as the group rounded the final turn. Lawrin surged from fifth in the pack into the lead as the finish line neared. Lawrin held off a charging Dauber by a length to take the win and become the only Kansas-bred horse to ever win the derby.
Check out footage of the race here:
In 1955, at age 20, Lawrin passed away. A few months later, Woolf sold the farm to developer J.C. Nichols whose company eventually turned the bulk of it into the Corinth Downs gated community. But the small cemetery surrounded by immaculately-trimmed box woods on Le Mans Court remains, with Insco lying to the left of his son, the most famous race horse in Kansas history. Take a look: