The annual spectacle that is the Kentucky Derby returns to Churchill Downs on Saturday, with people across the country (including locally at Tavern In the Village in the Prairie Village Shops) celebrating the Run for the Roses with impeccable style — and often a not insignificant amount of bourbon.
And while it’s no longer apparent to anyone passing through modern day northeast Johnson County, Prairie Village was once the site of one of the top horse training operations in the U.S.
In the early 1920s, a man named Herbert Woolf, the scion of a wealthy family that owned a popular clothing store, bought the undeveloped land from present-day Mission Road to Roe Avenue and 79th Street to 83rd Street and turned it into a horse farm.
At first, he was interested in breeding horses for show. But by the early 1930s, Woolf’s interests had migrated to horse racing. He hired a man named Ben Jones, an all-star horse trainer, to take over operation of what was by then known as Woolford Farms.
In 1933, Woolf took Jones’s son Ben to Lexington, Ken., to find studs for purchase to bring back to Johnson County. A horse named Insco, who had finished in six-place in the 1931 Kentucky Derby, came on the block just as a massive thunderstorm blew into the area. The gallery ran for cover. Woolf stayed, and put in a bid for $500 – the only one entered. The duo headed back to Johnson County having secured Insco. Insco and a mare called Margaret Lawrence sired Lawrin, who quickly emerged as a top racing prospect.
At three years old Lawrin won the Hialeah’s Flamingo Stakes in March, setting him up as a contender for the Derby two months later. Here’s video of the Flamingo Stakes run:
At Churchill Downs in May, Lawrin lined up with nine other 3-year-olds to run for the sport’s top prize. His jockey, Eddie Arcaro, kept Lawrin in the thick of the pack until they hit the home stretch, when the Kansas-bred speedster broke away for the win. Here’s newsreel footage from that 64th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1938:
Lawrin retired to Woolford Farms not long after his Derby win, living until 1955. Shortly thereafter, Woolf sold the farm property to J.C. Nichols, who was gobbling up land for his post-war suburban developments.
Much of the farm property became the Corinth Downs gated community, with its entrance at Mission Road at 81st Street. But the developer set aside space on Le Mans Court for a monument to Lawrin and Insco, which you can still see today: