The Kentucky Derby: The Race for the Roses is a Collectibles Treasure Trove

The 2015 running of the Kentucky Derby will mark the 141st race in the event’s history. Annually held in Louisville, Ky., the race is the first leg of the sport’s Triple Crown and is considered to be “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” and is marketed as such. The history of the race dates to the late 1800s and is unique in that the collectibles of the participating horses often carry more value than that of the actual jockeys riding them. The race is the culmination of the two-week Derby festival that celebrates “the sport of kings.”

The sheer number of collectibles runs the gamut of everything from tickets to programs, glassware and home decor to autographs, race-used items to even trading cards. This wide array of items provides numerous opportunities for collectors to create specific niches of the genre that cater to their particular collecting pursuits.

A magazine ad for Paul Jones Whiskey featuring an image and text about the Kentucky Derby. This dates from 1935.

A magazine ad for Paul Jones Whiskey featuring an image and text about the Kentucky Derby. This dates from 1935.

Of particular interest to most horseracing collectors are items from Derby’s involving Triple Crown winners—horses that win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore, Md, and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. within the same racing season. Comparably, these Triple Crown items carry a specific premium over other everyday collectible Derby fare. There have only been 11 Triple Crown winners and, as a result, items from the horses and their jockeys involved in this esteemed achievement are highly collectible. Here is a look at the horses, jockeys and year’s won:

  Year      Horse                Jockey                 
1919   Sir Barton   Johnny Loftus
1930   Gallant Fox   Earl Sande
1935   Omaha   Willie Saunders
1937   War Admiral   Charley Kurtsinger
1941   Whirlaway   Eddie Arcaro
1943   Count Fleet   Johnny Longden
1946   Assault   Warren Mehrtens
1948   Citation   Eddie Arcaro
1973   Secretariat   Ron Turcotte
1977   Seattle Slew   Jean Crugue
1978   Affirmed   Steve Cauthen


Ephemera: Tickets, Programs, Wire Photos, Photographs

When it comes to paper collectibles of the Kentucky Derby, they are quite plentiful and can be found going back several years. The narrow collecting interest of the Derby can be both a blessing and a curse in terms of value. While more commonly found items like programs can be found relatively affordably, more rare items—like unused tickets—can command quite a premium on the secondary market, particularly at auction if two or more competing interests have their heart’s set on a particular item.

An unused ticket from the 1943 Kentucky Derby, which was won by eventual Triple Crown winner Count Fleet.

An unused ticket from the 1943 Kentucky Derby, which was won by eventual Triple Crown winner Count Fleet.

1943 Official Derby Program

An official program from the 1943 Kentucky Derby.

An unused ticket from the 1972 Kentucky Derby.

An unused ticket from the 1972 Kentucky Derby.

A May 1966 Sports Illustrated issue featuring the Kentucky Derby and Kauai King.

A press pass from the 1977 Kentucky Derby is an unusual piece of Derby ephemera.

A wire photo of the 1948 Kentucky Derby winner Citation, who was ridden by Eddie Arcaro.

A wire photo of the 1948 Kentucky Derby winner Citation, who was ridden by Eddie Arcaro.

Black and white vintage wire photos—even those unsigned—can carry some significant value simply due to their rarity and the cost involved in their transmission and production. Wire photos were transmitted over a telephone line and required expensive machinery affordable only by major news outlets. Photos from near mid-century Derby winners like Citation, War Admiral and Whirlaway are the most desirable.

Autographs and Trading Cards

When it comes to Kentucky Derby autographs, few people are as in demand as that of five-time Kentucky Derby champion and two-time Triple Crown winner Eddie Arcaro. As a result, his signature is highly collectible and one of the most desirable signatures, even for non-horseracing collectors. Another jockey whose signature also carries a premium is Ron Turcotte, rider of Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner in 1973. Turcotte also won the Derby the previous year on a different horse (Riva Ridge). The 2010 biographical sports drama film, “Secretariat”—produced and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures—helped bring the story back to the forefront of racing aficionados, collectors and casual fans, as well as re-inspired a demand for Secretariat and Turcotte items. Turcotte has been the subject of trading cards, most notably from 2010 Panini Americana featuring a USPS commemorative stamp and worn material swatch.

A 2007 Sport Kings Trading Card featuring Willie Shoemaker’s race-worn silks.

Four Willie Shoemaker-autographed cards. One reads “Bill Shoemaker while three of them simply read “The Shoe.”

A 2010 Panini Ron Turcotte stamp relic card with a swatch of rider’s silks.

Eddie Arcaro, a five-time Derby winner, signed this First Day Cover postcard.

A more unusual piece of Derby memorabilia is this jockey-signed set of racing goggles, autographed by John Velasquez.

No discussion about horseracing collectibles would be complete without mention of Bill “Willie” Shoemaker. For close to four decades, there was no bigger name in racing than “The Shoe.” Winner of an unprecedented eleven Triple Crown races, Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby four times; 1955 (Swaps), 1959 (Tomy Lee), 1965 (Lucky Debonair) and 1986 (Ferdinand). Shoemaker’s autograph can be found on a wide variety of items, including: first day covers; stoneware; trading cards; programs; posters and more. One of his more unique, yet surprisingly least expansive items, heralds from a trading card set produced in 2007 called Sport Kings and contains a swatch of Shoemaker’s race-worn silks These types of cards for both Shoemaker and Turcotte can usually be found for less than $20. However, depending on the specific item, their autographs can go for considerably more. On trading cards, however, $20-$30 apiece makes them a steal for any collector.

In addition to the aforementioned trading cards, both Turcotte, Shoemaker and other Kentucky Derby winning jockeys, like Steve Cauthen, have been represented on several releases over the past few years and make for some very affordable yet attractive collectibles. Some of the most unique, and some might say odd, horseracing cards ever produced, were manufactured by the Upper Deck Company in 2009 as part of its Goodwin Champions product. These cards, called Thoroughbred Hair Cuts, contain actual stands of hair taken from the mane of the horses, including past Derby winners Smarty Jones and Funny Cide.

The Thoroughbred Hair Cuts for Afleet Alex.

The Thoroughbred Hair Cuts for Funny Cide.

The Thoroughbred Hair Cuts for Smarty Jones.

Glassware and Home Décor

America’s love affair with all things horses, coupled with the popularity of the Kentucky Derby, has helped create Derby collectibles in numerous kitchen and home décor items, including glassware, spoons, mugs, salt and pepper shakers, original art, tapestries, rugs, throws and much more. Many of these items may be collectible to one person and junk to another but there is no denying that the popularity of horse racing and the Derby is a marketing bonanza and a collectors dream. Some of the more popular items in this eclectic niche are glassware and artwork.

Four Derby mint julip glasses (julip not Included). The older ones, being harder to find, are the more valuable.

A piece of original Derby art: a bronze sculpture of 1861 Derby winner Kettle Drum.

A commercial set of Triple Crown memorabilia, including autographs, race tickets and a rider’s crop.

Another piece of Derby decor is this autographed Willie Shoemaker commemorative stoneware plate.

A whiskey decanter depicting 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and jockey Jean Crugue.

Part of Derby Festival tradition is taking part in the infamous Mint Julip libation. This southern-style drink spawned the glassware collection that dates back several decades. Despite being purchased as a commodity, (by the tens of thousands) the glassware itself has become quite desirable amongst collectors, particularly for those prior to the 1970s. As an example, a 1941 julip glass sold a couple months ago for more than $2,600.

The beautiful subject matter that horses make for original art includes everything from sculptures to paintings and, due to the races popularity, have been used in all of those formats and more. Vintage pieces like decanters, lithographs, prints and sculptures appeal to a wide variety of consumers and collectors alike, making them particularly prone to price fluctuations at auction.

An autographed photo of jockey Ron Turcotte atop 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, complete with a certificate of authenticity.

Another autographed photograph by jockey Turncotte and Secretariat.

With a race as rich in tradition as the Kentucky Derby, combining southern hospitality and the wild-west love affair of the American thoroughbred, it certainly shouldn’t be any surprise that this event, that captures Americas’ heart for two minutes every spring, provides a treasure trove of collectibles to chase.

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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