By Diane Euston
The in-person audience dons impressive, ornate hats while sipping mint juleps. Spectators across the country mirror these traditions in May at countless Kentucky Derby parties as people tune in for the most exciting two minutes in sports.
The Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sporting event in American history. Its origins reside with the grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Meriwether Lewis Clark (1846-1899) set out in 1874 to bring to Kentucky the exciting horse racing he witnessed on a visit to England. Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club and built a racetrack.
At that first Kentucky Derby on May 15, 1875, 15 three-year-old Thoroughbred horses raced a mile and a half in front of 10,000 cheering fans. And, the rest is history.
In the past 148 years of Derby history, 107 winners were born and raised in the Blue Grass state.
There have been some Derby surprises over the years when wealthy members of the higher class of society used their disposable income to invest in breeding and training some of the fastest horses in the world. One well-to-do Kansas Citian named Herbert Woolf took his three-year-old Thoroughbred horse from a farm in Johnson County, Kan. to Churchill Downs.
That 1938 race wouldn’t go to a Kentucky-raised thoroughbred. A horse named Lawrin from Woolford Farm in Johnson County, Kan. took the nation’s highest prize, and the horse’s grave – tucked in the middle of subdivision in Prairie Village – is a reminder of the area’s ties to horseracing history.
From Woolf Brothers to Woolford Farm
Alfred Woolf was born in New York City in 1846, the sixth born of nine children. Morris and Rachel Woolf, his parents, immigrated from London to New York where Morris ran a men’s shirt company. By 1860, the family relocated to St. Louis where he continued his business.
By the close of the Civil War, Alfred and his older brother, Samuel (1840-1895), moved to Leavenworth, Kan. and opened their own men’s custom shirt business called Woolf Brothers that became famous with some of the West’s most recognizable men. Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody were known to frequent the store.
In 1879, the brothers relocated Woolf Brothers to a three-story building at 557 Main St. On the first two floors, the brothers sold clothing and merchandise. On the third floor, a shirt factory manufactured the custom-made shirts. The first advertisements in the Kansas City Star read, “If you want to please your mother, buy your shirts from Woolf & Brother.”
Alfred and wife Phoebe welcomed a baby boy named Herbert in 1880 who would take Woolf Brothers into the next generation. Samuel passed away in 1895, leaving the business to his brother, Alfred. After graduating from Central High School in 1898, Herb went to work for his father, Alfred. Herb worked his way up from a window decorator to a buyer, and when he reached his 20s, he became a junior partner.
When Alfred retired in 1913, Woolf Brothers fell to his son, Herb, who opened a flagship store at 11th and Walnut St. Within a short amount of time, he expanded the stores to include satellite locations in Wichita, Tulsa, Memphis and Dallas. In Kansas City, the operation later included stores on the Plaza and Ward Parkway.
Herb was a great businessman, but his personal interests fell far from downtown Kansas City. As a child, Herb was sent to Arizona to recover from an illness. There, he fell in love with ranching and riding.
As early as 1902, Herb began breeding and showed them at an open-air horse show at Fairmount Park. He had a 40-acre farm adjoining Swope Park, and for a time, he raised saddle horses on a farm near Bonner Springs, Kan.
In 1921, Herb purchased 160 acres between 79th and 83rd Streets west of Mission Rd. in current-day Prairie Village, Kan. Over time, the property was extended to include 320 acres. The property, coined Woolford Farm, was enclosed with a white fence.
Show horses and livestock were originally Herb’s focus. By 1927, Herb was selling 125 horses a year, each bringing anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 each. His livestock became well-known nationally for its quality; he sold a prized bull to William Randolph Hearst for a whopping $50,000. “Mr. Woolf is regarded as the largest breeder of fine American saddlebred horses,” the Kansas City Star wrote.
Originally, Herb Woolf focused his interests in show horses, but an event in the 1930s changed everything. While showing his horse, Belle Delight, Herb found out that one of the judges was part-owner of the horse that beat out him. At that moment, Herb decided that Woolford Farm would focus on thoroughbreds.
Raising a Winner: From Insco to Lawrin
If Herb wanted to enter the Thoroughbred game, he had to hire the best in the business. In 1932, Herb brought trainer Benjamin A. Jones to Woolford. Ben Jones (1882-1961) hailed from Parnell, Mo., and in the early 20th century, he began breeding and training horses that he raced in small circuits in the United States and Mexico.
Ben became well-known for his skill, and Herb paid a pretty penny to get him to abandon his own operation and come to Woolford. The result, however, would change both of their lives forever.
Herb Woolf often traveled to Kentucky to find the best studs to bring back to Kansas. He headed to Lexington to attend an auction in 1933, and an intense storm through the state delayed other buyers from arriving at the scheduled event. A horse named Insco was up for auction, and this Thoroughbred horse had a pretty impressive history. In 1931, Insco was one of the most celebrated horses in the country and was supposed to appear in the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, he broke his leg just days before.
Herb wanted Insco, and he offered $500 as his bid. “The auctioneer,” the newspaper later reported, “with only one actual cash-in-hand customer in front of him, reluctantly accepted the bid, only a fraction of the horse’s value.”
Herb took Insco back to Woolford to use him as a stud. In 1935, Insco and Margaret Lawrence, one of the broodmares at the farm, became the parents to a dark brown horse that Herb named Lawrin.
In 1936, a horse hailing from Herb’s farm named Billy Jones won 10 races in a row – a national record at the time. In May 1937, Woolford farm was one of three racing stables that won triple-headers in a Churchill Downs meet. Woolford’s horses, Trinchera, Billy Jones and Onalark, all took first place.
By 1937, the partnership between Herb Woolf and Ben Jones resulted in national attention. In December of that year, Escohigh, one of Woolford’s thoroughbreds, won a race at Tropical Park in Florida, breaking a 6-furlong shot record. A $2 ticket paid out $571 to the winner.
Horse racing for Herb was beginning to pay off handsomely.
Lawrin’s Race to the Kentucky Derby
Woolford Farm was enlarged in the 1930s to accommodate the breeding and training of thoroughbred horses. One large white barn, located in current-day Corinth Square shopping center, was surrounded by smaller barns. An exercise ring and a larger track spanned just shy of a half mile.
Herb employed a dozen trainers and attendants to take care of the 100 horses at Woolford, and at the heart of the operation was trainer Ben Jones. Ben worked with the finest of the thoroughbreds, training them on a strict schedule every day.
The training worked.
In January 1938, two three-year-old thoroughbreds from Woolford Farm were making headlines: Joe Schenck and Lawrin. At the 6-furlong Flamingo Stakes in Florida, Lawrin took the top prize of $4,490. In the past nine races he was a part of, he had finished no lower than second place. “Lawrin was practically unknown last year,” the newspaper claimed. “This son of Insco found his racing legs in Florida.”
There were some concerns about Lawrin’s health. He had “bowed tendons” which meant that if he raced too much, he would break down.
In February, Lawrin was an advanced favorite at the Flamingo Stakes, but he finished second to last. Regardless, Kansas City was paying close attention to this special hometown hero. “Lawrin now becomes a Kentucky Derby possibility,” the Kansas City Star wrote, “thereby lending an added interest to that classic for the little army of Kansas Citians that annually makes the Churchill Downs trip the first week in May.”
The 64th Annual Kentucky Derby: May 7, 1938
Lawrin was on his way to the Kentucky Derby, and Kansas Citians couldn’t get enough of the excitement. A train left Union Station with strictly Derby-bound patrons. The manifest of the 250-passenger train read as a who’s who of Kansas City’s most powerful. Boss Tom Pendergast, Crosby Kemper, bootlegger Jim Balestrere, noted mafia boss (and noted “gambling and horse book operator) Tony Gizzo, and 1930s boss “Charlie the Wop” Carollo all rolled out of town for the big race.
There was one favorite Thoroughbred early-on; Stagehand was the horse to beat. Stagehand had recently taken first against Seabiscuit by a nose at the Santa Anita handicap, but days before the Derby, the horse was sick with a sore throat and fever.
It was reported a week before the Kentucky Derby, “Lawrin’s workouts make Clockers’ eyes pop!”
Trainer Ben Jones had made history earlier in the year when he won the trainer’s purse in Miami, catapulting him to the top of his field. Ben handpicked a 22-year-old unknown jockey named Eddie Arcaro to ride Lawrin in the Kentucky Derby. At 5’2” and 114 pounds, Arcaro would ride Lawrin, the largest of the 10 horses racing that year. Both Lawrin and Arcaro were donned in Woolford’s colors – maroon with white polka dots.
60,000 spectators watched on May 7, 1938 as Lawrin rounded the last turn and Eddie Arcaro pushed him a length in front of the nearest horse. In two minutes, four and four-fifths of a second, Lawrin took first in one of the Kentucky Derby’s biggest upsets.
Jockey Eddie Arcaro said shortly after the race, “Lawrin is a race horse that can really run a horse race. Don’t give a jockey too much credit. It takes a horse to win that horse race.”
Spectators made in total about $100,000 on bets, and Herb Woolf “was reported reliably to have scored one of the biggest personal ‘killings’ in Kentucky Derby history.” A $2 bet netted a winner $19.20.
Herb Woolf had his best year of his career as a Thoroughbred horse owner. In 1938, his winnings totaled $221,117 – more than any other horse owner in America.
The excitement continued back in Kansas City. Woolford opened its stables for hundreds of visitors to get a glimpse at Lawrin’s parents, Insco and Margaret Lawrence. Lawrin’s siblings, Unerring, Belle Mystery, Bohemian Lad and Modern Times, were instant celebrities as the buzz continued.
Due to Lawrin’s proneness to injury, he wasn’t entered into the Preakness and Belmont, so there was no chance of a Triple Crown. Eddie Arcaro did win one more race riding Lawrin – the $50,000 Hollywood stakes. But the horse’s injuries held him back from any more success after his biggest win.
Woolford Farm Progenies
In 1939, Ben Jones trained Herb Woolf’s horse named Technician all the way to the Kentucky Derby and took 5th place. But changes were underway at Woolford Farm.
First, Lawrin’s father, Insco, died in February 1939 of blood poisoning caused from an infected wound. Thirty minutes after Insco’s death, Margaret Lawrence gave birth to another colt studded by Insco.
Herb Woolf recognized the legacy Insco left – and the money had made from this Thoroughbred; when he died, Herb called the death “a million-dollar loss.” He erected a granite monument at Insco’s grave that reads “He goes on to greatness through his progeny.”
In July 1939, Ben Jones announced he was quitting Woolford due to ill health. Herb Woolf certainly understood and the men shook hands as he left.
But just a week later, the newspapers reported that Ben took another job with a competing Thoroughbred farm in Lexington, Ky.
The following year, Herb Woolf tried to recreate the magic of Lawrin’s success. Several horses, including Inscolassie, full sister to Lawrin, were Derby hopefuls. Unfortunately, none of them qualified. Herb blamed bad jockeys.
Lawrin was officially retired from racing in 1940; his leg was in bad shape. Upon the horse’s retirement, he was already the father to six colts at Woolford Farm. Lawrin died August 31, 1955 after a long battle with heart disease and was buried next to his father, Insco.
In March 1955, Herb Woolf reluctantly sold Woolford Farm to J.C. Nichols with an agreement that he would continue to maintain 90 acres. Herb, a bachelor his entire life, passed away in 1964 and left Woolf Brothers and his estate to his nephew, Alfred Lighton.
The Legacy of Those Attached to Lawrin
Lawrin’s trainer, Ben Jones went on to train an additional five Kentucky Derby winners through 1952. Two of the horses he trained won the Triple Crown. In 1958, he was inducted in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
Eddie Arcaro, Lawrin’s jockey at the Derby, went on to be one of the most famous jockeys of the era. In 1941, Arcaro won the Triple Crown with Whirlwind, a horse trained by none other than Ben Jones. He is tied for the most Derby wins in history with five total – and his first was with Lawrin.
Arcaro was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year as Ben Jones, and he still holds the record of the most wins in the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness with six.
Woolford Farm wouldn’t remain a peaceful country farm for long. In the mid-1970s, J.C. Nichols began developing the land into a community of private streets with townhomes. In honor of the land’s Thoroughbred past, the subdivision was coined Corinth Downs.
The farmhouse which originally stood at Woolford was torn down, but the cupola from the house was recycled on top of a new residence in the gated subdivision that was occupied by none other than Miller Nichols, J.C. Nichols’ son.
Neighboring subdivisions in Prairie Village also embraced the area’s racing past. Town and Country subdivision’s entrances include horse heads.
The 30,000 square foot barn which was the home of Insco, Margaret Lawrence, Lawrin and the Thoroughbreds of Woolford Farm was saved for many years. For a time, the barn was used to host community theatre, and by 1994, the Mission Road Antique Mall opened and remained inside the Woolford stable until it closed its doors in 2017.
Renovations in the heart of Corinth Square revitalized the old shopping center, but it also removed a relic of the region. Despite its place in history, the Woolford Farm stable was torn down in 2019 to make way for newer shops.
There is one little piece of the past which still remains of Kansas City’s beloved Kentucky Derby connection. A small patch of land at 59 Le Mans Court on a cul-de-sac maintains the impressive monuments for Lawrin and his sire, Insco.
It is just a small piece of the old Woolford Farm where Herb Woolf once invested in the fastest horses in the nation, but its existence today is a small reminder of the area’s unique ties to the Kentucky Derby.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com