Derby Day is almost upon us! This year, May 6th is the day to place your bets and take a sip of the traditional mint julep served at the track. The Kentucky Derby is not just an occasion for triumphant horse races and rose blankets; it is also a day for celebrating American culture through art, food, and music. This year, attendees of the Derby will get to see Grammy-winning musical artist Harry Connick Jr. perform the National Anthem, as well as the dozens of other influential and famous celebrities who will be walking down the red carpet. But there was a time that the spectacle of the event was IU’s own Marching Hundred, who were asked to perform before the race every year from 1938-1941.
Indiana University was the first state university to be chosen to play at the track on Derby Day, and were so widely praised that Derby officials asked them to come again and again– and again, four years in a row. They were also the first band that was asked to return more than once. Col. Matt J. Winn, the president of Churchill Downs racetrack where the Derby is held, had hundreds of letters pouring into his office, all of them asking for IU to return for encore performances. An article in the IDS described the 13-minute drill they would perform, opening with a “clock chimes fanfare” and executing “merry-go-round” turns, counter-marches, and a formation that spells out “Dixie” (below). They also managed to get into the formation of the Derby trademark and ended with the IU monogram.
These days, the marching band from the University of Louisville plays the traditional song “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race every year. That, too, was in the 13-minute drill played by the IU Marching Hundred back in their years at the Derby. Lieutenant Frederick E. Green directed the band and Major Roy N. Hagerty was the drill instructor for the group of musicians (which was more than a hundred).
A lot was different from today’s Derby, but the pressure the musicians felt had to be very similar. Several important people watched from the crowds as the band performed. In 1939, IU president Herman B Wells attended the Derby, pictured to the left with a group of other Derby-goers. In 1940, screen actor Walter Connolly (who died only a few weeks following the Derby that year) passed his compliments onto the band after their performance. Gerald Swope, a multi-millionaire and chairman of the New York racing commission, sent a letter to the band that commended them highly. The IDS article from 1940 that reported these and other compliments stated that the Marching Hundred kept letters like this to be framed and kept as souvenirs of their time at the Derby. I can’t help but wonder what happened to those framed letters.
The Marching Hundred has since gained more national fame for being one of the best university marching bands in the country, playing at all sorts of major events throughout the decades. Like the Kentucky Derby, they’ve held onto a few unique traditions of their own.