With another Kentucky Derby upon us, sports lovers of our beloved state often look back fondly about (1) their first Derby, (2) their first Mint Julep, (3) their first Derby-winning ticket, (4) their close first brush with an honest-to-goodness celebrity.
And for many, they miss Cawood Ledford more than anyone else or anything else.
Cawood was the most popular media personality in the history of Kentucky broadcast journalism – and no one else was close.
There are plenty of reasons. First of all, he was damn good. That voice was unmatchable. He was the voice of the Kentucky Wildcats in both basketball and football. And he was excellent when calling horse races. Remember when the horses turned into the stretch, Cawood would say, “And now they are coming to me!”
You could just SEE and FEEL the horses charging down the stretch and toward the finish with jockeys flailing their crops.
Spring in and spring out, Cawood was the most popular media person on the backside of Churchill Downs. He didn’t have to look for the celebrities among the owners, trainers and jockeys.
THEY looked for him.
When Cawood was just finishing his last UK basketball game (against Duke), Coach K rushed across the Rupp Arena floor to congratulate and say goodbye to Cawood.
Cawood had the advantage of being the top sports guy at two of the Bingham broadcast properties, WHAS-TV and 50,000-watt radio station WHAS.
Football and basketball coaches of other colleges around the nation listened for Cawood’s call of UK games, especially basketball.
One night at a UK media dinner at the old Kentucky Hotel in Louisville, Wildcat basketball coach Adolph Rupp had the floor. When Rupp was finished, Vic Sholis, the head man at both WHAS radio and TV, made a bad mistake: “Coach Rupp, our radio station is heard all over America. When you erupt in your tantrums, do you ever consider how you make Kentucky look to the rest of the country?”
Rupp tore into Sholis. Cawood wasn’t there, but another popular Louisville sportscaster (for both WAVE-TV and radio) Ed Kallay said, “Coach, I don’t think he meant it like that.”
Rupp said, “Well, by gawd, that’s what he said!”
I immediately thought that if Cawood had been there, he could have diffused the situation.
I’ve said many times that there may have been better football and basketball announcers, but I’ve yet to hear any. And no one else could come close to matching his race call. Horse racing is what separates the men from the boys.
Before television, thoroughbred racing was one of the nation’s most popular sports and the top sports columnists flocked to the Derby. The New York Times is the one big out-of-town newspaper that always has sent its top sports columnists, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners to Louisville. Red Smith was the most famous. Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times wrote great stories about the Derby. All of the great southern writers loved coming to Louisville. One of them, Furman Bisher of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, died just recently. Freddie Russell of Nashville was one of the greats who wouldn’t miss the Derby, which was on par with the World Series and the big bowl games (this was before the National Football League was king).
For you to understand how important New York writers were to the Derby, Churchill Downs once hired one of them, Bill Corum, as its president. It was his job to wine and dine the top New York media members to encourage them to come to the Derby.
The Kentucky Derby remains the crown jewel of the Triple Crown of races along with the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York City.
Thoroughbred racing leaders worked with NBC to get all three Triple Crown races back on the same network this year. Three Kentuckians—Tom Hammond, Kenny Rice and Mike Battaglia—are kingpins of NBC’s telecasts of America’s three biggest races. Battaglia also makes the morning line for the Derby and other Churchill Downs races.
It’s no secret that thoroughbred racing is in trouble because of slot machines. Races start about 30 minutes apart. Gamblers can pull the arm of a slot machine each 10 or 15 seconds.
Kentucky tracks plead for legislation that will allow slots, but the General Assembly refuses their pleas. The Lexington Herald-Leader in a page 1 story last Thursday warned of the problems Kentucky horse tracks are having staying alive.
Northern Kentucky’s track is in real danger because two big slots operations are being built just across the Ohio River in Cincinnati and will be open soon.