This article, written under my married name Kitty Hanson, was first published in All About Glass, Vol. XIII No. 2, pp. 12-16, July 2015.
Collecting Kentucky Derby Glasses
Every spring on the first Saturday in May, thousands of people descend on Louisville, KY and flock to Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby in person. Millions more of us gather around our TV sets, often with a bunch of friends at one of the numerous Derby Parties held across the country. Most of us probably don’t know the first thing about horseracing, let alone Thoroughbred bloodlines, but we drink mint juleps, sing along to My Old Kentucky Home, cheer on the victor, and start getting our hopes up that maybe – just maybe – this will be the year we’ll finally have a new Triple Crown winner for the first time since 1978!
About those mint juleps. While any glass will do, Derby enthusiasts prefer to have their mint juleps served in an official Kentucky Derby glass, and here’s where things get really fun for collectors! Churchill Downs has released an official Kentucky Derby glass every year since 1938 and these glasses have been hot collector items for decades. Some people want a complete set – good luck accomplishing that – while others want certain years, like Triple Crown winners, fillies, famous horses, or even human birthdays and/or anniversaries.
It all started with Col. Matt Winn, a man with a fascinating story. He was a lad of 13 when the very first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875, and his father owned a Louisville grocery store. He and his dad drove their horse-drawn delivery wagon into the Louisville Jockey Club’s “free gate area” (today’s Churchill Downs infield) and Matt watched from the bed of that wagon as Aristides won the inaugural Derby by two lengths! Matt grew up to become a prominent Louisville merchant and in 1902 got the opportunity to take over operations at Churchill Downs. He was a tireless Derby promoter for the next 37 years and started many of the traditions associated with the Derby today, such as the singing of My Old Kentucky Home right before the post parade, the blanket of roses draped around the winning horse’s neck, the Kentucky Derby Trophy presented to the winner’s owner, and most importantly for purposes of this article, official Kentucky Derby glasses.
The very first Kentucky Derby glass appeared in 1938, but serious collectors will tell you that this glass doesn’t really count. Why? Because it was only a water glass, not a real mint julep glass. Nevertheless, many Churchill Downs dining room patrons took the glass home as a souvenir. Col. Winn knew a promotional opportunity when he saw one! The following year he contracted with the Libbey Glass Company to create an official true mint julep glass – for which he charged dining room patrons an extra 25 cents if they wanted to keep it! Libbey has continued to produce virtually all subsequent official Kentucky Derby glasses ever since. The design changes from year to year, but usually includes some type of a depiction of Churchill Downs’ twin spires, a horse, a jockey, a horseshoe, and/or a red rose.
There were two official glasses in 1940: the Libbey mint julep glass and an aluminum tumbler made by West Bend Aluminum. Kentucky Derby glasses weren’t made of glass from 1941 through 1944 because glass was in short supply during World War II. Instead, the two official 1941 “glasses” were a reissue of West Bend’s 1940 aluminum tumbler and a bakelite tumbler available in a variety of mottled colors: orange, red/white/blue, brown/buckwheat, blue, gray, gray/green/red/blue, and pink. When aluminum also became hard to get, these bakelite tumblers remained the official “glass” through 1944.
Glass was once again available in large supply in 1945 and the Kentucky Derby celebrated with three official Kentucky Derby glasses that year: a frosted zombie-style glass (known as the 1945 Tall), a frosted mint julep glass (known as the 1945 Short), and a clear glass jigger.
If you’re looking for an official 1945 Tall glass, beware of fakes! The official glass has a bright green graphic of a horse head inside a horseshoe, with “Kentucky Derby” above and “Churchill Downs” below. The fake glasses have a narrower version of the same graphic in a darker green color. Note that the top of the fake horseshoe is slightly more pointed and the typeface is slightly smaller, resulting in “Kentucky Derby” spanning the inside edges of the top two nail holes, not their outside edges. These glasses are not error glasses as sometimes happens; they’re out-and-out fakes. Considering that the official 1945 Tall glass sells for upwards of $550, make sure that’s what you’re getting before you pay for one!
Only blank glasses (no design) were used in 1946 and 1947 for whatever reason. The first of the annual decorated glasses appeared in 1948, the year Citation won the Derby and went on to become the eighth Triple Crown winner.
1949 was the Kentucky Derby’s Diamond Jubilee and the official glass honored Col. Matt Winn. Underneath his image and signature is the caption “He has seen them all.” Col. Winn did indeed see every one of the first 75 Derbys, but sadly, the 1949 Derby was his last. He died five months later on October 6, 1949 at the age of 88. It was the end of a Kentucky Derby era.
While every official Kentucky Derby glass from 1950 on is collectible, space doesn’t permit showing all of them. Only the most significant are profiled below.
Sometimes an official Kentucky Derby glass contains an error, and such is the case with the 1956 glass. Actually, 1956 must have been a really bad production year. The official glass wound up being produced in four separate variations! I call it the “Tale of the Tails.” Three horses wrap around the glass and obviously each horse was supposed to have a tail. But on some glasses, only two of the horses have tails and these are called “Two Tails” glasses. The glasses were also supposed to have two stars near the top, one on either side of “Kentucky Derby.” But some glasses have only one and are called “One Star” glasses. So depending on how many tails and how many stars, the four variations are “One Star Two Tails,” “One Star Three Tails,” “Two Stars Two Tails,” and “Two Stars Three Tails.” Whew! Got all that?
By the way, Kentucky Derby error glasses are just that: errors. They are not fakes! Not surprisingly, error glasses sell for higher prices than their correct counterparts because so few of them were mistakenly produced.
There were two official Derby glasses in 1958. The 1958 Gold Bar glass has two frosted panels, each depicting a black line drawing of two race horses ridden by gold jockeys, to the right of which is a “gold bar” with a gold-on-gold Churchill Downs spire and head-on horse and rider. There’s also a 1958 Gold Bar error glass – the gold-lettered “Churchill Downs” and “Kentucky Derby” between the two frosted panels are missing!
The 1958 Iron Liege glass was actually produced from 1957 overstock glasses which were restamped to add the name of the 1957 Derby winner Iron Liege. Therefore, if you’re looking for either a 1957 glass or a 1958 Iron Liege glass, be aware that both glasses look exactly alike except for Iron Liege’s name on the winners’ list on the 1958 Iron Liege glass. Be sure to check that winners’ list carefully so you’ll know which glass you’re buying.
The 1968 Kentucky Derby glass is significant because 1968 is the only time in Derby history that the winning horse was disqualified. Dancer’s Image won the race, but his mandatory post-race urinalysis revealed traces of phenylbutazone, a painkiller legal at many tracks at the time, but not at Churchill Downs. Dancer’s Image was disqualified by the Kentucky State Racing Commission and Forward Pass, the second-place finisher, was declared the winner of the 1968 Derby. The Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses were thrown into major disarray for five years. The 1969 glass took the easy way out and contains no winners’ list. The 1970, 1971, and 1972 glasses list Dancer’s Image as the 1968 winner, but with an asterisk that goes to a notice saying “Dancer’s Image purse ordered redistributed to Forward Pass. An appeal to this order is pending.” The 1973 glass lists both Dancer’s Image and Forward Pass as the 1968 winner, but this time the notice attached to Dancer’s Image’s asterisk says “Finished First.” Forward Pass is marked with a double asterisk going to a notice saying “Awarded first money purse. Trophy in litigation.” The 1974 glass is the first to list Forward Pass as the official 1968 Derby winner.
The 1973 glass is important not only because it lists two 1968 winners, but also because 1973 was the year that the great Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in a record-breaking time of 1:59 2/5, which still stands as the fastest winning time ever in the Derby. Secretariat went on to win both the Preakness and the Belmont, becoming the ninth Triple Crown winner, the first in 25 years. (Secretariat won the Belmont by an astounding 31 lengths and his winning time of 2:24 remains the world record on a 1-1/2 mile dirt track.)
The 1974 glass is especially collectible for several reasons:
- 1974 was the Derby’s Centennial running.
- Twenty-three horses ran that race, the most ever; the field has been limited to 20 horses ever since.
- The 1974 glass is the first one to list Forward Pass as the official 1968 winner.
- 1974 was the first year that Triple Crown winners were marked as such on the glass, after Secretariat’s spectacular Triple Crown wins the previous year.
- The 1974 glass was produced on both Libbey and Federal blanks.
Libbey’s original run of 1974 Kentucky Derby glasses contained an error on the winners’ list. The name of the 1971 winning horse was Canonero II, but the error glasses list him only as Canonero. To make matters worse, Libbey ran out of its own blanks and had to buy blanks from Federal in order to complete this error run. Libbey subsequently did a second run of 1974 Kentucky Derby glasses containing the correct 1971 winner’s name, but again ran out of its own blanks and had to buy more Federal blanks to complete the new run.
As if things weren’t already confusing enough for collectors, some 1974 glasses, both the correct and the error versions, carry the Libbey logo on their bottoms, some carry the Federal logo, and some are not marked at all, resulting in six variations of 1974 glasses:
- Libbey correct;
- Libbey error;
- Federal correct;
- Federal error;
- Unmarked correct;
- Unmarked error.
So if you’re looking for a 1974 Kentucky Derby glass, be sure you know EXACTLY what you’re getting before you buy it. The front design on all 1974 glasses looks exactly the same, but the difference in value is substantial. The Libbey and unmarked correct glasses sell for around $16, while the Libbey and unmarked error glasses sell for around $20. It’s the Federal glasses that are the most valuable since there are relatively few of them. A Federal 1974 correct glass sells for around $100, while a Federal 1974 error glass sells for around $115!
The 1976 Kentucky Derby glass is noteworthy because this was America’s Bicentennial year and the glass is done in patriotic red, white, and blue.
The 1977 glass is important because this was the year that Seattle Slew won the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, becoming the 10th Triple Crown winner and the second during the 1970s.
Amazingly enough, the very next year Affirmed won the Derby and went on to become the 11th Triple Crown winner, beating his arch rival Alydar in all three Triple Crown races. It’s the only time there have ever been back-to-back Triple Crown winners, and it would be 37 years before another horse won the Triple Crown, all of which makes the 1978 glass highly collectable.
Filly lovers seek out the 1980 Kentucky Derby glass because this was the year that Genuine Risk became only the second filly to win the Derby, the first to do so since Regret in 1915. Genuine Risk’s win also makes the 1981 glass important because it was the first time that fillies got their own special marking on the winners’ list. The 1988 glass is also noteworthy because this was the year that Winning Colors became the third filly to win the Derby and no filly has done so since.
1999 was the Kentucky Derby’s Quasquicentennial (125th running). In addition to the official glass, Churchill Downs also commissioned a special limited edition (1000) gold glass, a tradition that has continued ever since. Charismatic won the 1999 Derby as a 31-1 longshot and also won the Preakness, but suffered an injury in the Belmont that ended his racing career, but not his life. As of 2013 he was still standing at stud in Japan.
Barbaro, the beloved 2006 Derby winner, suffered a catastrophic injury two weeks later at the Preakness, breaking his right hind leg in numerous places. He was taken from the track by ambulance and immediately sent to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for months of treatment. But sadly, the best that veterinary medicine had to offer ultimately could not save the gallant Barbaro and he had to be euthanized on January 29, 2007. The 2006 glass comes in both the official version and a limited edition gold version.
This year’s official glass and its limited edition gold counterpart became instant collectibles on June 6, 2015, the day American Pharoah won the Belmont by 5-1/2 lengths to become the twelfth Triple Crown winner, the first in 37 years!
The good news for collectors is that most Kentucky Derby glasses dating from 1970 through 2015 can still be found for very reasonable prices, usually between $10 and $20 each. Not so, however, for the earlier glasses, some of which are nearly impossible to find at any price. So if perchance you come across, say, a 1938 Kentucky Derby glass at a yard sale or flea market, keep your cool. Calmly pick it up and take it to the cash register without even a hint of excitement. Don’t shriek with joy until you and your safely wrapped glass are well out of earshot of any potential mugger. Then celebrate like mad! Water glass or not, you’ve just purchased a small American treasure and saved yourself over $2,000 to boot!