On May 27, 1914 a record crowd gathered at the historic Epsom Downs in England for the annual running of the world’s greatest horse race, the English Derby. The dramatic death of suffragette Emily Davison on the track the year prior and the nearly unprecedented 30 horse field drew a large crowd who knew that quite anything could happen at the annual event. The tension mounted precipitously at the post line as the horses waited for the starter’s signal. Matt McGee, an American jockey born and raised in Covington sitting atop of his fine colt Durbar II, stared down the track towards the outside rail and saw the crowd favorite Kennymore growing anxious for the start. At 9-4 odds, and with Europe’s top jockey and future racing Hall of Famer Frank O’Neill aboard, the horse was thought to be shoo-in for victory, even with the crowded field. The other rival for the title, Brakespear, owned by none other than the King of England himself, waited patiently close to the inside rail. The 20 minutes standing at the line must have seemed like an eternity for the horse, however, as he frequently backed away from the starting tape. The signal to go caught Brakespear off-guard and led to a poor start while the anxious Kennymore took off perpendicular to the rest of the field, racing directly towards the inside rail.
At the half mile mark of the mile and a half race, McGee pulled Durbar into fourth place, a few lengths behind pace setter Polycrates. MacGee had ridden Durbar to victory in France prior to this day, pulling out some minor victories in a couple of stakes races, before being placed by owner Herman Duryea in this day’s race. At 20-1 odds, the horse took some light bets but was off of the radar of most enthusiasts in the build up to the race. McGee saw an opening as the field approached the famous turn at Tattanham’s Corner and slipped Durbar in front at the rail. He quickly pulled away from the field down the stretch and passed the finish line a full three lengths ahead of his nearest competitor. The crowd fell into a hushed silence. Two Americans with a French and American bred horse had taken the coveted prize, much to the chagrin of the proud English folks in the crowd. Duryea likely fell into shock as well. Not necessarily from the win, but rather from the payout on the $4,000 bet he placed on his own horse in addition to the $32,000 race prize. Matt McGee, the little jockey from Latonia, Kentucky reached the pinnacle of his racing career at this moment and calmly remarked to reporters, “I had never had an easier race in my life.”
Matt’s racing career began in his hometown, at the old Latonia Racetrack where many residents had strong ties to the horse racing industry. Matt and two of his brothers, all of diminutive Irish stock, attempted careers as jockeys, but only Matt proved successful in the trade. Beginning in 1908, he raced for four years in the United States. He traveled about the country trying to find work while Progressive reformers cracked down on the racing and gaming industries in states like New York and California. In fact, the closure of tracks in huge markets like California and New York were in some ways directly responsible for the rise of horse racing in Kentucky. The Bluegrass State’s reputation for feuds, moonshine, and general lawlessness made many in the thoroughbred industry set their sights on the state as a refuge for continued racing. After his first year on the courses, the American Racing Manual remarked that “McGee….gave indications that [he] may be challenging the leaders in a year or two.” His contract was sold to a California stable where he enjoyed the last racing season in Los Angeles before anti-gambling legislation shut down the races. In 1909, Matt finished fifth among the jockeys overall in wins, with 150 coming in a career high 862 mounts. That year he also raced in his first Kentucky Derby, though he finished in ninth place aboard Campeon. In the year 1911 he rode perhaps his greatest horse, a chestnut filly named Round the World. The horse won many races in the buildup to the Kentucky Derby, including a huge prize at the Juarez Derby in Mexico that made her a favorite in the days leading up to the Derby. The horse tired from overwork as she ran numerous tune-up races in Lexington in the weeks prior to the Derby, a far cry from the limited workload of modern thoroughbreds. Matt led her across the finish line that year in sixth place in the seven horse field, an assured disappointment in one of the most thrilling Derby races to that point. After the 1911 Kentucky Derby, Matt officially retired from American racing as the pressures on making weight finally became too much. He had contemplated the move for a time, but waited until after the Derby to make his decision out of an agreement with his owner to race the special filly in the major events. Europe offered greater opportunity and with the closures of so many tracks across the United States a flood of jockeys and others in the thoroughbred industry made their way to the continent. Matt joined those on the move in 1913 and began racing with Herman Duryea during that year. Matt quickly became his top jockey and their two years together netted the pair steady profits in many of the large races around France. The victory lap after the
1914 English Derby was cut short, however, when nearly one month to the day after the race Austro-Hungarian prince Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in what amounted to the sounding bell for World War I. As nations mobilized for war, racing was shut down and many jockeys and horses were called to serve in the fight. In late September, 1914, Durbar was smuggled out of the war zone draped in an American flag and declared “neutral” in the fight, as he eventually made his way to the United States. Matt and his family left as well for a time, though they eventually returned amid the fighting when racing resumed on a limited basis in 1915.
Matt and his family stayed in France after the war as well and his racing career continued relatively unimpeded into the 1930s. He perpetually finished towards the top of the list among winning jockeys, though most often finding himself in second place behind rival and friend Frank O’Neill. Upon his retirement, he settled in to a comfortable life training and raising horses for the Rothschild family near his home outside of Paris. The bellicose calls for war sent Matt home again in the spring of 1941 after the German army overran his town and reportedly used his home as officers’ quarters and as a base of operation. He returned to Covington alone to a family he had not seen in nearly a decade. His wife and daughter soon followed, though the family never reunited totally. His wife Laura fell victim to cancer and died in Chicago in 1945. Matt followed in October 1949 and was laid to rest in Mother of God cemetery in Fort Wright. His daughter returned to France after the war and according to family lore, sought to reclaim the family’s lost fortunes.
As we approach another Kentucky Derby this coming May, we are all reminded of the importance of the horse racing industry to the state’s history. The Kenton County Library offer vast resources for those interested in learning more about racing history. The Keeneland Racetrack library, in partnership with the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Virtual Library, has digitized nearly the entire run of the Daily Racing Form. In addition to form charts, race results, and general racing news the paper also covered political activity relating to national issues, like the interruptions of the World Wars, and local issues like the battle over the annexation of Latonia to the city of Covington. The Latonia Racetrack’s prominence in the industry also made it a popular topic in local papers. Digital editions of the historic Cincinnati Enquirer and the Louisville Courier Journal are available for access in the library or at home with a library card. The Northern Kentucky Newspaper Index also has coverage of some local figures and events and patrons can access the newspapers on microfilm in the Covington library. Finding information outside the United States can be much trickier and may require some language fluency, but information is available. France has a wonderful collection of digitized photos, periodicals, and books available through their national library and keyword searches can reveal a wealth of information in addition to offering a different perspective on events in the United States. Contact the Local History and Genealogy Department at the Covington Branch of the Kenton County Library if you would like help researching anything related to local or national racing history. Also stop by the branch for a display with more about the history of Matt McGee’s racing career.
Written by Nate McGee, Library Associate, Local History and Genealogy Department, Covington
 Davison, the suffragette, threw herself in front of the King of England’s horse as he approached the finish line and became at martyr for the suffrage cause in the British Isles. In 1914, a policeman was shot by Ada Rice, a presumed suffragette, but no serious injury occurred.
 The prize money alone would be valued at close to $1 million today.
 See Maryjean Wall’s great book, How Kentucky Became Southern, for more on this process and the rise of racing overall in the state.
 Check out James Claypool’s fine history of the Latonia Racetrack, The Tradition Continues: The Story of Old Latonia, Latonia, and Turfway Racetracks for a good comprehensive history of Racing in northern Kentucky.