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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

America's elected leaders and the sport of kings – from George to Donald

As Trump passes a year in office, Scott Burton looks through the history books

We know he's a big fight fan but does Donald Trump enjoy horse racing?
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1 Racing was immensely popular in the early years of the republic and keen racegoers at the Washington National Racecourse included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as James Madison and his wife Dolly. But none shared the enthusiasm of Andrew Jackson (7th President 1829-37), who had his racehorses shipped up from Nashville to a specially built stable at the White House on the site of what is now the US Treasury Department.

2 The improbable rise of Seabiscuit captured the imagination of Depression-era Americans of every class and his epic 1938 match race against War Admiral didn't escape the attention of Franklin D Roosevelt (32nd President 1933-45).

Officials scheduled the race for Tuesday, November 1 in the hope of limiting the crowd but 40,000 racegoers overran Pimlico. FDR called a halt to a cabinet meeting in order to listen to the radio broadcast by Clem McCarthy, who had to perch by the winning line after giving up the struggle to reach the press box. 

3 Many racehorses have been named after US Presidents but Ronald Reagan (40th President 1981-89) can lay claim to having trained one. The former film actor starred in the 1938 film Sergeant Murphy, loosely based on the true story of a US cavalryman who took the eponymous equine hero out of the army to Grand National glory at Aintree in 1923. 

4 In 1969 Richard Nixon (37th President 1969-74) became the first – and to date only – president to attend the Kentucky Derby while in office, visiting Churchill Downs in 1969 at the behest of Kentucky governor Louie Nunn. When asked if he would be drinking a mint julep over his preferred scotch and soda, Nixon replied that he was "going to savour the race, Kentucky style". While Nixon is reported not to have placed a bet, he did pick the winner Majestic Prince, on account of the colt’s connections with the president’s home state of California.

5 Several presidents have appointed prominent racehorse owners to influential positions. Lyndon Johnson's ambassador to Ireland, Raymond Guest, won the Epsom Derby with Larkspur in 1962 and again with the mighty Sir Ivor in 1968, before L'Escargot became a dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and Grand National hero over fences.

Serving at the president's pleasure: US ambassador to Britain Will Farish (right, yellow tie) after winning the 2003 Oaks at Epsom with Casual Look
George W Bush appointed William S Farish, the founder of Lane's End Farm, as ambassador to the United Kingdom. Farish also tasted Classic success during his tenure, landing the 2003 Oaks with Casual Look.

6 The 1983 Kentucky Derby was attended by two former commanders-in-chief in Jimmy Carter (39th President 1977-81) and his immediate predecessor Gerald Ford (38th President 1974-77), as well as sitting vice president and future Oval Office incumbent George H W Bush (41st President 1989-1993). Carter’s only trip to the Run for the Roses was at the behest of legendary horseman Tom Gentry, and the former president made himself more than useful when giving instructions in Spanish to jockey Jorge Velasquez – a late replacement for Laffit Pincay jr – before his winning ride on the undercard aboard Gentry's Flag Admiral.

7 Ford holds the record for the most Kentucky Derbys attended by any president at 13 and proffered 1980 heroine Genuine Risk as his favourite winner. Quoted in the souvenir magazine for the 1993 race, Ford said of his own and his wife Betty’s attachment to Churchill Downs: "We’ve always been thrilled with the excitement of the Kentucky Derby. It is one of the great American sporting events."

8 George W Bush (43rd President 2001-09) invited the 2007 Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel to the White House for a state dinner in honour of the Queen, who had been at Churchill Downs to see his victory aboard Street Sense a few days previously. "It was almost as good as winning the Kentucky Derby, it was unbelievable," said Borel, who was hugged by Bush and swapped autographed menus with secretary of state Colin Powell.

9 During the 2016 campaign the Washington Post – among other publications – revived stories of Donald Trump's deal to buy a highly regarded colt by Raise A Native in 1988 that went disastrously wrong. First aired in the 1991 tell-all book Trumped – an expose of the mogul written by John O’Connell, a former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino – the 2016 reports claimed that Trump agreed to buy the two-year-old Alibi for $500,000, on the proviso that he was renamed DJ Trump.

Donald Trump and future First Lady Melania Knauss attending the 1999 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs

10 The horse was sent to late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens where he suffered a career-ending injury. O’Connell claims Trump had already tried to bargain the horse’s owner down to $250,000 – on the basis that his name alone was worth the other half of the money – and when learning of the injury backed out of the deal completely. Trump dismissed the book at the time of its publication as the work of "a disgruntled employee" and described the story of the horse DJ Trump as "totally unsubstantiated and false". Which doesn’t sound like something he would say idly, does it?

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It was almost as good as winning the Kentucky Derby, it was unbelievable
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