Like many native Louisvillians, John Sutton Jr. eagerly anticipates Kentucky Derby day. The first Saturday in May is always a highlight — and he does mean always.

For Sutton ’53, ’65, this May 6 offers bragging rights that probably no other racing spectator can claim. He plans to attend his 84th consecutive Derby.

In the past few years, his perch as a guest of Churchill Downs has been a rare vantage point that few have the chance to enjoy. But his view as an 8-year-old in 1940 — after begging his father since the previous year’s radio broadcast to take him to the Louisville track, likely over his mother’s objections — was a remarkable start to this run of a family tradition.

The Suttons junior and senior boarded the streetcar and were on their way. It was, perhaps, their destiny. The elder Sutton had an intense interest in and a “sixth sense” about what qualities to look for in racehorses, according to his son, and some of that knowledge had come from his own father, a blacksmith in nearby Loretto and Elizabethtown who also worked with horses.

“It was kind of handed down and I was the recipient of all of it. I went along for the ride. It never occurred to me I’d be going all these years,” Sutton said.

Before he heads for the legendary locale, there’s no real ritual — no lucky hat, no superstitious talisman, just some studious consideration the previous night or two to develop a tipsheet of sorts that has become a welcome gift to a couple dozen friends and relatives to help them analyze their betting options. Who wouldn’t want to benefit from decades of devoted, learned exposure?

You could say he wrote the book on it.

John Sutton Jr. ’53, ’56 looks through his collection of Derby memorabilia featuring races as famous as Secretariat’s victory 50 years ago.

Sutton and granddaughter Amber Sims, also a UofL graduate, collaborated on “A Real Life Exacta: Bourbon and 83 Kentucky Derbies,” intended mostly as a legacy for his family and friends to understand his curious upbringing and life adventures.

“I’m living a long life, so to speak, and I am fortunate,” said the 91-yearold, adding that he wanted his family to understand what brought them to this point “rather than being just lost in the dustbin of history.”

He wrote the tome on yellow legal pads in longhand, a task impeded by carpal tunnel syndrome; he knew Sims was adept at computers so she helped immensely by transcribing his handwritten history and helping him organize his life story. “She did a great job of it,” he said.

Sims ’09 said Sutton told her he wanted to leave something behind for his family members. As she and others listened to countless Derby stories over the years, it became clear that somebody needed to document this history.

“You have too much information in your brain. You need to write a book,” Sims recalled commenting.

His attendance record is impressive, even to his relatives. “I think all of us are proud of it,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody else in my life that’s ever been such an avid lover of the Derby like him,” Sims said. “He still looks like a kid in the candy store looking for a gumball” as early May approaches. “He is never bored with it. He just says, ‘I’m going.’ ”

Although she has been to Churchill Downs, Sims has never attended the Derby. She traditionally watches it on television at her grandmother’s house in a little Derby party of their own while Sutton, his friend and others revive their track tradition. Sims does have a critical role, though — finding the race online afterward and saving it for Sutton to watch it over and over to see how his picks fared as all those hooves thundered down the track.

“It’s always been a big thing in our family,” Sims said.

Out of all those Derby days, a couple do stand out especially in Sutton’s memory.

In 1967, after studying the racing form and reading up on all the pedigrees, he and his father decided to do something they seldom tried – betting a longshot. Proud Clarion, owned by Darby Dan Farm’s John Galbreath, went off at 30-to-1 odds to win, rewarding Sutton, his father and a buddy for scraping together their $20 bet. Taking a chance paid $62 for even a $2 bet, “like manna from heaven” considering their financial situation at the time.

“That was the biggest thrill we really had at the Derby,” Sutton said.

photo of older gentleman sitting at a table with a female pageant winner
John Sutton Jr. had a visit from Miss Kentucky while he attended the 2022 Kentucky Derby in Churchill Downs’ Homestretch Club area.

But excitement reigned again in 2000, when Fusaichi Pegasus won the Run for the Roses. “We put all our eggs in one basket,” betting the horse to win, place, show and in the trifecta, exacta and superfecta, he said. “That’s the only time that ever occurred. It lasted us about 10 years. I don’t expect that to ever happen again.”

“It’s difficult to pick a winner at the Kentucky Derby because there are so many Derby horses (in modern times),” he explained.

His normal approach, therefore, is to take a stab at the winner but place bigger money on place and show.

“Most people, all they want is to have a winner. I hate to lose. I really wasn’t a gambler in the strictest sense. I was just an odds player.”

Over the years, particularly the lean ones, he worked on betting frugally to minimize his losses. Later in life he and his wife went to many tracks to enjoy races but now he’s “become almost exclusively the Derby,” he said.

He really wasn’t cognizant that his penchant for attending the Derby had become such a streak or even unusual until well into it. However, he certainly didn’t ever miss his favorite racing event, even when suffering from pneumonia or angling a trip back to Louisville from his Army service.

It didn’t hurt that his alma mater was situated near the track. He took a test to attend UofL after a less-than-fun stint of factory work in his youth. Without any advising, he chose pre-med because his mother was a nurse, and he kept up those studies while also working a heavy schedule at a grocery to pay for his schooling. His Army service was deferred until his graduation, but then he was drafted and inducted right afterward as a young married man.

After the Army he ultimately worked at a Louisville-area distillery until his retirement as an executive after 35 years. He earned a graduate math degree at UofL during his tenure there.

A former distillery co-worker now accompanies him on Derby day, which invariably includes a cruise around the paddock to observe the race contenders. Sutton still puts into play all the points he soaked up from his father and grandfather plus the longevity of Derby-going that seems unrivaled.

Judy Hughes
Judy Hughes is a senior communications and marketing coordinator for UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing and associate editor of UofL Magazine. She previously worked in news as a writer and editor for a daily newspaper and The Associated Press.