As spring arrives and a horse racing fan's attention turns toward the magical first Saturday in May, there is a niche group that reacts to the new season by scavenging through basements, garages and attics in search of a dusty relic.
Much like owners, trainers and jockeys, collectors of sports memorabilia are not exempt from Kentucky Derby Fever. With each year, as Derby talk begins to spike, a familiar cycle unfolds. Some people try to remember where they placed that $2 ticket on the 1983 Derby winner, while others formulate their plans to get their hands on items from this year's Run for the Roses.
There may not be an equine version of a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card, but horse racing, and in particular the Derby, has its own array of passionate fans and coveted items that are stored away in hopes of one day kindling a fond memory or perhaps covering an auto payment.
"All that's missing are the massive number of people who stockpile Derek Jeter rookie cards or a football autographed by Peyton Manning.
The horse racing collector or fan tends to be an older person. They are very loyal, but the problem is that there are not enough of them." -- Brandon Steiner, Steiner Sports CEO
"The horse racing collector or fan tends to be an older person," says Brandon Steiner, the founder and CEO of Steiner Sport. "They are very loyal, but the problem is that there are not enough of them. They are not a growing breed. They remind me of hockey fans in many ways."
For a licensed collector like Steiner and his company, items like dirt from the Churchill Downs racing surface or a jockey's whip would hold a unique value. Yet for the average fan, there is a much more standard checklist of collectibles tied to the famed opening leg of the Triple Crown. Derby commemorative drinking glasses, programs and mutuel and admission tickets are the traditional favorites.
Chris Goodlett, the curator of collections for the Kentucky Derby Museum, says he receives roughly 300 research requests a year from people wanting to know the value of their Derby memorabilia. The vast majority of them arrive in March through May and predictably focus on glasses, programs and tickets.
"The thing about the Derby is that it keeps getting more popular. There's always interest in it," Goodlett says. "For a long time, 1974 held the attendance record, then we broke it 2011 and again in 2012. It's become a cultural event. You get fans who want to see the race and people who want to be there because it's the place to see and to be seen. It's a landmark event."
Helping to fuel the interest in collectibles is the popularity of the online marketplace eBay and reality shows like "Pawn Stars," which spark thoughts of turning long forgotten items into fresh, cold cash.
"It's a logical step that people see television shows or visit eBay and they start thinking about what they can get for something," Goodlett says. "It probably wasn't as prevalent in the past."
A check of eBay for horse racing-related items vouches for that interest, as 54,875 items popped up in a search last week. The topper was the $1 million price tag on a Tommervik abstract painting, which is probably a bit too outlandish for the average $2 bettor.
A search for Kentucky Derby items yielded 15,005 results, with a 1940 Kentucky Derby mint julep glass heading the list at $14,999.
Like a fine wine, collectibles can grow in value with the passing of time.
Not surprisingly, Goodlett says Secretariat remains the name that sparks the most interest both in collectibles and among visitors to the Kentucky Derby Museum. Steiner adds that he works with Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte, and that memorabilia involving the big red colt from Meadow Stable is still highly marketable nearly 41 years after his final race.
"What is the name that drives collectibles? It's Secretariat," Goodlett says. "He's in a different stratosphere. He's in demand the most. His name is still the most recognizable, as a lot of people look at him as the best horse who ever lived. He's the name most people associate with horse racing collectibles."
Reflective of that, a program from Secretariat's 1973 Derby win is available on eBay for $375, while a Derby glass from the same year sells for $9.
Glory certainly has its rewards in the collectibles market, as shown by the $41 price on a $2 win ticket from the 1978 Derby on Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner. To complement that bit of history, a program from that Derby is being offered for $39.
Orb never won another race, and now you can buy a case of 72 Derby glasses from his Derby for $35 and a box of 50 programs for $50.
But hope does spring eternal, and while this year marks the 36th swing at the sport's elusive 12th Triple Crown winner, the presence of an electrifying favorite in Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome figures to inspire collectors to gobble up as many souvenirs as they can.
And if he, or anyone else for that matter, can capture both the Derby and the Preakness, then the Belmont Stakes will be a collectors' paradise -- for at least a while.
In 2012, when I'll Have Another won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and was pegged as an odds-on choice to complete the sweep in New York, some savvy folks tried to make a quick buck regardless of what happened in the race. A week before the race, sellers on eBay offered a $2 win ticket on I'll Have Another and race program from the Belmont Stakes for an average price of $50 -- a profit of $43 whether I'll Have Another won or lost.
Yet even the best-laid plans of mice and memorabilia collectors can go awry. I'll Have Another was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes, and a $2 win ticket on him in the Derby was worth more at the Churchill Downs mutuel windows ($32.60) than it ever will be at an estate sale.
At the other extreme, mankind's propensity for mistakes can sometimes create a cottage industry for collectors. If you want a 2003 Kentucky Derby glass, one is available on eBay for $3.50. But if you desire a 2003 Kentucky Derby glass that incorrectly lists Burgoo King as the 1937 Triple Crown winner instead of War Admiral, then you'll need to pay $10.10.
All of which makes perfect sense in the world of collectibles. While fame and fortune can be won on the racetrack each and every first Saturday of May, years later it's a goof or a dusty piece of paper that can prove rewarding.