Elizabeth Arden: A Beauty Mogul Who Ruled the Track

As the Kentucky Derby gets underway tomorrow, we're taking a look at how the queen of the cosmetics industry had a side passion for race horses.
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Wendy Mead
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As the Kentucky Derby gets underway tomorrow, we're taking a look at how the queen of the cosmetics industry had a side passion for race horses.
Elizabeth Arden and Her Race Horse Photo by Bill Greene/Library of Congress

Elizabeth Arden, poses with her race horse, Jewel's Reward in 1958. (Photo: Bill Greene/World Telegram/Library of Congress)

The name Elizabeth Arden stirs up visions of skin creams, pink lipsticks and spa treatments. Long before she became the queen of beauty, however, this cosmetics titan loved horses. She grew up caring for these mighty creatures on her family’s farm in Canada. Arden later employed the profits from her international empire to pursue her passion for race horses. She raised and trained these magnificent competitors at several different locations, including her expansive estate in Maine.  

At the track, Arden went by Elizabeth N. Graham, drawing from her birth name Florence Nightingale Graham. She even named her first stables “Mr. Nightingale’s.” She bought her first thoroughbred for $1,000 in the early 1930s and went on to win the Kentucky Derby, one of the sport’s top events, in 1947 as the owner of Jet Pilot from her Maine Chance Farm stables. Let’s learn more about this driven entrepreneur and her beloved animals. 

Arden babied her horses. According to the University of Kentucky’s Equine Initiative, she had music played in the stables for the horses. These animals also received some of the same treatments as her salon customers, having her Eight Hour Cream put on their legs and hooves. Ardena skin tonic was another of her favorite products for her horses. Like her spa clients, Arden was also concerned with her horses’ diet. She often had clover grown at her Maine estate brought to wherever her horses were racing. 

It was also important to her that her animals were handled with care. Arden wouldn’t let her jockeys use their whips on her horses. One associate, Mary Lou Whitney, once pointed out that Arden’s horses were like “her children” and she even “carried pictures of them in her billfold,” according to Lindy Woodhead’s War Paint, a dual biography of Elizabeth Arden and her business rival Helena Rubenstein.

Elizabeth Arden Photo by Alan Fisher/Library of Congress

Elizabeth Arden in 1939. (Photo: Alan Fisher/Library of Congress)

In the 1940s, Arden became one of the biggest names in horse racing. Her horses won more than $500,000 in prize money in 1945, according to The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes: A Comprehensive History. She made the cover of Time magazine in 1946 with the publication announcing her as “A queen rules the sport of kings.” Her stallion, Lord Boswell, also made headlines as a Kentucky Derby hopeful that year. Sadly, Lord Boswell, also nicknamed “Boss Man,” finished fourth at the derby.

Arden suffered a devastating loss in 1946. A fire at Chicago racetrack took the lives of 22 of her horses. Fortunately, a few of her horses had already made their way to the home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, before tragedy struck. This was not the first time that Arden suffered a setback in this way. She had lost three of her show horses to a fire at Belmont Park in 1937, according to a report in the New York Times.  

A stroke of luck led to Arden’s most famous triumph. Jet Pilot, one of the race horses that escaped the terrible 1946 stable fire in Chicago, went on to become the winner of the 1947 Kentucky Derby. Before the race, Arden gave jockey Eric Guerin her usual race instructions: “Get out in front and go, go, go.” According to news reports, Arden’s Jet Pilot beat out wealthy businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney’s Phalanx. Tom Smith was the horse’s trainer; he had previously helped the legendary Seabiscuit achieve numerous victories years earlier. 

Arden got into legal tangles over her horses. In 1954, she was sued by another race horse owner after a terrible two-horse collision at New York’s Belmont track. Arden’s horse, Star of Roses, was on the track without a rider when it crashed into Speedy Wave. Both horses broke their necks and died in the accident, and Speedy Wave’s rider suffered a broken leg. The resulting court case stretched out for years with Arden being found at fault for the deadly track encounter.   

Race horses could be tough customers. Her horse, Jewel’s Reward, didn’t want to be petted at the Santa Anita Race Track in 1959, and took a bite out of Arden’s right index finger to show its disapproval. But Arden was unfazed by the incident. She had the tip of her finger sewed back on at a local hospital and then returned home to New York.

Elizabeth Arden Photo by Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress

Portrait of Elizabeth Arden taken by photographer Arnold Genthe, circa 1942. (Photo: Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress)

In addition to racing horses in America, Arden also tried her luck abroad. She fared well for a time with her race horses in England in the 1950s, working with a trainer who also handled horses for Queen Elizabeth II. In 1962, Arden even bought a castle in Ireland as another way to fuel her interest in animals. She told the Reuters news service that “I intend to set up a stud farm and also breed pedigree cattle” on the 500-acre estate.

Even after death, Arden tried to do right by her horses. She passed away in 1966 and had left special instructions in her will regarding her horses. According to the New York Times, Arden asked that “mares should be sold last and those with foal should be sold together with their foals.” Sadly, because of the taxes owed by the estate, all of Arden’s horses had to be sold off as well as her Maine Chance Farm locations in Maine and Kentucky.