The Kentucky Derby

Stuart Keane played a huge role in the development of Joyland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in partnership with Peter and Robert Brown. Whilst his main contribution to Joyland was the expansion of the range of fairground rides, outside of Joyland, he is best known for taking the Kentucky Derby concept to the four corners of the globe...

Stuart Keane’s greatest success story was a game that remains popular to this date. This triumph, which would eventually take him around the world, was the world-famous Kentucky Derby (and its derivative, the Arabian Derby). As will be seen below, although chance did play a role at the very start of the story, it was innovation and determination which resulted in Keane's international success. And Joyland played a central role.

The first and original Kentucky Derby game was introduced in the 1940s by an American Jockey, G V Tonner, and was sited on Blackpool sea front for a number of years. When Stuart Keane came into the picture, the Derby was being manufactured by Elton Fabrications (now Elton Games plc) of Southport. Elton Fabrications had been formed in 1962 by Arthur Helm, whose father had operated one of the first Derbys at Southport’s Pleasureland Amusement Park. His intention was to manufacture an English version of the game for the home market. Elton built its first Derby in 1972, which was sold to an amusement park in New Brighton in the Wirrall. A 1974 Derby installation still operates at New York’s Coney Island to this day.

Stuart tells of how he became involved with the game:

“I went to a show in Blackpool and my father and I had a stand selling change machines. The Kentucky Derby Company, Arthur Helm of Elton Fabrications, had the stand next to us and he couldn’t sell the Derby. I went to see him after the show and did a deal to sell it exclusively worldwide.”

Helm had apparently already been in touch with Joyland when Sid and Harry Brown were still alive, but had failed to secure a deal. Joyland would be Keane’s second installation of the Derby. His first was at the Belle Vue Zoo and Amusement Park in Manchester in 1974, a site that has now been completely demolished and redeveloped. Stuart had just taken over the rights, and before he offered it on the market, he knew that there would have to be one operating at a major entertainment venue. Along with Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Belle Vue was the leading amusement park of the north of England. He therefore bought the first one himself, and operated it at Belle Vue.

Noting the success of that first installation, he decided to find a further good site for the operation of his second. That search took him to Joyland, where his second Kentucky Derby opened in 1975. Then his attractions at Joyland grew and grew until finally he owned all the major rides in the amusement centre, in addition to all his other attractions. But it was the Waltzer about which he was the most proud:

“I was very proud when I did the Waltzer, very proud, because it had always been my ambition to own one.”

Stuart Keane was a flamboyant character and would often wear outrageous clothes. When he went to trade shows in Blackpool or London, he would regularly wear a suit - yellow on one side and red on the other – along with a bow tie with twinkling lights and red shorts.

On one occasion Peter and Robert accompanied Stuart Keane to a large evening event at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London organised by the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain. Peter Brown takes up the story:

“There were about 800 people there. Stuart’s girlfriend had insisted that he dress smartly; after all, it was an evening dress event. Stuart had assured his girlfriend that he would dress smartly for the evening. So they all turned up at the Grosvenor, a big place, with a big staircase. Everybody meets you and shakes hands when you go down the big stairs. Stuart arrived with flashing lights going all the way around the edge of his lapels. One leg was an evening suit, the other leg was shorts and he had coloured socks.”

Whilst operating the rides at Joyland, Keane’s Kentucky Derby started to take off around the world, and Keane went to the USA to help with the attraction’s promotion. The Derby was installed in numerous locations around the USA from Six Flags theme parks to Circus Circus casino at Las Vegas, which became the highest-grossing Derby in the world.

In the UK, Keane operated Derbys at Scarborough, Morecambe, Rhyl, Barry Island, Southsea and Skegness. At one time he had 25 units operating, and although there are still many Kentucky Derbys operating, Keane sold his interest in 1992.

After leaving Joyland in 1982, following the Noble sale, Keane nearly returned to Bridlington in the 1990s. He planned to install a large double-looping roller coaster on Bridlington seafront as part of the new Princes Parade Fun Park. It was to have been located adjacent to the existing funfair, near the Harbour. Planning permission was granted, but the deal fell through because it turned out that the person from which Keane was going to buy the coaster didn’t own it!

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Stuart Keane made a huge contribution to Joyland during the 1970s and 1980s, with the installation of several rides and games. He is pictured here in 1984. Photograph: Robert Brown

Mechanic Derek Taylor pictured by Stuart Keane’s Kentucky Derby in 1978. Photograph: Derek Taylor

Published by:
Skelter Publishing LLP
© 2006

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