The legacy, the history and gravitas of the Kentucky Derby is virtually unsurpassed by other sporting events of its kind. From the rags to riches stories, down to the sheer atmosphere of the present or days gone by, most see it as a day of fun and revelry. But for a few, there is an emotional, familial bond that takes place the first Saturday in May, and for Susanne Blackinton, it’s her day.
You see, Susanne and her husband Bill Juaire are the primary artisans for New England Sterling behind the making of the Gold Cup, presented only to those who win the Kentucky Derby.
Why is that special, you ask?
Well, not only is she an anomaly in her field as a woman, but also a 5th generation in her industry, she was born to create such works of art, and just like our beloved Derby thoroughbreds, it’s in her DNA.
At the tender age of 5, she remembers going to her Father’s workshop, and marveling at the tools, the workbench and the creations of her family. She would examine the unworked metals, and the smell of shop stays with her still.
“It is the one bond I share with my Father, that can never be broken.” She states.
But three of the most important men in her life are also connected to the Cup, her father of course, her husband and her mentor. Together, they form the most coveted prize in the sport of Kings.
Her family founded R. Blackinton Company in 1862, and created many wonderful pieces for the finest silver companies such as Gorham and Tuttle’s. Then in 1975, the focus changed. The Kentucky Derby trophy cup landed in their lap, and their foremost silversmith began a tradition that continues today. One of her mentors is a gentleman who worked in her father’s original company, Walter Bigos.
“What Walter taught me then still stands to this day; that this is the Gold Cup, it is always given 120% effort and not a dollar or an hour is shortcut in its creation. It is the Gold Cup, after all.”
Suzanne met her husband, Bill Juaire, at the company. He worked as the sole Master Spinner, which is a specialized art and a crutial component in creating the Gold Cup.
Suzanne has always been an artist, always creating something, and after working outside the industry, she went right back to the workbench.
She didn’t have it easy. As a woman in her field, with her Father as the boss who worried about showing favoritism, she earned this esteemed position. Learning from the bottom up, working in various departments, she eventually earned the position to apprentice with Master Silversmith, Walter Bigos.
She explained to me that she is meticulous in detail, Walter describes Suzanne as ” attentive, enthused, passionate and sincere,” and I can personally affirm that description.
In this light, to create more dimension and depth of the horse, they made a perfectly crafted mold for the gold.
Each year extra attention is given to the horse, such as adding detail to his mane and shining up his hoofs. As she receives this horse piece, Suzanne places it on her workbench. That horse then watches over all the work on the trophy for the next year. When asked if she has ever named them, she says its usually just a girl or boy, and she will speak words of praise to them each day speaking to it as if he/ she is the winner. The spirit of the Derby winner is born from gold that day, until he is placed in position atop the Gold Cup.
“It’s the cherry on top, so it waits for last.”
Together with her husband Bill, the Kentucky Derby Gold Cup nears its completion before the first Saturday in May.
Susanne explains that the hardest part of creating the Cup is not the hours of hand work done, rather it is packing it up and letting it go. So much of her daily life, emotions and craftsmanship goes into each one, that by the time it is ready for the Derby, it is like letting go of a relationship. Her solace comes in presenting the Gold Cup for the Derby is that she knows the winner will love and care for it. Watching the owner or jockey hold it up in the air in the winners circle is so rewarding, and it brings them so much joy.
An image of Giacomo’s jockey, Mike Smith kissing the cup on his win, holds a special place in her heart.
Her earliest memories of the Derby are those of a little girl, waking up to a present from her Father’s trip to Louisville. She always imagined how grand the Derby was, and 2005 was her first. She marvels still at the history and tradition of the races, and she is so proud of all the Derby winners, that she hopes they will all know the love, care and uniqueness that each Gold Cup holds.
Now we do, Susanne, now we do.