The First Kentucky Derby

Thirteen Black Jockeys, One Shady Owner, and the Little Red Horse That Wasn’t Supposed to Win

By Mark Shrager

Reprinted with permission from Eclipse Press

Book excerpt from the magazine

To say that Aristides began his two-year-old season inauspiciously would have been understating the matter.

The consensus was that the son of the imported English stallion Leamington and the Lexington mare Sarong was an exceptionally well-bred colt, and also a fine-looking one, a bright red chestnut with a prominent star in the center of his forehead. “Not a large horse,” wrote racing executive and historian Walter S. Vosburgh in 1922, but “exquisitely moulded [sic].

”But then, every winning racehorse looks exquisite. The crucial issue is the one that has attached to every good-looking and well-bred thoroughbred since people began using horses for sport: Can it run? Fortunately, after a handful of losses, the little red colt figured things out. Yes, Aristides could run. Again quoting Vosburgh, “Aristides improved with age.”

He also improved with distance. He would conclude his career with just one win in seven races of less than a mile, but eight in fourteen at eight furlongs or further, with areal possibility that some of the losses might have become wins under different circumstances. It is known that owner H. Price McGrath, who viewed races as contests to be won by the thoroughbreds in his stable—unless he could realize more profit by wagering on another horse—occasionally directed Aristides’ jockeys to lose purposely with the colt.

McGrath’s trainer, Ansel Williamson, surely recognized that Aristides would improve as he raced longer distances, and during the early months of the 1874 season would have advised McGrath to enter his two-year-old colt in sprints strictly as training runs. It was Williamson, after all, who watched Aristides work out daily at McGrathiana, and could observe his strengths and weaknesses firsthand. After decades as a trainer, working for men who wagered assertively on their thoroughbreds, Williamson knew only too well that McGrath would have treasured closely held insider knowledge. And with his vast store of experience and expertise, Williamson was an ideal conduit for the information McGrath craved.

Aristides was ready to race in early May, a time when distance races for two-year-olds were nearly nonexistent. Williamson must surely have recommended that McGrath keep his wallet in his pocket until the distances increased, and perhaps McGrath even paid attention. Williamson’s wisdom on the issue became clearer as the early racing season progressed, and Aristides gained conditioning while absorbing a string of defeats.

The little red colt was sent post ward for the first time on May 12, 1874, in the second of just two races on that day’s card at the Lexington Association track. While in retrospect the future Kentucky Derby winner’s initial start was an event of historic importance, Aristides’ performance in the four-furlong dash was not the sort that would have left the crowd buzzing in awe as they exited the premises at the close of the abbreviated afternoon. If they were buzzing about anything, in fact, it would have been the day’s other race.

In the day’s first contest, future Hall of Famer Tom Bowling, another member of the powerful McGrath stable, had faced a single opponent, a runner called Jean Valjean in honor of the protagonist of author Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and had run his overmatched rival into the ground with a 1:41 opening mile, a brazen display of speed that was at the time the fastest eight furlongs ever recorded.

Tom Bowling, offered as the 1-to-5 favorite if one could locate a bookmaker willing to accept the wager, went on to complete the mile and-a-half in a record-setting 2:34, winning by what was estimated to be “at least three seconds”—fifteen lengths or more—but Tom Bowling’s speedy circuit of the Lexington oval was not yet complete.

Strictly to satisfy their curiosity as to just how fast Tom Bowling was, McGrath and Williamson had received the judges’ permission to continue Tom Bowling at racing speed for an additional half-mile and receive an unofficial clocking. The colt flashed past the two-mile mark in 3:27, which would have qualified as another world’s record if the sport’s rules allowed multiple records from a single run. In 1877, Ten Broeck would be credited as the two-mile record holder with a time of 3:27, from a flying start, at Louisville, a faster track than the one at Lexington. Tom Bowling’s torrid sixteen-furlong run would have been a tough act to follow for a collection of unknown two-year-olds racing a half-mile in the day’s next race.

The crowd had sent Aristides post ward as the betting favorite in his first effort, but back-to-back wins were denied the orange and green McGrathiana silks when a chestnut filly called Leona swept instantly to a two-length lead that she held throughout, completing the half-mile in :49, said by some to be the fastest time ever recorded for the distance (the Lexington course was obviously playing fast that day). Aristides finished second, about two lengths behind in the field of nine colts and fillies, earning his owner a check for $50.

Although the fact that Aristides was the wagering favorite suggests that McGrath had some involvement in the public betting pools, it is impossible to know to what extent he had backed his colt, for there is no record of the wagering on the race, and McGrath, choosing (as would any professional gambler) not to divulge such privileged information, was not saying.

But one can only imagine that McGrath finished the Lexington meeting a happier and wealthier man. On Monday, May 11, his three-year-old Aaron Pennington had won the Phoenix Hotel Stakes and his mare Jury had taken the second race of the two-race program. On May 12, Tom Bowling had run Jean Valjean into the ground. Jury had come back to win the second race on May 13, and another McGrath runner, Lucy Jackson, had carried McGrathiana’s colors to a victory over hurdles in the first race on May 14. Aaron Pennington returned to the races on May 16 and could manage only a third-place finish, but by this time, McGrath should have been awash in freshly earned currency.

The purse money won in these efforts was anything but incidental, but for McGrath the game was about winning wagers, and here was a nearly perfect weekend, one in which almost every McGrathiana entrant sent post ward enhanced the owner’s bankroll. And although McGrath’s chestnut two-year-old Leamington colt had run only second, McGrath and Williamson had sent him out with almost no expectation of victory. Aristides had shown ability, which was all that could be asked of a first-time starter competing under unpromising conditions.

Following the colt’s hopeful first effort, Aristides and the other members of the McGrath string—among them superstar Tom Bowling and Aristides’ fellow two-year-olds Calvin and Chesapeake—journeyed to New York’s racing showplace, Jerome Park, for the upcoming race meeting. The group reached the elegant racetrack on May 23—and McGrath and Williamson were, if the press was to be believed, thrust immediately into a crisis. “Aristides,” newspapers reported, “injured himself on the way to the Park by backing against and kicking the wagon, by which his hocks [the portion of the hind legs that readers would probably describe as the knees] were injured very badly, and it may retire him from the turf for some time.”

This proved to be an exaggeration, perhaps even one that McGrath or Williamson fed to the press—who else would have bothered?—in the hopes of improving Aristides’ odds when he next raced. Whatever the source of the incorrect report, however, on a brilliantly sunny June 13, 1874, just over two weeks following his alleged injury, Aristides was one of fifteen runners lined up for the inaugural running of the Juvenile Stakes, an event that would remain a fixture on the New York racing calendar until1984, when the first edition of Breeders’ Cup brought about a number of changes to the stakes schedule.

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