Aristides: The first Derby winner Print E-mail

by Terry Conway

H. P. McGrath was a barroom brawler who worked his way up from crooked dice games in his native Kentucky to owning posh gambling parlors in New Orleans and New York City. Cashing in his massive profits in 1867, McGrath returned to Lexington as a member of the landed gentry. He built his lordly estate McGrathiana on the crest of a hill a few miles outside town. Breeding, racing, and betting topflight thoroughbreds would dominate the rest of his life.mcgrath

Henry Price McGrath also gained immortality. His blood-red chestnut colt Aristides will forever be remembered in racing history as the first Kentucky Derby winner.

The burly Irishman also threw the biggest parties in town. Each spring and fall on the Sunday before the opening of the race meetings, McGrath hosted lavish burgoo feasts. In May of 1875 the carriages of McGrath's racing friends swept up the twisting drive. Under a grove of locust trees at half-past one the feast commenced. First came the burgoo (a sumptuous beef stew) and burgundy, followed by roast dishes of mutton, goat and pig while the champagne and bourbon flowed.

Afterwards McGrath paraded the leading lights of his stable before guests on the lawn. Eastern champions Tom Bowling and Susan Ann drew great applause. Not so for Aristides. His heroics were still a day away.

Monday May 17 saw most businesses in Louisville shuttered by noon. Merchants realized the lion's share of the money exchanging hands would be at the new racetrack south of town. The previous summer one of the town's leading socialites, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, button- holed 320 of his friends to pony up funds to build the track on 80 acres he leased from his uncle, John Churchill.

PAINQ 3On that sun-splashed day, streams of Louisvillians rode mule-drawn streetcars down Fourth Street departing for an easy walk to the site of the Louisville Jockey Club. Others arrived on foot or in wagons brimming with race fans. Fringe-topped buggies and handsom carriages led by brilliant teams of hackneys all made their way to the racecourse.

Rich gentlemen wore silk hats and fine clothes, while pretty ladies in colorful dresses carrying parasols filled the boxes of the grandstand. Working men in straw hats and shirtsleeves got their first glimpse of the big city.Some paid two dollars for a badge that let them watch near the rail in the home stretch, others trooped into the infield and settled on their patch of grass. As the Derby 2:30 p.m. post time approached, more than 10,000 roamed the grounds.

McGrath owned the favorite, a stout and spirited bay colt named Chesapeake. In addition, Aristides was entered as the "rabbit" to soften up the field. "Risty" was a pint size (a little over 15 hands) colt with a white star on his forehead and white socks on his hind legs. Possessing plenty of "bone and substance," as a two-year old Aristides captured three of nine races. Richly bred, the colt was sired by imported English stallion Lexington out of dam Sarong, also by Leamington. His bloodlines traced back to the greats — Glencoe, Sir Archy and Diomed.

Frank B. Harper's Ten Broeck turned up for the Derby that bettors considered a "mile-and-a-quarter dash." A week earlier Ten Broeck dominated the field (including Aristides) in the two-mile Phoenix Hotel Stakes in Lexington and would go on to reign as one of the turf's all-time long distance runners.

The bugle sounded playing "Boots and Saddles," and 15 three-year old colts jogged onto the track in single file. Parading past the judge's stand Aristides tossed his head following a lad on a lead pony. He sported a saddle blanket "as green as the grass of Erin" bound with a bright orange stripe. In one corner big orange letters spelled "McGrathiana" and in the other "Aristides." The topnotch broadcloth was a gift from Aristides Welch of Philadelphia, the celebrated owner of Leamington. The gregarious Irishman had named the compact colt for his friend.

A line was drawn in the dirt and the horses stood to start the race. In unison with the rat-tat-tat of a drummer's beat, Colonel William Johnson dropped the flag. The horses sprang into action. McCreery jumped to the lead, stalked by Volcano and Aristides. McGrath's Chesapeake was one of the last away. As they hit the backstretch Aristides surged to the lead with four horses in close pursuit. Favored Chesapeake was stuck in mid-pack.PAINQ 4

As they rounded the far turn jockey Oliver Lewis — following McGrath's instructions — began to pull back on the chestnut colt a bit to make way for Chesapeake's run to glory. Then Oliver glanced over to the rail at the head of the stretch where McGrath waved his hat frantically and shouted "go on and win it." Aristides sped to the lead and held off a pair of challengers, dashed under the wire and won by two lengths earning a purse of $2,850. His time of 2:37 ¾ was the fastest ever recorded at the distance for a three-year old.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported: "It is the gallant Aristides, heir to a mighty name, that strides with sweeping gallop toward victory … And the air trembles and vibrates again with the ringing cheers that followed."

Epilogue

Jockey Oliver Lewis helped guide Aristides to immortality. Arisitides' trainer Ansel Williams and jockey Oliver Lewis were both African-Americans, a group who played a critical role in shaping early American racing history. A total of 14 of the 15 riders in the first Kentucky Derby were African-American, with African-American jockeys winning 15 of the initial 28 runnings.

Born a slave, Williamson was purchased by Robert A. Alexander, the owner of the famous Woodburn Stud in 1864 where Williamson worked as a trainer and breeder. Following Alexander's death in 1867, Williamson went on to train many great horses including Tom Bowling, who won 14 of his 17 races. Williamson won major races such as the Travers Stakes, the Jerome Handicap, and the Wither Stakes and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.

PAINQ 5Jockey Oliver Lewis is less well known. Born in Fayette County, Ky., Lewis was 19 when he won the 1875 Kentucky Derby. He never rode in another Derby. Instead, he became a successful bookmaker (then a legal enterprise) and wrote detailed handicapping charts similar to what appears in today's Daily Racing Form. Lewis was said to be a good family man who raised six children. He died in 1924, and is buried in Lexington.

Henry Price McGrath trained as a tailor before pursuing the quick riches as a gambler and bookmaker. He spent a year in a federal jail in New Orleans for fleecing hard spending Union soldiers. His opulent mansion at McGrathiana was fashioned after the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs. At his New York gambling house he won $105,000 in a single night. Reportedly, McGrath never had a bank account and had large sums of money, in gold and silver, buried on the farm. One of the most prominent turfmen of his era, he bred numerous brilliant runners, and declared Tom Bowling his greatest. A bachelor all his life, he died in July 1881 at a fashionable resort in Long Branch N. J. from a diseased liver and dropsy.

McGrathiana was sold to Colonel Milton Young who continued the farm's tradition as a birthplace of champion racehorses. Sold again in 1915 to C. B. Shaffer of Chicago, the breeding establishment was renamed Coldstream Farm. Today, it is owned by the University of Kentucky. The Coldstream Research Campus is home to 1,000 employees working in biotech, pharmaceutical and equine-related companies. Aristides Boulevard runs alongside Coldwater Farm.

The runner-up in the 1875 Belmont Stakes, Aristides was on the lead heading into the stretch when jockey Lewis put the chestnut colt under a fierce hold allowing stablemate Calvin to win. McGrath had placed a hefty bet on Calvin and took home a stunning $30,000. Aristides captured the Jerome Handicap, the Breckinridge, the Withers Stakes and triumphed in a match race over Ten Broeck. In 21 career starts (9-5-1) he earned $18,325, quite a fortune in the day. But with the Derby not yet a famed national event, breeders did not flock to his stable door. Aristides died at the age of 21 at the Fairgrounds of St. Louis. To honor his racing achievements Churchill Downs inaugurated the Aristides Stakes (sprint race) in 1988. The track also commissioned a life-sized bronze statue that now stands in the Clubhouse Gardens as a memorial to the "the little red horse."

Mr. Conway:

I was very glad to find and read your article “Aristides, The First Kentucky Derby Winner, Was Born at What is Now Coldstream Research Campus.” I have an old picture of McGrathiana on my wall. Occasionally I still use the silver ladle that H.P. McGrath used to serve the burgoo and I even eat on some of his china from time to time. Oh how I love to remember the stories I was told about “Uncle Price.” Your article was most enjoyable.

Thank you!

Richard Tyler McGrath
Senior Assistant Attorney General, Chief Construction Litigation Section Office of the Attorney General Richmond, VA 23219

 

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