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 enormous profits, McGrath returned to Lexington, Ky. as a member of the landed gentry in 1867. He built his lordly estate McGrathiana on the crest of a hill a few miles outside town. Breeding, racing, and wagering on top-flight thoroughbreds would dominate the rest of his life.
Henry Price McGrath also gained immortality. His pint-size blood red colt Aristides will forever be remembered in racing history as the first Kentucky Derby winner.
The burly Irishman named the colt to honor his good friend Philadelphian Aristides J. Welch who established Erdenheim Stud shortly after the close of the Civil War. A few furlongs from the village of Chestnut Hill, its barns, boxes and paddocks were the home of many of the greatest thoroughbreds on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century.
A purser in the Navy and a prominent contractor, Welch earned early notoriety as a signer of the bond to release Jefferson Davis after the Civil War. Few American horsemen could match Welch’s commercial breeding success. An English stakes winner, Leamington (Aristide’s sire) was the driving force behind Welch’s prominence after his purchase in 1872. The nearly black stallion already had produced some of the sport’s grandest stars-- Longfellow, Littleton and Lynchburg-- while at stud in Kentucky. Still, it was Welch’s astute broodmare selections that would propel Leamington to leading sire in North America titles in 1875, 1877, 1878 and 1881.
Streams of newspapermen and America’s elite thoroughbreds owners turned up each summer for the Erdenheim’s annual yearling sale—the Saratoga Sale of yesteryear. The visitors marched across a graceful stone bridge which connected the two halves of the 270-acre estate that spread out from the banks of the Wissahickon Creek to the barn area. Among the turfmen were New York’s Lorillard brothers, Pierre IV and George, who dominated the racing scene in the 1870s. Tall, broad and a tobacco tycoon, Pierre purchased Welch’s entire crop of yearlings in 1879.
Dressed in a black suit, a top hat, silk tie with a diamond stickpin and sporting a bushy beard, Welch arrived by carriage at McGrathiana on May 16, 1875. Under a grove of locust trees, at half-past one a lavish feast commenced. First the burgoo (a sumptuous beef stew) and burgundy, followed by dishes of roast 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.
Throngs of Louisvillians rode mule-drawn streetcars down Fourth Street departing for an easy walk to the Louisville Jockey Club. Others arrived on foot or in wagons brimming with race fans. Rich gentlemen in silk top hats and fine clothes and pretty ladies in colorful dresses carrying parasols filled the boxes of the grandstand. Bewhiskered working men in straw hats and shirtsleeves got their first glimpse of Louisville.
As the Derby 2:30 p.m. post time approached, more than 10,000 people roamed the grounds. The bugle sounded "Boots and Saddles" and fifteen three-year old colts jogged onto the track. Parading past the judge's stand Aristides, standing fifteen hands tall, sported a saddle blanket "as green as the grass of Erin,” a gift from Welch. In one corner bright orange letters spelled "McGrathiana" and in the other "Aristides."
In unison with the rat-tat-tat of a drummer's beat, Colonel William Johnson dropped the flag. The horses sprang into action. As they hit the backstretch Aristides surged to the lead with four colts in close pursuit. Chesapeake, the favorite and McGrath’s other runner, was stuck in mid-pack.
Rounding the far turn, African-American jockey Oliver Lewis-- following McGrath's instructions -- began to pull back on Aristides to make way for Chesapeake's expected run to glory. When Lewis glanced over to the rail at the head of the stretch there was McGrath on a stepladder waving his hat frantically, shouting "go on and win it." Aristides roared down the stretch and dashed under the wire a winner by two lengths earning a purse of $2,850. His time of 2:37 was the fastest ever recorded at a mile-and-a-half distance for a three-year old. The dream race had proven to be just that.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reported: "It is the gallant Aristides, heir to a mighty name (a Greek orator) that strides with sweeping gallop toward victory … And the air trembles and vibrates again with the ringing cheers that followed."
Today, the name of Aristides is painted in gold letters over the entrance way to Churchill Downs. Following it are the names of every other horse who has won the Derby since.