Aristides: The original Kentucky Derby hero
In 1875, the “little red horse” won the inaugural edition of America’s most famous horse race
By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director
The name Aristides was derived from the ancient Greek words “Aristos,” which means “best,” and “Eidos,” defined as “type” or “species.” The name was carried by an obscure second-century saint and later more famously by a fifth-century Athenian statesman, “Aristides the Just,” who was lauded for his integrity. On May 17, 1875, a small chestnut racehorse bearing the historic name Aristides proved to be the “best of his type” in a new sporting spectacle that generated tremendous anticipation prior to its debut — the inaugural Kentucky Derby.
Facing 14 opponents at the new Louisville Jockey Club track — later to officially be named Churchill Downs — the overlooked Kentucky-bred son of imported British sire Leamington put on quite a show for the 10,000 in attendance. Winning by two lengths and setting a new record of 2:37¾ for a 3-year-old at the 1½-mile distance, Aristides’ name was the first to be recorded into the history books that tell the tales of arguably America’s finest sporting tradition.
Aristides was officially a Kentucky-bred from Fayette County, but New York can also stake a claim to his fame. In the spring of 1872, Aristides was foaled at the McGrathiana Stud Farm of his Kentucky breeder and owner, Henry Price “H. P.” McGrath. The actual breeding of Aristides, however, took place far from the Bluegrass State. In 1871, McGrath sent his mare Sarong, a daughter of the mighty stallion Lexington, to New York to be covered by Leamington at a farm in Westchester County. Back in Kentucky the following spring, Sarong produced a blood-red chestnut colt with a pair of white socks and a star on his forehead. Following the mating with Sarong, Leamington was purchased by McGrath’s friend, Aristides Welch, and moved to his Erdenheim Farm in Pennsylvania. Hence, McGrath named Aristides in honor of Welch, not the Greek politician or the saint.
McGrath was certainly not a saint or a revered public servant. After beginning his notorious gambling career in crooked dice games, he made his way from Kentucky to California for the Gold Rush. While on the West Coast, McGrath bilked many a prospector on his gaming tables. He later moved to New Orleans and operated a high-stakes gambling parlor. It was in the Crescent City where McGrath ran into trouble with the law and was sentenced to a year in Federal prison for his nefarious activities.
After his release, McGrath ventured to New York and partnered with bare-knuckle boxing champion-turned-politician John Morrissey in another prosperous gambling establishment. Morrissey, who established organized racing in Saratoga in 1863, brought McGrath into the track fold as a timing judge with the added responsibility of assigning the weights for the handicap races. While in Saratoga, McGrath became fascinated with the grandeur of the United States Hotel, so he decided upon returning to his 416 acres in Kentucky that he would model his new mansion after the hotel.
Business was booming for McGrath as both a breeder and owner of racehorses. In 1870, he bred the great Tom Bowling, who won 14 of 17 career races en route to the Hall of Fame. When it was time to send Aristides into training, McGrath turned to Ansel Williamson, who conditioned Tom Bowling and numerous other standouts in the pre- and post-Civil War eras, including the undefeated Asteroid and the once-beaten Norfolk. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1806, Williamson was eventually purchased and set free by R. A. Alexander of Kentucky’s famous Woodburn Farm. Williamson became revered as one of America’s finest trainers — and eventually a Hall of Famer.
“As a judge of horseflesh he had few superiors,” the Spirit of the Times said of Williamson. “His conclusions were drawn from long experience and were delivered with a quaintness of expression and a brevity of style which pleased while it instructed.”
Aristides was in good hands.
McGrath had a trio of promising 2-year-olds in the spring of 1874. Along with Aristides, the stable featured Chesapeake and Calvin, both of whom were half-brothers to previous McGrath runners. Calvin was a half to Tom Bowling out of McGrath’s mare Lucy Fowler, while Chesapeake was a half to Tipperary. Perhaps it was this history that initially led McGrath to favor those two more than Aristides.
Nevertheless, Aristides was regarded as a quality prospect when he arrived at the races for the first time on May 12, 1874, at the old Kentucky Association track in Lexington. He finished a respectable second in a half-mile sweepstakes before going unplaced in both the Juvenile Stakes at Jerome Park in New York and the Hopeful Stakes at Long Branch in New Jersey. Aristides was then second in the Thespian Stakes at Long Branch and off the board in a six-furlong event at Saratoga. He finally broke his maiden in his sixth attempt, winning a one-mile handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 18. In his three remaining starts that year, Aristides won twice with a second-place effort sandwiched between.
Although on the improve, Aristides remained overshadowed among the McGrath horses by Chesapeake, who was regarded as the champion juvenile of 1874 thanks to Saratoga victories that included the August Stakes and Kentucky Stakes. By the spring of 1875, Aristides was starting to be referred to as the “little red horse” in McGrath’s stable, perhaps a slight when being mentioned alongside the likes of Chesapeake and Calvin.
A reporter for the Kentucky Live Stock Record had a different take on Aristides when he visited McGrathiana that April to analyze the runners. The reporter described Aristides as a “lengthy, wiry, even-balanced horse, deep through the heart, and with long, muscular thighs. … Ansel has got him pretty near a racing form already.”
Aristides, however, struggled in the mud during his sophomore debut in the Phoenix Hotel Stakes at Lexington, a race easily won by the emerging sensation Ten Broeck. Chesapeake, meanwhile, won the first race of his 3-year-old season, defeating Ten Broeck and three others in the Citizens’ Stakes at Lexington.
Based on those efforts, Chesapeake was considered the horse to beat at the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park a few weeks later for the first Kentucky Derby, which was held on a Monday. The track and the race were both conceptualized and developed by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who envisioned following the style of the English classic races with a 1½-mile distance (which remained the Kentucky Derby distance until shortened to its present 1¼ miles in 1896).
The Louisville Courier-Journal foreshadowed what the Derby would become: “Today will be historic to Kentucky annals,” the paper commented, “as the first ‘Derby Day,’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities which we confidently expect our grandchildren 100 years hence, to celebrate in glorious continuous rejoicings, because the president (Clark) hopes to make this a duplicate for the great English turf event.”
Matt Winn, the legendary Churchill impresario who witnessed every Kentucky Derby from 1875 through 1949, was 13 years old and situated in the track’s infield atop his father’s grocery wagon for the inaugural Derby. In his memoirs, Winn recalled what he expected going into the race: “They said he was a great one; one of the greatest that ever was. Yes, this Chesapeake would stay back until the leading pacemakers reached the turn for home, and then he would charge up at them and just run away from them. So, before the race started, I had come to believe that Chesapeake was the greatest racehorse in all the world; that nothing alive could run as fast.”
With both Chesapeake and Aristides entered in the Derby, McGrath desired a fast early pace to set up the late-charging Chesapeake. Aristides was designated the “rabbit,” but those plans never came to fruition. In the irons aboard Aristides for the Derby was 19-year-old Oliver Lewis, one of the 14 African-American jockeys among the 15 riders in the field. Lewis understood the intentions of McGrath and Williamson and rode as instructed.
The race starter, Col. W. H. Johnson of the Nashville Blood Horse Association, sent the field away in good order. The reporter for the Kentucky Live Stock Record colorfully described the scene: “When they were marshalled into line, he tapped the drum to one of the most capital starts I have ever seen, 15 going away like a platoon of cavalry, except the (unnamed) Baywood colt, who hung at the post.”
Aristides pushed the issue early, battling for the lead with McCreery through a quarter-mile of :25½ and a half of :50 flat, brisk fractions for the era. Lewis nudged Aristides into the lead on the backstretch and the contenders began to separate from the pretenders.
“The others seemed to be outpaced,” reported the Courier-Journal, “for Aristides was cutting out the running at an awful speed, getting back to the finish of the mile in the neighborhood of 1:43.”
Aristides was keeping up his end of the bargain, but where was Chesapeake? As Aristides entered the far turn, Lewis began to rein him in a bit, but Chesapeake was well out of contention. McGrath was standing at the top of the stretch and knew his hopes were singularly with Aristides. With Chesapeake beaten, McGrath signaled Lewis to “go on with the good little red horse and win if he could all alone,” according to Winn’s memoirs.
Even though he was pushed through demanding early fractions, Aristides had plenty left in the tank in the homestretch.
“Right gallantly did the game and speedy son of Leamington and Sarong answer the call on his forces,” reported the Courier-Journal, “for he held his own all down the stretch, in spite of a most determined rush on the part of Volcano and Verdigris, and dashed under the wire the winner of one of the fastest and hardest races ever seen on a track. Aristides forced the pace all the way for his stable companion Chesapeake, and so had no respite at all, which makes his performance a very remarkable one."
The Kentucky Live Stock Record added that once Aristides turned for home the race “was never in doubt, Aristides winning by two lengths with something in hand.”
Aristides earned a purse of $2,850 for the historic victory. His time of 2:37¾ was said to be the fastest on record for a 3-year-old at 1½ miles.
Following the Derby, Aristides won the mile Withers Stakes at Jerome Park, then finished second in the Belmont Stakes to stablemate Calvin. Unfortunately for the legacy of Aristides, McGrath again favored the stablemate. Earlier in the year, McGrath had staked a huge sum on Calvin winning the Belmont. As was the case in the Derby, Aristides led into the stretch of the race (then held at Jerome Park) when Lewis geared down his mount. This time, McGrath got the result he desired; Calvin came rumbling home the winner as Aristides was restrained by Lewis in favor of his stablemate. McGrath was said to have pocketed $30,000 on his wager. Racing historian Walter S. Vosburgh wrote that Aristides “could and should have won the Belmont also, but Lewis nearly pulled his head off to allow (jockey) Bob Swim to win with Calvin, and the crowd shouted: ‘Let go that horse’s head!’ ”
Following the Belmont, Aristides finished second in the Ocean Hotel Stakes at Long Branch and third in the Travers at Saratoga. He then met Calvin in the Jerome Stakes. With no restrictions dictated by McGrath, Aristides delivered a sharp effort to defeat Calvin at two miles. He later won the Breckinridge Stakes in Maryland to end the year regarded as the champion 3-year-old of 1875.
Aristides made only three more starts in his career, two of which were spectacular efforts. He won both of his races as a 4-year-old in 1876, prompting Vosburgh to say, “at the time he seemed to be the best horse in training.” Aristides faced Ten Broeck at the Lexington track on May 10, 1876, for what turned out to be a match race. Ten Broeck was developing into a superstar at the time, but McGrath now had unwavering confidence in Aristides. No other owners were interested in opposing the two standouts and the event became a match race at a distance of 17 furlongs (2⅛ miles).
The match vs. Ten Broeck was perhaps Aristides’ finest performance. The result was never in doubt, Aristides winning by a widening eight lengths in a new American record of 3:45½ for the distance. It was the only loss of the year for Ten Broeck, who finished his career with six American records to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. Three days after dominating Ten Broeck, Aristides recorded his third American record, winning a 2½-mile purse in 4:27½. Aristides collared Bazar (carrying 14 less pounds than Aristides), in the final 100 yards to win by a length, breaking the previous American record by a full second.
Following his second record-setting performance in four days, Aristides was sidelined for two years because of injury and presumed to be retired. On May 13, 1878, Aristides attempted a comeback as a 6-year-old, but he struggled on a wet and heavy track at Lexington and finished unplaced in an easy victory by Ten Broeck. Following the disappointing performance, Aristides was retired with a record of 9-5-1 from 21 starts and earnings of $18,325.
Aristides was underwhelming as a stallion and changed hands several times after McGrath’s death in 1881. Aristides died at the age of 21 in St. Louis on June 21, 1893. An elegant bronze statue depicting the Derby luminary in full stride has overlooked the Churchill Downs paddock since 1987. The track added the Aristides Stakes in 1989.
“It is the gallant Aristides, heir to a mighty name, that strides with sweeping gallop toward victory,” the Courier-Journal commented almost 150 years ago, “and the air trembles and vibrates again with the ringing cheers that followed.”
The saint and the statesman would have been proud.
Lifespan: 1872 ̶ 1893
Pedigree: Leamington (GB)—Sarong, by Lexington
Breeder: H. Price McGrath
Owner: H. Price McGrath
Trainer: Ansel Williamson
Career dates: 1874 ̶ 1876
Record: 21 starts, 9 wins, 5 seconds, 1 third
- Champion 3-Year-Old Male 1875
- Won the inaugural Kentucky Derby 1875 (setting fastest time on record for a 3-year-old at 1½ miles, 2:37¾)
- Won the Withers Stakes 1875
- Won the Jerome Stakes 1875
- Won the Breckinridge Stakes 1875
- Finished second in the Belmont Stakes 1875
- Set fastest time on record for 2⅛ miles at 3:45½ at Lexington, May 10, 1876 (defeating Ten Broeck)
- Set fastest time on record for 2½ miles at 4:27½ at Lexington, May 13, 1876