The remarkable journey of Edward D. Brown
Born into slavery, Brown became one of racing’s most consummate horsemen, earning a spot in the Hall of Fame
By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director
Whether it was caring for them, riding them, or training them, racehorses were Ed Brown’s life. His passion for those activities — and his incredible proficiency at them — garnered Brown a lasting legacy as one of America’s finest and most accomplished horsemen.
The life of Edward Dudley Brown is a remarkable story of triumph. Overcoming the atrocity of being born an enslaved person, Brown became a sensation as a jockey around the time of the Civil War before establishing himself as a prominent and respected trainer and owner of thoroughbreds as a free man.
Brown was born in 1850 near Lexington, Kentucky. At the age of seven, he was sold to Robert A. Alexander, the proprietor of the famous Woodburn Stud and one of America’s most influential turfmen. Put to work in Woodburn’s stables, Brown displayed a natural ability working with horses. While in his youth at Woodburn, Brown also demonstrated great speed in footraces, which earned him the nickname “Brown Dick,” a nod to the famous racehorse of the era who set the record for three-mile heats in 1856.
After learning the fundamentals of horse care, Brown graduated to exercise riding before eventually being chosen by Alexander to ride in races. In 1861, the mighty stallion Lexington began his long reign as America’s leading sire at Woodburn. That year, his foals included future Hall of Famer Kentucky and undefeated colts Asteroid and Norfolk. Alexander believed Asteroid was the best of those Lexington sons and showed his faith in the 14-year-old Brown by giving him the mount in the horse’s debut in May of 1864 at the Laclede Association meeting at St. Louis. Brown rewarded Alexander by winning the race in mile heats. He retained the mount and went on to win again at mile heats at Lexington, a $750 stakes race at Louisville, and a walkover at two-mile heats.
In December of 1864, the 13th Amendment was ratified and Brown was free. While the majority of former slaves struggled during Reconstruction to find a place in a society that was unprepared to integrate them, Brown had his abilities as a horseman to rely upon. He continued to ride for Alexander, winning on Asteroid several times as a 4-year-old in 1865, as well as with Woodburn standouts such as Bayswater, Maiden, and Merrill, among others.
Brown stayed in the employ of Woodburn through Alexander’s death in 1867, after which the farm was taken over by a brother, A. J. Alexander. When farm manager Daniel Swigert left Woodburn to establish his Stockwood Stud in 1869, Brown went with him. Swigert quickly became successful on his own, breeding the likes of Hall of Famers Firenze, Hindoo, and Salvator, as well as Kentucky Derby winners Apollo and Ben Ali. Like Alexander, Swigert also thought highly of Brown as a rider. On Kingfisher, a horse Swigert purchased for $490, Brown won the 1870 Belmont Stakes at Jerome Park. He also rode stakes winners Blind Tom, Edinburgh, Village Blacksmith, and Virgil for Swigert.
Increasing weight forced the end of Brown’s career as a jockey. He rode his final race on the flat in 1872, then rode steeplechasers for a while before transitioning to training in 1874. As a conditioner, Brown’s first notable success was in 1875 with King Alfonso, who defeated Hall of Famer Ten Broeck in the two-mile Kentucky St. Leger at Louisville. That year, King Alfonso won two other stakes at Louisville and one at Nashville. Also in 1875, Brown won the Belle Meade Stakes at Nashville with Ceylon, a son of Asteroid.
In 1876, Brown won the Ohio Derby and another stake with Bombay. He also unveiled a 2-year-old that year named Baden-Baden, who won the Young America Stakes at Nashville. Bred at Woodburn, Baden-Baden was owned by Swigert. The following spring, Brown sent the son of imported Australian out to win the third running of the Kentucky Derby. Also for Swigert, Brown trained champion juveniles Spendthrift and Hindoo. Spendthrift won five straight stakes under the care of Brown in 1878 before the owner sold him to James R. Keene for $15,000. Spendthrift went on to win the 1879 Belmont Stakes. Hindoo, meanwhile, won seven consecutive races for Brown as a 2-year-old in 1880 before being sold to Mike and Phil Dwyer for $15,000. Hindoo won the Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes the following year en route to Hall of Fame honors.
Brown began training for Col. Milton Young in 1880. The following year, he trained 53 winners for the stable from 103 starts. Fifteen of those wins took place at Saratoga, where he saddled Gateway to a track record and Boatman to victory in the prestigious Kenner Stakes. In 1886, Brown won the Kentucky Oaks for the first of three times with Pure Rye. He won it again in 1893 with Monrovia and in 1900 with Etta. Brown owned both Monrovia and Etta.
Following the practice he saw Swigert successful with, Brown began buying young horses, winning with them, then selling them at a tidy profit. Examples of this included Ben Brush and Plaudit. Ben Brush was regarded as the champion as a 2-year-old in 1895, when he won 13 of 16 for Brown, who then sold him to Mike and Phil Dwyer. Ben Brush won the 1896 Kentucky Derby and eventually was elected to the Hall of Fame. Plaudit, meanwhile, was purchased by Brown as a yearling. He had considerable success with him before selling to John E. Madden. For Madden, Plaudit won the 1898 Kentucky Derby and became a top sire.
Brown began to experience physical issues in the late 1890s. He suffered from tuberculosis and rheumatism, a combination that was debilitating but never broke his spirit.
“The stocky, bearded horseman, who limps a little with rheumatism, must sometimes forget his own name, for he is known on every course in America as ‘Brown Dick,’ whose blue and white jacket carries not a single bloat of suspicion of dishonest trickery after a lifetime on the Turf,” wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He is a leader among his people, not because he plays the demagogue and meddles in politics, but because they recognize that his life of integrity and self-respect has done honor to their race.
“You see one side of Brown Dick’s character when questions of fact are disputed before the judges and men accept his word as weightier evidence than the affidavits of many men. Another side you see when a party of ladies and children visit the stables. Brown Dick is never happier than when with his hat doffed, he is leading them from stall to stall and answering their absurd questions with gentlemen courtliness worthy of a wigged and ruffled cavalier.”
Brown died in Louisville in 1906 at the age of 56. He left behind a widow and a schoolteacher son. Although his wealth was reported to be between $75,000 and $100,000 at times, Brown was “practically penniless” at the time of his death according to the Courier-Journal. Reports suggested Brown’s medical issues and his generosity to less fortunate horsemen depleted his wealth.
In 1978, more than 70 years after Brown’s death, Daily Racing Form’s Joe Hirsch wrote, “The past speaks to those who would listen, and says in ringing terms that Ed Brown belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
It took a few more years, but Brown finally received racing’s highest honor when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984.
Posted Nov 27, 2022