The very first edition of the Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs (then the Louisville Jockey Club) in 1875 as a rival to Britain's famed Epsom Derby. Nearly 150 years later, the Run for the Roses maintains pride of place amongst American horse races, but the initial victor in the competition was truly one for the ages.
The winner, Aristides, was bred and owned by Hal Price McGrath, who got rich from gambling houses in New York, of McGrathiana Stud in Kentucky. Reportedly, he took home $105,000 in one night; he didn't have a bank account, burying his gold and silver bars on his estate. This lifelong bachelor hobnobbed with the rich and famous of his time: for example, General George Custer of Little Big Horn infamy once stayed at McGrath's farm. McGrath regularly held extravagant dinner parties at his estate, inviting politicians, horsemen, and everyone who was anyone in Kentucky society.
Oliver Lewis, Aristides's jockey. Image via YouTube.
Aristides was far from the favorite for the Derby, which wasn't that big of a deal back in the day. In the spring of his three-year-old season, he finished behind an arguably better horse, Ten Broeck, a few times, but it was his stablemate, Chesapeake, who was the favorite for the Derby. After all, he had been top two-year-old the previous year, but neither horse would prove to be best in May.
On May 17, 1875, the very first Derby was contested; then, it was run over was a mile and a half, as opposed to the current mile-and-a-quarter distance. The victorious colt was Aristides, a handsome, tiny chestnut who triumphed by one length over runner-up Volcano. That day, 10,000 spectators showed up to root him home, a startling amount back in the day, and saw Aristides and his team accept a winner's check for $2,850. Aristides's trainer, Ansel Williams, and jockey, Oliver Lewis, were both African-American; sadly, such diversity is lacking in today's horse racing landscape.
After mixed results on the track after the Derby, Aristides was retired to stand at stud at McGrathiana. He resided there until McGrath's death in 1881 and there was a dispersal from his owner-breeder's estate; Aristides was sold for $3,400 to a guy from Chicago. He proved to be a failure at stud after a few years in Indiana and then later passed in St. Louis at age 21, buried in an unmarked grave.
Feature image of Aristides statue via Total Landscape Care.