What Happened in the First Kentucky Derby
Added on: April 25, 2013
The Kentucky Derby may today be known as the "Run for the Roses," but there were not any roses at all for the race's first winner. In fact, they were probably happy enough that they were able to get the race off at all. It was 1875, and Churchill Downs was new; nothing near the iconic venue it is today, but certainly a welcome addition to the Kentucky horse racing scene.
Back then the Derby was more of a distance test than it is today; in fact, it was run at a mile and half, which is the distance the Belmont stakes is run at today. And the horse who took the big prize home in the Kentucky Derby's maiden voyage was somewhat of a surprise, if for no other reason than that his stablemate was expected to be one of the favorites in the race.
Aristides was named after a well-known breeder, Aristides Welch, and was owned by Hal Price McGrath, who also owned another horse named Chesapeake, with the two training together. It was no secret that McGrath felt as if Chesapeake was the horse that had the much better chance, and that Aristides might be most useful by setting a strong pace for the benefit of his stablemate. Aristides took the lead, briefly lost it, but regained it and held off challengers down the stretch to become the first winner of the Derby.
There was a further significance to the race in the sense that there was not only an African-American trainer at the helm (Ansel Williamson) but also an African-American jockey named Oliver Lewis who rode him home. That is an historical fact that is lost on a lot of people.
There was no Triple Crown to be contested for in those days, but Aristides did race in the Belmont stakes, finishing second, and won races like the Withers Stakes and the Jerome handicap that year, and finished third in the Travers Stakes. There is a life-sized statue of Aristides at Churchill Downs to commemorate the stallion's historical achievement. And the Aristides Stakes is run every year in his honor.