This chestnut colt with a white star on his forehead and white stockings on his hind legs was born in May of 1872 at McGrathiana Farm in Fayette County, Kentucky, four miles from Lexington. The farm was the Thoroughbred breeding facility of Hal Price McGrath. Aristides was the winner of the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875 and a life-sized bronze statue of him (by Carl Regutti) stands in the clubhouse garden there to memorialize his victory.1
Aristides was named for Mr. McGrath’s good friend and fellow horse breeder, Aristides Welch, of Pennsylvania. The original Aristides (“The Just”) was a famous Athenian statesman who lived about 530-468 B.C.E.2 Aristides the Horse was small, foaled late in the season, and never taller than 15.1 hands. His stablemate and half-brother, Chesapeake (so-called because he was a bay*), born a few weeks earlier, was expected to be the better racehorse because of his larger size.
The pedigree of Aristides includes many of the great horses of the early North American breeders. His sire, Leamington, was a son of Faugh-A-Ballagh, and had been imported from England by Mr. Welch. His dam, Sarong, was a daughter of the imported stallion Lexington, who stood at Woodburn Farm, Kentucky.3 Aristides could trace his bloodlines all the way back to the Godolphin Arabian through Fearnought.
Aristides' Family Tree13,15
| | | Sir Hercules by Whalebone
| | Faugh-a-Ballagh |
| | | Guiccioli by Bob Booty
| Leamington | |
| | | Pantaloon by Castrel
| | Mare by Pantaloon |
| | | Daphne by Laurel
| | | Boston by Timoleon
| | Lexington |
| | | Alice Carneal by Sarpedon
| Sarong | |
| | | Glencoe by Sultan
| | Greek Slave |
| | | Margaret Hunter by Margrave
Aristides’ first years were spent at McGrathiana. He would have been introduced to humans, halter-broken, and weaned from his mother. As a two-year-old, he was saddle-broken and began his training for the racetrack under the guidance of Mr. Ansel Anderson, an African-American who trained Mr. McGrath’s horses. In the autumn, Aristides won a race in Baltimore and at New York’s Jerome Park he covered five-eighths of a mile in 1:04.50 (that’s one minute, four and a half seconds). Still, he was considered inferior to Chesapeake. On May 12, 1875, Aristides was entered in the Phoenix Hotel Stakes for three-year-olds at Lexington, KY but stumbled coming out of the starting gate and cut one of his front legs with the toe of his hind hoof. He could not finish the race. Luckily, his leg healed quickly: the following week he was entered in the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.4
Fifteen horses were entered in the Derby that first year, two of them fillies.5 McGrathiana sent both Aristides and Chesapeake to carry the green and orange silks of Mr. McGrath. Aristides’ jockey was Oliver Lewis, another African-American, while Chesapeake was ridden by Bobby Swim.
The track was fast and the weather fine as the starting time approached on May 17, 1875. A crowd of 10 000 people had come to witness the race. Aristides carried 100 pounds over the one and a half mile dirt course.6 Mr. McGrath’s strategy was to use little Aristides as a rabbit to set a fast pace at the beginning of the race, tiring most of the other horses, and then come from behind with Chesapeake, who would have been holding back until the end.7 However, Aristides took the lead early and refused to tire, winning the race two lengths ahead of Volcano and even farther ahead of Verdigris. Chesapeake finished eighth. The winning time was a record 2:37.75 and Aristides earned $2850 out of the $3100 purse. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported
It is the gallant Aristides, heir to a mighty name, that strides with sweeping gallop toward victory…and the air trembles and vibrates again with the ringing cheers that followed.8
(The full order of the finish was as follows: Aristides; Volcano; Verdigris; Bob Woolley; Ten Broeck; Grenoble; Bill Bruce; Chesapeake; Searcher; Ascension (filly); Enlister; McCreery; Warsaw; Vagabond; Gold Mine (filly).)14
Aristides, again ridden by Oliver Lewis, also ran in the Belmont Stakes in 1875, finishing second to Calvin out of a field of 14 horses.9 Later the same year, he placed third in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, NY, and it is reported that he “won several other big races that year” including the Withers Stakes and the Jerome Stakes10,13 In his fourth year (May 10, 1876), Aristides ran two and a half miles against Ten Broeck at Lexington in 4:27.50; this may have been his final victory before retiring.8,11 In 21 career starts, Aristides won nine races, finished second five times, and came in third once; he was also the leading money winner for 1875 with a total of $18 325.13
Some might say that there was nothing special about Aristides, that whichever horse had won the first Kentucky Derby was destined to become a great name in horse racing. On the other hand, no one expected the little red colt to run away with the Derby as he did. In 1988, an annual Grade 3, 6 ½ furlong race for horses older than three years was inaugurated at Churchill Downs with a purse of $100 000. It was named the Aristides Handicap. This race helps to keep the memory of Aristides alive, while continuing to spotlight great contemporary racehorses.12
A fictionalized account of Aristides’ life, up to his victory at Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby Winner, was written by Isabel McLennan McMeekin and published in 1949 as part of Grosset and Dunlap’s “Famous Horse Stories” series for children.
* This is McGrathian humor. Get it? A bay is a brown horse, but a bay is also an inlet of the sea, such as the Chesapeake Bay on the eastern coast of the United States.
4. This information comes out of Isabel McLennan McMeekin’s book.
15. Chew, Peter. The Kentucky Derby: The First 100 Years, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1974.