By Terry Conway
H.P. McGrath was a barroom brawler who worked his way up from crooked dice games in his native Kentucky to owning posh gambling parlors in New Orleans and New York City. Cashing in his enormous profits, McGrath returned to Lexington, Ky. as a member of the landed gentry in 1867. He built his lordly estate McGrathiana on the crest of a hill a few miles outside town.
There, horse-breeding, racing, and wagering on topflight thoroughbreds would dominate the rest of his life. It was also where he gained immortality. His pint-size bloodred colt Aristides was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The burly Irishman named the colt to honor his good friend Aristides J. Welch, a Philadelphian who established Erdenheim Stud Farm shortly after the Civil War. A few furlongs from the village of Chestnut Hill, its barns, boxes, and paddocks were the home to many of the greatest thoroughbreds of the late 19th century.
Few American horsemen could match Welch's commercial breeding success. His English stakes winner, Leamington (Aristide's sire), purchased in 1872, was the driving force behind Welch's prominence. The nearly black stallion already had produced some of the sport's grandest stars while at stud in Kentucky. Still, it was Welch's astute broodmare selections that would propel Leamington to four leading sire titles.
Streams of newspapermen and America's elite thoroughbred owners turned up each summer for the Erdenheim's annual yearling sale. Visitors marched across the graceful stone bridge that connected the two halves of the 270-acre estate, which spread out from the banks of the Wissahickon Creek to the barn area. Among the turfmen were New York's Lorillard brothers, Pierre IV and George, who dominated the racing scene in the 1870s. Pierre, a tall, broad tobacco tycoon, purchased Welch's entire crop of yearlings in 1879.
Welch arrived at McGrathia for the first Kentucky Derby on May 16, 1875. He was dressed in a black suit, top hat, and silk tie with a diamond stickpin, and sported a bushy beard. Under a grove of locust trees, at half-past one, a lavish feast commenced. First the burgoo (a sumptuous beef stew) and burgundy, followed by dishes of roast mutton, goat, and pig, while the champagne and bourbon flowed.
Afterward, McGrath paraded the leading lights of his stable before guests on the lawn. Eastern champions Tom Bowling and Susan Ann drew great applause. Not so the unknown Aristides. His heroics were still a day away.
Throngs of Louisvillians rode mule-drawn streetcars down Fourth Street to the Louisville Jockey Club. Others arrived on foot or in wagons brimming with race fans. Rich gentlemen in silk top hats and fine clothes and pretty ladies in colorful dresses carrying parasols filled the boxes of the grandstand.
As the 2:30 p.m. post time approached, more than 10,000 people roamed the grounds. The bugle sounded "Boots and Saddles," and 15 three-year-old colts jogged onto the track. Aristides, 15 hands tall, sported a saddle blanket "as green as the grass of Erin" - a gift from Welch. In one corner, bright orange letters spelled McGrathiana, and in the other Aristides.
In unison with the rat-tat-tat of a drummer's beat, Col. William Johnson dropped the flag. The horses sprang into action. As they hit the backstretch, Aristides surged to the lead with four colts in close pursuit. Chesapeake, the favorite and McGrath's other runner, was stuck in mid-pack.
Rounding the far turn, jockey Oliver Lewis - following McGrath's instructions - began to pull back on Aristides to make way for Chesapeake's expected run to glory. When Lewis glanced over to the rail at the head of the stretch, there was McGrath on a stepladder waving his hat frantically. "Go on and win it," he shouted. Aristides roared down the stretch and dashed under the wire, winning by two lengths and earning a purse of $2,850. His time of 2:37 was the fastest ever recorded at a mile-and-a-half distance for a three-year-old. The dream race had proven to be just that.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reported: "It is the gallant Aristides, heir to a mighty name (a Greek orator) that strides with sweeping gallop toward victory. . . . And the air trembles and vibrates again with the ringing cheers that followed."
Today, the name of Aristides is painted in gold letters over the entranceway to Churchill Downs. Following it are the names of every other horse who has won the Kentucky Derby since.