By Nick Costa and Mary Dixon Reynolds
1875 – Aristides – Chesapeake
On May 17, 1875, in front of what was an estimated roaring crowd of 10,000 people at what was then called the Louisville Jockey Club, the inaugural Kentucky Derby was contested, and the winning horse, Aristides, wasn’t supposed to win. At least not in the eyes of his owner, H.P. McGrath, an extravagant gambler who had moved to Lexington, Kentucky three years earlier to breed racehorses.
The Derby was raced at a mile and a half, the distance it would remain until 1896. Aristides was considered a toss out. The small chestnut colt had one purpose in the race, and it was merely to be a pacesetter, tiring out the early leaders, so that McGrath’s other horse, a powerhouse named Chesapeake, would rally to victory in the stretch. The jockeys for the two stablemates were, Oliver Lewis aboard Aristides and William Henry atop Chesapeake.
The race drew 15 starters. The weather was good, and the track was fast. A string stretched out across the track in the dirt and the jockeys brought their mounts forward to the line. The starter thrust a red flag down and the horses were off.
Lewis followed McGrath’s instructions and immediately sent Aristides to the lead. The colt wanted to run faster, so Lewis had to tighten the reins to control his speed. After a half-mile, a horse named Volcano seemed to be the only horse keeping up with Aristides. Chesapeake, who was almost the last to break, wasn’t anywhere to be found.
The best laid plans were not working out well for McGrath. When Aristides got to the top of the stretch, jockey Lewis, knowing he wasn’t supposed to win, looked over at McGrath, standing nearby in the stands. McGrath, realizing that the only chance he had to win was Aristides, shouted to Lewis to “Go on!” Lewis then loosened his hold on Aristides reins and drove the horse to victory by two lengths. Volcano kept second position with a furious run through the lane. It was a half-length back to Verdigris in third. Chesapeake, the heralded horse that owner McGrath counted on for the win, finished far back in eighth.
To commemorate the initial winner of the Kentucky Derby, a life-sized bronze statue of Aristides stands in the courtyard at Churchill Downs.