Bigger Than a Little, Red Horse: Shrager’s New Book Captures an Immortal Moment in Time

Pop Culture
Jennifer Kelly explores Mark Shrager's new book and talks with the author about “The First Kentucky Derby: Thirteen Black Jockeys, One Shady Owner, and the Little Red Horse That Wasn't Supposed to Win.”

Mage recently joined a long list of horses who have won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, notching his name on that familiar glass and guaranteeing that this colt by Good Magic out of Puca will live on the history of the sport. The setting for the run for the roses is a familiar site, Churchill Downs with its famed Twin Spires iconic among America’s sports venues. On the grounds stands a statue honoring the first horse to win the country’s most famous race, a little, red horse named Aristides.

The story of Aristides and that day in 1875 may seem a familiar tale to any racing fan, but a new book by author Mark Shrager layers on details and context that brings the first Kentucky Derby to life nearly 150 years later.

Building Connections

Author Mark Shrager

The sport of horse racing captures the hearts of fans in a variety of ways. For some, it is a family affair, following in the footsteps of a parent or an aunt or uncle who worked with horses or loved to go to the racetrack. For others, fandom comes as a natural extension of a sports-loving childhood. For author Mark Shrager, his interest in racing came thanks to a chance encounter with a book.

During those early years, Shrager joined a book club where he requested several books about baseball and football as part of an introductory offer. Fortuitously, someone in the shipping department made a mistake packing his order. “One of the books that arrived was Joe Palmer’s ‘This Was Racing.’ All those amazing stories of horse racing in the old days fascinated me, and I reread it almost until it fell apart,” he remembers. “That was my original connection to racing – as a fan and an avid reader.”

From there, Shrager’s connection to racing stayed mostly as a fan while he worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of their school finance office. During his 37 years there, he wrote articles for publications like Turf and Sport Digest, Gambling Times, Gambler’s Digest, and American Turf Monthly, maintaining his connection with the sport through his writing. Upon his retirement, this longtime racing fan parlayed that love of writing about the sport into much grander pursuits.

Telling Racing’s Stories

With one career behind him, Shrager took up another — that of author. His first book “The Great Sweepstakes of 1877: A True Story of Southern Grit, Gilded Age Tycoons, and a Race That Galvanized the Nationwas born out of his love for the history of the sport, especially after reading about the match race in an old Maryland Jockey Club Press Book: “I began researching it practically the day after my retirement party. That book almost seemed to write itself, once I’d done the research.”

He followed that with a look at the career of jockey Diane Crump, whose inspirational story he was surprised to learn had not been chronicled in book form. The two worked together to share the story of her pioneering career in the saddle in the book “Diane Crump: A Horse-Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle.” Its release happened to coincide with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, which made promoting their team effort challenging; they were rewarded with the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, a fitting prize for Shrager’s work capturing Crump’s history.

With two books already under his belt, the question most authors hear whenever they have finished one project is “What’s next?” For Shrager, that turned out to be a race that looms large in the history of horse racing, its profile even greater than that of that 1877 match race between Parole, Ten Broeck, and Tom Ochiltree at Pimlico.

Exploring an Immortal Day at the Races

Tulips in the Aristides Garden in 2015. (Julie June Stewart photo)

For his third effort, the author has tackled a familiar moment in racing’s history with a new twist: the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Won by Aristides, readers might think that the tale of that inaugural run for the roses has been recounted multiple times, but truly not as thoroughly as Shrager’s new book “The First Kentucky Derby: Thirteen Black Jockeys, One Shady Owner, and the Little Red Horse That Wasn't Supposed to Win.”

Covering not only that day at what would become Churchill Downs but also the career of Aristides beyond that victory, this latest look at America’s most famous race also explores a facet of the first Kentucky Derby not quite covered previously: the Black jockeys and trainers who were integral to the inaugural edition.

I recently talked to Shrager about his newest addition to the canon of racing history and the evolution his project underwent from its genesis as simply a chronicle of the first Kentucky Derby to this thorough examination of the people and horses involved.

The Kentucky Derby is the topic of multiple books. What prompted you to write about the first one? What intrigued you about the subject?

What interested me about the first Kentucky Derby is that the winning owner, horse, jockey and trainer were going to gain immortality as the first champions of America’s greatest horse race – but since the Derby was a brand-new race in 1875, they didn’t know it. And so, the behavior I’d be seeing from these people would be above-board and unrestrained (I assumed Aristides would have acted the same regardless!); I’d get a reasonably true picture of who they really were.

I saw the owner, H. Price McGrath, his gambling money on Chesapeake, attempting to win with his favored colt by sacrificing the chances of Aristides, and African-American jockeys Oliver Lewis and William Henry doing what they could to, essentially, fix the race to maximize their boss’s winnings, and African American trainer Ansel Williamson, closer to the colts than anyone, keeping McGrath informed on a daily basis regarding how he might maximize his winning pool-room bets and the one-on-one wagers with his racetrack cronies and fellow owners that he tended to prefer.

Your introduction talks about how the book evolved from your original concept. What did you discover that led you to this shift from a straightforward book about the first Derby to a more expansive look at the context of that inaugural edition?

I’d always known that Black men had had a major role in race-riding over the sport’s early history, but when I discovered that 13 of the 15 jockeys in the initial Derby were African-American it changed my perspective completely. Where had they come from? I knew that I, personally, had seen very few Black jockeys over the course of my life and that somehow while every other sport had diversified and, for the most part, flourished, racing, which started out integrated because so many enslaved men could ride well, had largely discarded its Black athletes over a very short span of time – from having 15 Derby victories by African-American riders in the 28 years from 1875 to 1902, to having none since. The context of that first Derby, those first 28 years, and what’s happened since was, I thought, a compelling story.

You have the most complete recounting of Aristides’ career that I have seen. What does talking about his career aside from his start in the first Derby add to our understanding of the first run for the roses?

I think it spells out for the reader what a different sport racing was in those days. Today, when you can look down the list of 2023 Kentucky Derby owners and most of the names are followed by “LLC,” it’s a far more corporate, far more organized sport than it was in 1875. Purses have risen far beyond inflation; the first Derby was a $2,950 race. There were no drugs in those days, but one reads of owners and trainers slowing horses down by giving them too much water in the hours before a race. Today, 2- and 3-year-olds run a gauntlet of qualifying races to earn enough points to be Derby starters; in the first Kentucky Derby, there were runners making their first lifetime starts. And certainly, there are no owners at the top of the sport (and I can add, “thankfully”) like Price McGrath, for whom the bet was the priority and winning the race was next on the list.

What surprised you most about exploring the history of African Americans in the sport during this era?

I think the short answer would be just about everything. I’d known that Black jockeys played an important role in the earliest days of American racing but hadn’t realized they had so dominated the sport: Thirteen Black jockeys among the 15 starters in the first Derby; 15 Derby wins in 28 years. And while I knew I’d seen very few Black jockeys during my years following the sport, I hadn’t really connected the two – how did so many great riders in the past become virtually none today? Thinking about how quickly the many African-American riders of the 1870s had been denied a place in the sport of their ancestors is something that still leaves me shaking my head.

Katherine Mooney’s “Race Horse Men” and Ed Hotaling’s “The Great Black Jockeys” approach this subject as well. Where do you feel your new book falls in terms of the canon of books available about this era?

Katherine Mooney and the late Ed Hotaling, whose [books] were so important a part of my own research, are the torchbearers. I hope my book, published nearly a quarter-century after Hotaling’s and nearly a decade after Mooney’s, serves to keep the topic before the public, reiterate that a wrong was done to an entire people, and helps to rekindle the conversation about how we can avoid such tragedies in the future, in sports and every other pursuit.

Talk about H.P. McGrath. What kind of an owner was he? What does his focus on the wagering side of the sport say about the state of racing in the 19th century?

McGrath had one goal in life, and that was to take your money. He was a master gambler who didn’t mind in the least winning by fixing the game. He was in the California Gold Rush, setting up crooked card and dice games to bilk miners out of their hard-earned profits; he’s there in Civil War times, creating more of those games to take away the money of returning soldiers (he earned a year in federal prison with that caper); as a stable owner, he draws the notice of Spirit of the Times by allegedly fixing races. What this says about the Thoroughbred racing of the 19th century is that it was then still an anything-goes, rough ’n tumble sport in need of considerable refinement.

What does work on the history of the sport contribute to our conversations about the sport today?

I think any sport, any people, any nation needs to know its history. Otherwise, you’re flailing around trying to find answers that may already have been found, or at least suggested. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yes, I believe that.

And there’s more fun, I think particularly for followers of sports, to make their inevitable arguments about the sports they love based on historic facts, rather than mere opinion. Was Babe Ruth a better hitter than Barry Bonds? Could Jim Brown have outplayed Emmitt Smith? Was it Wilt or Russell or Kareem who ranks as the greatest NBA center? And with racing: Who do you think was the greatest, Man o’ War or Citation or Secretariat or …? I’ve been having that argument with friends and fellow combatants for 50 years now, and the only time it gets old is when the other person doesn’t know enough history to marshal facts on behalf of their selection. The correct answer, by the way, is Secretariat. Now that I’ve settled that …

Ultimately, what do you want your readers to take away from this book?

I’d like them to understand that a wrong was done in essentially redirecting an entire people out of an area of performance for reasons having nothing to do with their ability to perform. I’d like my readers to understand that discrimination and prejudice still exist today, and that they’re harmful not just to those discriminated against but to all of us, because they serve to deny the abilities of good, capable people from whom we might all benefit.

I’d like those reading “The First Kentucky Derby” to see that there’s nothing to fear in opening sports and business and politics and every other pursuit to everyone, regardless of race or religion or any other factor. If my readers take nothing else away from my book, I hope they’ll see that what happened to African-American jockeys was wrong, that it was flesh-and-blood people who allowed it to happen, and that nothing like it should ever be allowed to happen again.

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