What’s in a (Race) Name? The First Kentucky Derby Winner

The paddock scene at Churchill Downs before the 2014 Aristides Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

We’ve all heard the old saying about “best laid plans” – they don’t always work out as expected. Such was the case when Hal Price McGrath, owner of McGrathiana Farm, sent out two colts to compete in the 1875 Kentucky Derby, the inaugural edition of the historic race.

The best of the McGrath runners was believed to be Chesapeake, a son of the successful stallion Lexington. He was the preferred half of the two-horse entry, with his stablemate – a small colt named Aristides – expected to set a fast pace before tiring to set the race up for the late-running Chesapeake. After all, Aristides had achieved little of note to that point in time, and there weren’t many reasons to believe he was capable of winning a race like the Derby.

At first, the plan worked as expected. Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis, went straight to the lead while Chesapeake settled back in eighth place. The pace was quick enough for the time period – 26 seconds flat for the opening quarter-mile, 51 for the half-mile, and 1:17 ½ for three-quarters of a mile. But as the race progressed, it became clear that Chesapeake wasn’t going to be a factor. When McGrath’s preferred runner failed to rally, Oliver Lewis was uncertain how to proceed; according to a recap in the May 18, 1875 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Lewis “seemed to take a pull on his horse, expecting Chesapeake to come in and take up the running … fortunately for the favorites, McGrath was near the head of the stretch, and taking in the position of affairs at a glance, waved his hand for Lewis to go on with the good little red horse and win if he could all alone. Right gallantly did [Aristides] answer the call on his forces, for he held his own all down the stretch in spite of most determined rushes on the part of Volcano and Verdigris, and dashed under the wire the winner of one of the fastest and hardest run races ever seen on a track.”

Although no one knew the significance at the time, Aristides had entered the history books as the first winner of a race that has now been held for 143 consecutive years. And while his victory was an upset at the time, Aristides would prove to be much more than a one-hit wonder, for he later won several other stakes races and ran second in the Belmont Stakes. As a 4-year-old, he went 2-for-2 during an abbreviated campaign, with the highlight being an exciting win over the future Hall of Famer Ten Broeck in a 2 1/8-mile race at the Lexington track, in which Aristides set a record of 3:45 ½.

As the first Kentucky Derby winner, it’s only fitting that Churchill Downs runs the Grade 3 Aristides Stakes in his honor every spring. Let’s take a trip back through time and recall a few other racing legends that have upcoming races named after them…

Grade 1 Beholder Mile Stakes at Santa Anita Park

Beholder (Eclipse Sportswire)

How many mares have won Grade 1 races at ages 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6? As near as anyone can figure, Beholder is the only one to accomplish the feat in the United States. A four-time Eclipse Award winner, Beholder won the 2012 Grade 1 Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies as a 2-year-old, added the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff as a 3-year-old, and won the Distaff again at age 6 to become only the second horse to win three Breeders’ Cup races. Along the way, she won such memorable races as the Grade 1 Pacific Classic against males and three editions of the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes against fillies and mares, earning a reputation as one of the greatest mares in racing history.

Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Santa Anita Park

Eight thousand, eight hundred and thirty-three. That’s how many races William “Willie” Shoemaker won during his Hall of Fame career as a jockey, including four wins in the Kentucky Derby, two in the Preakness Stakes, and five in the Belmont Stakes. Nicknamed “The Shoe” and known for his light touch in the saddle (it was said that horses simply wanted to win when Shoemaker was aboard), Shoemaker rode many of the sport’s most legendary horses, including Damascus, Ferdinand, Forego, Gallant Man, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Swaps, and Sword Dancer, to name just a few. He held the record for most wins by a North American jockey for 29 years and became the oldest jockey in history to win the Kentucky Derby when he guided Ferdinand to win the run for the roses at age 54.

Danzig Stakes at Penn National

Chief’s Crown. Dance Smartly. Danzig Connection. Dayjur. Lure. Pine Bluff. Stephan’s Odyssey. War Chant. These were just a few of the 100+ graded stakes winners (including champions, Breeders’ Cup winners, and Triple Crown race winners) sired by the remarkable stallion Danzig. The son of Northern Dancer was unbeaten at three starts on the track, showing enough talent to earn a spot on the stallion roster at historic Claiborne Farm. Danzig wound up being the leading sire in North American for three straight years from 1991 through 1993.

Lyphard Stakes at Penn National

Lyphard, like Danzig, was a son of Northern Dancer that achieved success on the track and as a stallion. As a racehorse, Lyphard was a talented miler that won the Prix de la Foret and the Prix Jacques le Marois as a 3-year-old in 1972, earning a reputation as an elite-level miler in France. As a stallion, he sired well over 100 stakes winners, with the best including the 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Dancing Brave (still one of the highest-rated horses in European racing history) and the U.S. champion Manila, winner of the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Turf.

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