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When a Rabbit Won the Roses

The essential gem in the Triple Crown was only a secondhand pebble at the start. Even the horse that finished first was the wrong one

There are some sporting events that transcend even the sport they are part of. A heavyweight title fight when the champ is someone like Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali, the races for the America's Cup, golf's Masters and, perhaps most of all, the Kentucky Derby. Each of these events makes ardent fans and partisans of people who normally wouldn't know a boat from a boxing glove, a five-iron from a fetlock.

The fact that each year, on the first Saturday in May, millions who have never seen a live horse on a track tune their tubes to Churchill Downs would certainly have amazed Colonel M. Lewis Clark, the man who invented the Derby or, more accurately, borrowed it from the English. At the time the first Derby was run in Louisville in 1875, Clark was concerned only with the fact that there were no big races in his native Kentucky and that a lot of breeders were seriously thinking about closing down their farms. So, in 1872, after discussing the problem with breeders in the Blue Grass region, Clark went to England and France to study Europe's great tracks and races. There he got ideas for building his own track and there also he decided to inaugurate a great stakes race and pattern it on England's famous Epsom Derby.

Back in Louisville and full of enthusiasm, Colonel Clark sought out the Churchill family and from them bought 180 acres of land just outside the city limits. He then persuaded 32 horsemen to put $1,000 apiece into a new Jockey Club to build a track and run the races. Unfortunately, the leveling of the rough terrain exhausted Clark's $32,000. It took a further donation from a wealthy Louisville merchant, Major W. H. Thomas, to achieve a primitive grandstand and some stables.

May 17, the day of the first Derby, dawned clear and sunny, and some 10,000 Louisvillians set out for a day at the races—some coming in buggies or mule-drawn streetcars, some riding horses, some simply walking. As they waited at the track, the new railbirds ate picnic lunches. There were great splashes of color, particularly in the section set aside for ladies, where Mary Anderson, soon to become a noted actress, was the main attraction. "It was more than a race day," recalled one spectator, "it was a festival."

There was, of course, no pari-mutuel at that first Derby, but bookies did a hot business out of wagons. Favored in the wagering was Price McGrath's Chesapeake, coupled as an entry with a relatively unknown stablemate named Aristides. According to McGrath's race plan, Aristides, who had been cut up badly at Lexington because of the track's poor condition, was intended to be Chesapeake's rabbit. That is, Aristides was supposed to set the pace and wear down the other horses until Chesapeake could come on to win.

McGrath, owner of McGrathiana Stud Farm (now Coldstream Farm outside Lexington), was a self-made man. One of his favorite stories was that he was denied a formal education for the want of 2½¢. As McGrath told it, he gave the first dime he ever earned to a wealthy neighbor, requesting that the latter bring him a blue-back speller from the city. The neighbor came back empty-handed and returned the dime with the comment, "The book cost 12½ cents."

McGrath left his old Kentucky home and went West in the Gold Rush of 1849. He then went to New York and opened up a gambling house in partnership with John Morrissey, the former heavyweight champion of the world. In one night McGrath won $105,000, closed shop and returned to Kentucky to establish McGrathiana Stud. He gained fame as a breeder but never drove horses himself, preferring a team of mules hitched to a wagon.

Among the 15 horses in the first Derby field, the McGrath entry, Chesapeake and Aristides, stood out sharply under the Stud's green-and-orange silks. Unlike the current Derbies, which are a quarter of a mile shorter, the first Derby lasted a mile and a half and was run over a track listed as fast. The winner was to receive $2,850 (this year's winning purse was $155,700) and a massive punch bowl costing $1,000 and including 300 ounces of sterling silver. The race started at a point opposite the grandstand. A starter lined up the horses, someone beat a drum to tell the jockeys the race was on and the official starter dropped a flag to send them off and running in the first Kentucky Derby.

A horse named Volcano took the early lead, with Aristides close behind and Chesapeake near the rear. Aristides' jockey was a Negro named Oliver Lewis, who later made racing history in another vein. Lewis worked for a bookmaker, telling him how certain horses ran in a race. The bookie took notes, which were later developed into charts of races. These charts were the forerunners of those appearing today in The Morning Telegraph and the Daily Racing Form.

Lewis took Aristides to the lead at the half-mile pole. And when he still led after a mile, while Chesapeake dropped farther behind, it became apparent to owner McGrath that the rabbit was to be his Derby winner. So at the head of the stretch, where he had posted himself, McGrath waved at Lewis to "go on." The jockey then loosened his hold on Aristides' bridle and The Little Red Horse, as he became known, stood off a challenge by Volcano to win the first Derby.

The crowd was confused. Some didn't understand the term "entry" and thought the winner was Chesapeake, not Aristides. Others were amazed at Aristides' time of 2:37¾—then the fastest mile and a half ever run by a 3-year-old. Among the puzzled ones was a 13-year-old boy standing on the seat of his father's wagon in the infield. He was Matt J. Winn, whose later management was to build the Derby into the spectacle it is today. Colonel Winn saw every Derby until his death in 1949. "That was my introduction to racing," Colonel Winn later said, "where, at 13, I was to learn so thoroughly that nothing on this earth is quite so unpredictable as a horse race."