The History of Aristides


Deirdre Scaggs (Associate Dean, Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries) shared the following historical account at the dedication of the Aristides marker on October 24, 2012.

 

 

Hal Price McGrath grew up unprivileged in Woodford County Kentucky. He went west for the California Gold Rush, and did well enough to open a gambling house in New York City. There, he was rumored to have won $105,000 in one night, and made enough money to start his own stud farm, McGrathiana Farm in Fayette County on the land we are on today.

 

McGrathiana Farm was good to Hal Price McGrath. It was here that he bred the very first horse to win the Kentucky Derby—Aristides.  Yet another horse of McGrath’s, Leonard, finished second in the third Derby. After the death of Hal Price McGrath, the farm became the property of the horseman, Colonel Milton Young. He transformed McGrathiana Stud into one of the most famous breeding establishments in America. Among the sires was the great thoroughbred, Hanover.

 

In 1908, during the horse depression, Colonel Young sold McGrathiana and his stable for $80,000. The Beasley Brothers, who then bought McGrathiana focused on raising cattle.  Later, in 1915, ownership passed to a Chicago oilman, C.B. Shaffer, who purchased additional land and changed the name to Coldstream Farm. Shaffer’s son sold Coldstream to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Knight in 1951 who operated it, with their other Bluegrass farms, until its purchase from the University.

 

Coldstream Farm was acquired in 1957 for use by the Cooperative Research Station in the College of Agriculture. It has long been recognized as a valuable asset of the University and supported the Animal Research Program for 40 years. In 1987, the Board of Trustees declared that no portion of Coldstream Farm be offered for sale now or in the foreseeable future, but shall be retained in perpetuity by the University. In 1992, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council passed an ordinance changing the Coldstream Farm zoning from Agriculture Urban to an Office Industry and Research Park which would permit the development of today’s Research Campus.

 

But now, let’s go back to Hal Price McGrath and his horse in 1875. Named Aristides, he was a small chestnut horse, little more than 15 hands high. His brother, a big bay, looked like a much better bet so McGrath and his trainer, Ansel Williamson, planned for Aristides to clear the way for Chesapeake to win the Derby.

 

Both the horse’s trainer and jockey were African Americans. Ansel Williamson was born a slave in Virginia around 1810, and learned to be a horse trainer and breeder. After the civil war, he continued to work conditioning horses as a free man. Aristides was not his only success, he trained many famous horses, and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1998.

 

Jockey Oliver Lewis is less well known. He was born in Fayette County in 1856, and was 19 when he won the Kentucky Derby. He went on to have six children and later reported on horses' form to bookmakers—the process of taking bets, calculating odds, and paying out winnings—he went on to become a successful bookmaker himself. Both were then legal occupations. Lewis died in 1924 and is buried in Lexington.

 

The details of the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 may have gone something like this….  Aristides, McCreery, and Volcano got off in the first division. Passing the grandstand for the first time McCreery was in front with Aristides second and Volcano third. Before reaching the turn, McCreery retired, beaten. Aristides then took the lead with Ten Broeck, Volcano, Bob Miles and Verdigris in a close bunch behind him. Aristides ran the first mile in 1 minute 43 seconds—a very fast pace for those days. Lewis, on Aristides, gave his horse a breathing spell, expecting Chesapeake, his stable mate and half-brother to join him, but he was in the back ultimately finishing 8th.

 

With odds of 29 to 10, Aristides took the race in two minutes, 37 seconds. There were no roses for Aristides in 1875, but owner Hal Price McGrath, trainer Ansel Williamson, and jockey Oliver Lewis did have the satisfaction of winning the smallest Derby purse of about $2,850.00.