There could not have been a more auspicious day to hold a horse race. The sun rose pleasantly warm over northern Kentucky in a sky bereft of clouds, and though the birds were doubtless singing, their tunes could not have been heard over the spirited chatter preceding the first running of the Kentucky Derby.

May 17, 1875, was a Monday. Most businesses in Louisville had locked their doors by noon in observance of the event. Wise merchants knew the only money that would be exchanging hands around Louisville that day would be at the new racetrack three miles south of downtown.

And they were right. By every possible means men, women, and children, rich and poor, black and white, made their way to what was then known as the Louisville Jockey Club. Horse-drawn buggies and carriages filled the streets alongside mule-drawn trolley cars. Coal wagons were packed with former slaves. Even the Short Line and Louisville & Nashville railroads had laid down tracks to deliver patrons to the new racetrack.

The permanent grandstands were built to hold 2,000 persons, with temporary stands for a few hundred more. But the total attendance that day was said to be 10,000 which was one-tenth the population of Louisville. Those who, either by lack of means or punctuality, could not secure a seat packed the infield of the mile oval to watch the Derby from atop the multitude of wagons.

The new racecourse had been built the previous year by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark on eighty acres of land Clark had leased from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, after whom Churchill Downs was later named. To raise money for his grand project, Clark formed the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association and sold memberships for $100 each. As the original estimate for the new facility had been $32,000, there were 320 original members.  Along with a loan from a local merchant, the membership dues provided enough funds to build the one-mile track, grandstands, clubhouse, a porter’s lodge, and stables.

The new track was a horseman’s dream. The 80-foot-wide stretches and the 60-foot-wide turns were each a quarter mile, and the track was as flat as it could be. Its surface had been worked that morning by mule-drawn equipment and was in perfect condition.

Three races were held that day: the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap. Clark envisioned these races as the American counterparts of the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, and St. Leger Stakes, three premiere English races that provided the original spark for Clark’s ambitious project.

Fifteen horses were entered to run in the first Kentucky Derby: thirteen colts and two fillies, who carried only 100 pounds and 97 pounds, respectively. Every jockey but one was black.

The Derby favorite was a stout and spirited bay colt named Chesapeake. He was owned by H. P. McGrath, a gambler, speculator, and hot-tempered brawler who had used a large gambling windfall to open a stud farm in Kentucky. Chesapeake was generally unruly at the starting line and was known to be a come-from-behind runner. In order to wear down the field for his big horse’s late charge, McGrath had entered another horse, Aristides, ridden by jockey Oliver Lewis and trained by Ansel Williamson, both African Americans. Though barely 15 hands, Aristides’ pedigree was impressive. A finely sculpted, red chestnut colt, he was sired by the famous English racing sire, Leamington, and was out of a daughter of Lexington, the leading American sire of day. McGrath, however, thought Aristides to be inferior to Chesapeake and was merely hoping the smaller horse could set a quick pace early on, sapping the energies of the other horses in the field, before dropping back for Chesapeake’s victorious trek to the wire.

Betting on the Derby, scheduled as the second race of the day, was brisk and heavy. Four “paris-mutuel” machines were imported from France for the occasion. Under this system, still in use today, all bets go into a common pool and the payout is not fixed until all the bets are taken. But by far, most of the wagering that day was done in auction pools, the common form of betting at the time. In this method, each horse was auctioned to the highest bidder and all the money held in a pool. The winner took all. Long-odds horses were often sold together as one entry.

Since Clark envisioned his Derby as the American equivalent of England’s Epsom Derby, the first running of the Kentucky Derby was the same distance as its English counterpart: 1-1/2 miles. The horses were started from behind a line drawn in the dirt across the track. Because the jockeys were often too busy controlling their mounts to pay attention to anything else, a drummer was used to alert the jockeys that the race was about to begin. A flagman down the track was set to drop a flag the instant the horses were in order.

Chesapeake reared before the start of the race and tried to throw his jockey, and the horses had to be reset. Then the drum rolled and the flag dropped and they were off. As McGrath had hoped, Aristides took the early lead, but then lost it to McCreery at the quarter-pole. Chesapeake was far in the rear.

In his autobiography, Col. Matt J. Winn described the race as seen from the back of his father’s wagon. He was 13 at the time: “There was the usual jamming at the break, but the horses hadn’t gone very far before I spotted my hero – the great Chesapeake. He was pretty far back, but that’s where the men said he would be until he decided to make his famous stretch run. I kept following Chesapeake around, not paying much attention to the others in the race. I just didn’t want to miss seeing Chesapeake when he moved into action.”

Much to young Winn’s dismay, Chesapeake never did make the big move so many had expected. In fact, he was a beaten horse, and for good reason. He had run two races during the previous week, including a grueling two-mile race against another Derby entry, Ten Broeck. He simply couldn’t make up any ground against the more well-rested horses in the field.

But Aristides had plenty of race left in him. He fought back to retake the lead after the first half-mile sprint past the grandstands, followed by McCreery, Ten Broeck, Volcano and Verdigris.

Just out of the turn, Aristides’s rider began to pull him up a bit to make way for Chesapeake to run by to glory. McGrath, knowing that Chesapeake was finished, was waiting at the turn. He motioned for his jockey to go on and take it, if he could.

Aristides could and did, with Volcano, Verdigris, and Bob Wooley close behind. Ten Broeck, who would later prove himself as a great distance horse, finished fifth. Aristides had run the distance in 2:37-3/4, the fastest 1-1/2 miles ever run by a three-year-old in America at the time. He earned $2,900 for his efforts.

For Clark and the founders of the first Kentucky Derby, it could not have been a better day.

  • by REX A. EWING, originally published in Thoroughbred Times, April 1992