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Ben Brush -- 1896 Kentucky Derby winner
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Ben Brush -- 1896 Kentucky Derby winner

by Kellie Reilly

In honor of this Saturday's Kentucky Derby (G1), we'll commemorate the top class colt Ben Brush, who captured the famed classic on May 6, 1896, 110 years ago to the day of this year's running. His tale is noteworthy for several reasons. Ben Brush was the first to win the race at its modern distance of 1 1/4 miles as well as the first reportedly draped in a garland of roses. He underscores the prominence of African-Americans in 19th century racing. He also reminds us that some aspects of our sport -- knocking the favorite or criticizing what we regard as ill-judged rides -- are nothing new, but rather time-honored customs.

Of more immediate relevance to our 132nd Derby, Ben Brush was a great success at stud, becoming one of the fundamental building blocks of the American Thoroughbred. Although his direct male line is no longer extant, his influence continues to seep through other segments of the pedigree chart. Every single horse in this year's field traces to him multiple times, and Ben Brush appears in the pedigrees of 48 of the last 50 Derby winners, including every Derby winner from 1972 onward. In other words, modern bloodlines are literally inconceivable without the 1896 Derby hero.

Ben Brush was sired by Bramble, the champion handicap horse of 1879 who excelled at marathon distances of up to 2 1/4 miles. In the words of legendary turf authority Walter Vosburgh, his was "a breed as tough as pine knots." His dam was Roseville (Reform), a full sister to 1892 Kentucky Derby and Travers victor Azra. Horseman Eugene Leigh was responsible for the match, but he sold Roseville while she was in foal. As a result, Ben Brush was technically bred by Clay and Woodford.

When the small bay colt was offered at Clay and Woodford's yearling sale at Runnymede Farm near Paris, Kentucky, Leigh was interested in acquiring him. Renowned African-American trainer Ed Brown, conditioner of the 1877 Derby winner Baden-Baden and an eventual Hall of Famer, also wanted the son of Bramble, so they decided to act as a team instead of bidding against each other. Accordingly, they snapped him up for $1,200. After the sale, another party reportedly made an offer of $5,000, which Leigh was eager to accept, but the astute Brown recommended that they develop the youngster themselves and not sell prematurely. Leigh was convinced, and Brown's foresight was to reward them both.

Joe Palmer, writing in his valuable Names in Pedigrees, described the colt as "not a particularly impressive-looking animal." He was a "rather small horse, a bit longer for his height than Bramble, almost equally coarse about the head."

It was Brown who named him Ben Brush in honor of the superintendent of the old Gravesend racetrack in Brooklyn. Ben Brush had given Brown stalls when space was very hard to come by, and the trainer wished to express his gratitude. Superintendent Brush was flattered, and one oft-told anecdote reveals just how flattered. Notorious for opposing the presence of dogs on the track grounds, and known to scold those who violated this rule, he routinely let Leigh's dogs roam freely without a quibble. When challenged about his double standard, Brush retorted, "Not a damn one of you fellows ever named a horse Ben Brush!"

The equine Ben Brush displayed speed and precocity as a juvenile, not to mention hardiness to thrive on his 16-race campaign that earned him championship honors. After hacking up an easy winner in his first five starts (four of them stakes) between May 7 and July 23 in Kentucky and Ohio, he shifted tack to New York for the remainder of the season. In his debut at Sheepshead Bay, Ben was handed a rude defeat as the 2-5 favorite in a two-year-olds and up allowance race, winding up a poor third after never being in the hunt. He came back to win a handicap at the same course but dropped his next two stakes attempts, collared by the high class juvenile Requital in the Flatbush S. and checking in a dismal eighth in the Great Eastern H.

Now the Eastern elites mocked him as an "overrated little goat" and skewered the "Western" form that he represented. The critics had crowed too soon, for Ben would not taste defeat again that season, reeling off seven triumphs in a row right under his naysayers' noses in New York.

Just one race into that streak, Brown and Leigh sold Ben Brush to Mike Dwyer, a famous gambler of the day whose wagering strategy was summed up by his colorful nickname, "King of the Chalk Eaters." The reported price was $18,000, a tidy return on their initial investment. The small colt then moved to the barn of Hardy Campbell, his conditioner for the rest of his career.

Ben crowned his juvenile campaign with three notable efforts. He carried 127 pounds to victory in the Nursery H., shouldered 128 when landing the Albany S., and scored by a clever half-length in the prestigious Champagne S., then contested at old Morris Park.

Vosburgh was deeply impressed. "As a two-year-old in October," he wrote in Racing in America, 1866-1921, "it is likely he could have conceded his year and a beating to any three-year-old of that season."

After compiling a record of 13 wins, one second and a third from 16 starts, Ben was given the extended holiday he deserved. For his sophomore debut, trainer Campbell targeted the May 6 Kentucky Derby, an event that did not enjoy the lofty status that it would attain in later years.

The race had just been shortened to 1 1/4 miles by the new management of Churchill Downs. Since its inception in 1875, the Derby had been staged over 1 1/2 miles, the length of the original Derby at Epsom in England. Churchill officials changed the distance for 1896, believing that a 12-furlong test was too taxing for three-year-olds that early in the year.

A correspondent for the contemporary publication Spirit of the Times respected Ben Brush, but displaying a universal trait of handicappers, felt compelled to find fault with the favorite. The headline in the May 2 edition said it all: "Ben Brush Not Considered a Certainty by Any Means at Louisville." In the reporter's view, "considering the disadvantages of his long journey, chance of non-acclimation, change of water, etc., it does seem that there is at least a fair possibility of the Ben Brush enthusiasts coming to grief." Although conceding he is "undoubtedly a good colt," the pundit concluded by saying if Ben Brush won the Derby, "it will stamp him, indeed, a phenomenal race-horse."

Interestingly, the Spirit of the Times writer did not seize upon the factors that we would harp on in our time. He did not express concern about the fact that Ben did not have the benefit of a single prep race, nor did he mention that the colt had never run farther than seven furlongs.

Eventual Hall of Fame jockey Willie Simms, who became Ben's regular rider once he sported the Dwyer silks, was to reunite with the colt at Churchill Downs. The gifted African-American was hailed as one of the greatest jockeys of the time, winning with an enviable 24.8 percent of his career mounts. He also rode in England, where he was the first to introduce the short-stirrup style that was later associated with Tod Sloan. After his stint in Europe, he was retained by Dwyer as his stable rider, but such was Simms' stature that he had the flexibility to accept mounts from other stables as well. The nation's leading rider of 1893-94, he remains the only African-American jockey to have won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Facing seven rivals in the Derby, Ben was sent off as the odds-on favorite, with the bookmakers offering a stingy 1-2. The weather was described as ideal, the track condition variously rated as "very dusty" or "lightning fast." There was no starting gate, so the three-year-olds took a full 20 minutes at the post before they broke and the race was officially under way.

Ben immediately gave his supporters a fright by stumbling at the start and nearly tossing Simms, but the skilled rider stayed in the saddle. First Mate grabbed the early lead, but Ben had recovered quickly enough to track him in second before they had traveled a half-mile. At the quarter pole, Ben disposed of the pacesetter and set sail for home. By the eighth pole, however, he looked to be in trouble. Arkansas Derby winner Ben Eder, the 2-1 second choice, produced a "fine burst of speed," as the Spirit of the Times correspondent put it, ranged alongside and swept to a half-length lead, seemingly on his way to victory. For all that, Simms and Ben Brush were not done yet, and the Spirit of the Times captured the drama.

"But Simms made one last and desperate rally with Ben Brush, displaying as vigorous a piece of riding as was ever seen, and gradually but surely gaining on the other Ben, he finally beat him out by a nose in a terrific and hair-raising finish, which elicited a wild and spontaneous shout from the grandstand."

It was eight lengths back to the third-place finisher, and another eight back to fourth. The final time looks quaint to us, 2:07 3/4, but was not bad by 1896 standards.

According to the Thoroughbred Record, Ben Brush's sides were spattered with blood from the energetic application of spurs. The colt deserves all the greater credit for his unflinching courage in the face of pain and quite probably exhaustion. He was rewarded with a garland of white and pink roses, the first reported description of a Derby winner so honored.

The race was barely over before the recriminations began, with many observers blaming Ben Eder's rider for the narrow loss. As the Spirit of the Times phrased it, everyone believed that the "better riding carried the day." If only J. Tabor had waited longer to deliver his run, the theory went, he would have nailed Ben Brush on the line. Or, if Tabor had only ridden more strongly, he would have won.

Col. Clark, the guiding force behind the development of Churchill and then serving as the track's presiding judge, credited Simms with the victory.

"It was a great race -- one of the greatest I ever saw," Clark said. "There was no doubt in the world about the finish. Sim(m)s simply lifted Brush a foot or so in front at the last jump."

Ben Brush wheeled back only 10 days later in the one-mile Schulte S. at a muddy Churchill. He dead-heated for the win with Tennessee Oaks victress Lady Inez, with the third-place finisher 10 lengths behind. According to the custom of the time, the top pair then lined up again in a run-off on the same day, and Ben strode to a comfortable wire-to-wire victory in a time more than a second faster than the initial heat. He won twice from six remaining starts that season, including the 1 1/2-mile Latonia Derby with 1 1/2 lengths to spare over old rival Ben Eder (now a fellow Dwyer colorbearer and entrymate) and placed in the National Derby at St. Louis, Missouri, and Oakley Derby near Cincinnati, Ohio. Ben crossed the wire in front in his seasonal finale in a Sheepshead Bay Handicap but was disqualified, his finish officially recorded as an off-the-board effort.

Ben was even better as a four-year-old, winning eight of 16 races and placing in six, all of them on the New York circuit. Vosburgh ranked him as the champion handicap horse of the year. In Palmer's view, it was Ben Brush's 1897 campaign that "perhaps put the stamp of greatness on him more unmistakably than did his performances at two and three."

His highlights included a sharp one-length score in the Suburban H. at Sheepshead Bay, at the time a rich prize more eagerly coveted than it is today; a brave triumph in the Citizens H. at Saratoga; a battling success in the Omnium H. at Sheepshead; and a pair of special stakes events at Gravesend.

To gauge what these bare results mean, it's instructive to consider the kinds of horses he was either pounding into submission or skating past. Among his victims that year were the 1895 Preakness and Belmont winner Belmar; 1896 Belmont hero Hastings, later to gain immortality as the grandsire of Man o' War; 1897 champion three-year-old Ornament, the winner of 20 of 33 lifetime starts himself; and the elder statesman of the handicap set, the high class Clifford, who twice managed to defeat the great Henry of Navarre and Domino in 1894-95. In sum, Ben Brush put to the sword the stars of four crops.

Ben's conquests of Hastings are fascinating in light of the fact that their blood would be profitably crossed in the future. When Hasting's grandson Man o' War was bred to Ben Brush's granddaughter Brushup (Sweep), the result was 1937 Triple Crown hero War Admiral.

Ironically, Ben Brush lost his final career start by a head to another Ed Brown protégé, the two-year-old Plaudit, just failing to give the youngster 36 pounds in a 1 1/16-mile allowance. Plaudit would go on to win the 1898 Kentucky Derby, piloted by none other than Willie Simms.

Ben Brush's lifetime mark stood at 25 wins, five seconds and five thirds in 40 starts. Sources disagree about his total earnings, with figures ranging from $65,208 to $66,902.

Entering stud at James R. Keene's Castleton near Lexington, Kentucky, Ben proved to be a star stallion. Not only did he rank as the leading sire in America in 1909, but his Travers-winning son Broomstick headed the sires' list in 1913, 1914 and 1915, the latter when his filly Regret made Derby history of her own by becoming the first female to wear the roses. Ben's Belmont-winning son Sweep took the top sire honors in 1918 and 1925. Ben's most influential daughter was Belgravia, who produced the renowned sire Black Toney.

After Keene's death in 1913, Ben Brush was sold for $10,000 and moved to Sen. Johnson Camden's Hartland Stud (later known as Pin Oak Stud) near Versailles, Kentucky, where he was chloroformed on June 8, 1918, at the age of 25. He was elevated to racing's pantheon, the Hall of Fame, in 1955.

Chiefly through Broomstick, Sweep and Belgravia (through her son Black Toney), Ben Brush's blood has been widely disseminated. For example, Native Dancer receives doses of Ben Brush from all three of those sources. The preeminent Northern Dancer is out of a mare who gets Ben Brush not only through her sire Native Dancer but from her dam as well. Native Dancer's son Raise a Native and grandson Mr. Prospector likewise inherit more Ben Brush from their respective dams. The terrific sire Bold Ruler receives his one strain courtesy of his female line. Other seminal factors with multiple crosses of Ben Brush include Buckpasser, Halo, Dr. Fager, Damascus, In Reality and Seattle Slew.

Why did the small son of Bramble with the coarse head have such a colossal impact that has endured for a century? Kent Hollingsworth supplies an answer. Ben Brush contributed "durability and a native ruggedness to horses who could go six furlongs and two miles," he noted in The Great Ones.

Leigh, his breeder in spirit if not in the record book, deserves the final word about the tribe of Ben Brush.

"Horses of this family always trained like good soldiers, done their work well, put their noses in the feed box, and kept them there as long as there was an oat left. There was no 'yellow dog' in their blood."

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