July 21, 2024

Historical Cameo – Ben Brush

Originally appearing May 1, 2006

Ben Brush — 1896 Kentucky Derby winner

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

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

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

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.”