The First Kentucky Derby by Mark Shrager: 5*****

Aristides, is the name familiar? How about Ansel Williamson or Oliver Lewis? You are probably shaking your head, and admit you have no clue as to whom or what I am talking about. Well, join the club!!! I was just like you when I received this marvelous book that transports us back to 1875 and even earlier. The First Kentucky Derby by Mark Shrager is a wonderful and historical look at the development of horse racing in America and one that also makes us take a close look at how things have changed.

            Aristides is the name of the horse that won the first Kentucky Derby. His trainer, a black gentleman named Ansel Williams. His jockey was Oliver Lewis, also a black gentleman. As a matter of fact in that first Kentucky Derby there were 15 horses entered, and there were 13 black jockeys in that race. By the year 1907 they were gone! As much as this book is about the Derby it also is a really detailed look at the plight of the Black jockey, and how they were marginalized and effectively driven out of the sport in a little over 30 years. Why is that? Well Shrager gives a host of reasons, but it all began with a Presidential election! Who would have thought that!

            But we also get remarkable stories about the horses, owners, trainers and gamblers that dominated this sport in the years up to, as well as after this race. Aristides went from a horse that never won a race as a 2-year old, to the pinnacle of the sport as a 3-year old, and within a year sank back to anonymity on the racing circuit. How that happened is detailed here, and Shrager not only invites us to discover the career of Aristides, but also his competitors. We learn how races have changed in length (2 to 4 mile races), to today’s classic equine distances, and how most race days consisted of no more than 2-3 races at a race track, as opposed to today’s massive 8-12 race cards.

            This is a spectacularly researched book, one that even the casual horse racing enthusiast will appreciate. Mark Shrager is one of the preeminent horse racing historians, and he has combed through a myriad of sources to let us all share the excitement of that first Kentucky Derby. “IT IS NOW POST TIME!!!!”

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