Every Kentucky Derby is special, but Ben Brush's Kentucky Derby win in 1896 was even more special than most. His victory marked the first time the race was won at its current distance of 1 ¼ miles and was also the first time that the winner was adorned with a blanket of roses, which is today one of the most iconic symbols of the Kentucky Derby. This is his story.
Early Life (1893 - 1894): In 1891, Ben Brush’s dam Roseville was purchased by Colonel Catesby Woodford and Colonel Ezekial Clay of Runnymede Farm. Roseville was already in foal to Bramble, a champion handicap horse who excelled running at long distances. He was also the leading sire of 1881 and 1882. According to Brisnet, Bramble was described as being “as tough as pine nuts”.
Though Roseville hadn’t been highly successful on the racetrack herself, she was a full-sibling to the 1892 Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes winner Azra. The mating of Roseville and Bramble had actually been engineered by Eugene Leigh, a successful horseman and the owner of Bramble, though he was not credited as the breeder because he did not own Roseville when she gave birth. However, when Woodford and Clay offered the foal from the Roseville and Bramble mating for sale at the annual Runnymede sale, Leigh and his partner Ed Brown purchased him for $1,200. Leigh and Brown were reportedly offered $5,000 for the yearling colt soon after they purchased him. Leigh was eager to take the deal, but Brown insisted that they keep the colt for the early part of his career. Leigh accepted and the colt remained with his new owners. It was not clear that the yearling would become a star at the beginning. He was noted as being a small, unimpressive horse. American Classic Pedigrees describes him with, “Ben Brush was a small, plain, long-bodied horse, somewhat over at the knee and short-legged for his height." The colt would quickly prove that his looks were deceiving.
Two-Year Old Season (1895): Leigh and Brown decided to name their colt “Ben Brush” in honor of one of the track superintendents at Gravesend Racetrack as a thank you for giving them scarce and valuable stall space at the track. Ben Brush began his career by reeling off five wins in the Midwest, including the Emerald Stakes and Diamond Stakes. The colt fumbled when he returned to New York, losing three consecutive races and prompting critics to call him an “overrated little goat”.
Ben Brush must have taken offense to the name calling as he refused to be beaten afterwards. He first returned to his winning ways in the Holly Handicap. The victory encouraged famed horse owner and gambler Michael F. Dwyer to offer Leigh and Brown $18,000 for their colt. Dwyer had previously campaigned Ben Brush’s sire Bramble. Leigh and Brown could not turn down the offer; Ben Brush would round out his two-year old season in Dwyer’s colors.
The colt did wonderfully for his new owner Dwyer and trainer Hardy Campbell Jr., winning six consecutive races after the Holly Handicap (for a seven race win streak). Those wins included prestigious stakes like the Prospect Handicap, Nursery, Albany, and Champagne. In total, Ben Brush won 13 of 16 races that year and was considered the Champion Two Year Old Colt of 1895. He was so good that turf historian and handicapper Walter Vosburgh claimed that Ben Brush “could have beaten any three-year old of that season”. Three-Year Old Season & Kentucky Derby Victory (1896): Ben Brush made his seasonal debut in the Kentucky Derby. It was the 22nd edition of the race and the first time that it would be run at a distance of 1 ¼ miles rather than 1 ½ miles. He would be facing seven horses. Though Ben Brush had to travel from New York and wouldn’t benefit from a prep race beforehand, he had won at Churchill Downs in the past and was piloted by Willie Simms, who was considered the best jockey of his day.
Ben Brush went off as the favorite.
The race didn’t start too well for Ben Brush; he stumbled badly at the start, nearly unseating Simms. Still, Ben Brush and Simms made an incredible move to catch the leaders before they had even gone a ½ mile. He was able to put away pacesetter First Mate at the quarter pole, but was going to have to battle with a colt named Ben Elder down the stretch.
The fight towards the finish was a fierce one. Simms was doing everything in his power to urge his tired mount onwards. Ben Brush had to muster all the strength and ability he had to cross the wire just a nose in front of Ben Elder. It was a sensational performance that left the fans in the grandstands screaming with excitement! But when Ben Brush was slowed down and Simms unmounted, it quickly became clear just how much strength and heart the colt had expended. He was gasping for air and his sides were aching and bleeding from Simms’ spurs - the image a stark contrast to the beautiful blanket of pink and white roses that had been placed upon his withers. Upon seeing the damage he had done to his horse, Simms began to weep with shame.
Thankfully, Ben Brush was not seriously hurt and recovered well from his exhausting Kentucky Derby victory. “It was a great race — one of the greatest I ever saw,” Colonel Clark of Churchill Downs 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.”
He continued on his winning ways just ten days later, dead-heating with Lady Inez in the Schulte Stakes. The pair lined up again the same day to settle the dispute, with Ben Brush prevailing. He went on to win the prestigious Latonia Derby where he again defeated Ben Elder (who had since been purchased by Dwyer and was now his stablemate), that time more decisively. He also won the Buckeye Stakes that season and placed in the National Derby and Oakley Derby. He finished the season with four wins and nearly $27,000 in earnings.
Four-Year Old Season (1897): Ben Brush was said to have been even better as a four-year old. It was this year that Ben Brush defeated some of the best horses of his day, including the likes of Ornament (1897 Horse of the Year), Hastings (Belmont Stakes winner, grandsire of legendary Man o’ War), Belmar (1895 Preakness & Belmont winner), and the high-class racehorse Clifford.
He won six of 16 races this season, including the Suburban Handicap, Brighton Handicap, Citizens’ Handicap, Omnium Handicap, and the First and Second Special Stakes. He also finished on the board in the Midsummer Handicap and Brighton Cup. He was so successful that he was named Champion Older Horse of 1897. Joe Palmer wrote that Ben Brush’s 1897 campaign “perhaps put the stamp of greatness on him more unmistakably than did his performances at two and three." In all, Ben Brush earned a record of 40: 24-5-5 and earnings of up to $66,000.
Retirement & Stud Career (1898 - 1918):
Ben Brush retired to James R. Keene’s Castleton Stud near Lexington, Kentucky. It was there that he embarked on a new career as a stallion. Though the new stallion's first two crops didn’t produce anything spectacular, from his third crop came champion juvenile and Belmont Stakes winner Deihi and successful handicapper Broomstick. He later produced champions Sweep and Peebles.
Anne Peters of TB Heritage notes that “Physically, Ben Brush resembled his sire, Bramble to some degree, but really established his own physical type that marked individuals from this bloodline for several generations. Small, short-legged and long-bodied, the Ben Brushes were not noted for their refinement, but were famous for their precociousness, speed, and durability, a rare combination that made them extremely popular and successful.” Eugene Leigh, who had planned the mating of Roseville and Bramble to produce Ben Brush, described his descendants by saying, “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.”
James R. Keene passed away in 1913, so Ben Brush was sold to Senator Johnson Camden to stand at Camden’s Hartland Stud. Ben Brush lived for five more years, passing away on June 8, 1918 at 25 years old.
Today Ben Brush is remembered not only for his many great performances on the racetrack, but also for his immense success as a stallion. If it wasn’t for him and the huge impact he left on our sport, we wouldn’t have had many of the great racehorses and stallions that we love today.
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