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.