Faded Glory: The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Winners (Ben Ali, 1886)

January 24th, 2024

In the century and a half of the Kentucky Derby lies forgotten tales of this great race. While the sport's spotlight often shines on the most celebrated champions, there are remarkable tales of victory that have faded into the recesses of time. These triumphs merit revisiting, a chance to catch up on seminal moments that came to influence the Run for the Roses as we know it. 

Among those is a California colt who shares a name with his influential owner, a horse whose win came with a touch of controversy and inspired a boycott with long-term effects for the country’s greatest race.

California Dreaming

In the era of breeders by the name of Belmont, Madden, Keene, and Whitney, James Ben Ali Haggin crafted a career as a breeder and owner that rivaled those celebrated figures. 

Born in Kentucky, Haggin was a grandson of Ibrahim Ben Ali, a Turkish army officer who had emigrated to America and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from Centre College, Haggin started his law career in his home state before moving west to California during the mid-century Gold Rush. There, Haggin partnered with two others in multiple lucrative mining ventures across the West and then used his wealth to build a Thoroughbred nursery at Rancho del Paso in Sacramento County. By the latter half of the 19th century, Haggin had built a stable that included a myriad of stakes winners, including two Derby hopefuls, Ban Fox and a colt named Ben Ali. 

Named for the prominent owner’s son, the small brown colt had a pedigree replete with stallions like Virgil, who raced over the flat, the jumps, and behind a buggy, and Lexington, the century’s leading sire whose daughters were as sought after as his sons. Virgil started his stud career at Milton Sanford’s Preakness Stud near Lexington, Kentucky, the Bluegrass arm of Sanford’s breeding operation. A prominent breeder and owner, it was Sanford’s 1868 dinner party at Saratoga that inspired the construction of Pimlico Race Course and the creation of the Dinner Party Stakes in 1870, won by Sanford’s own Preakness. He later named both his New Jersey and Kentucky breeding farms after his legendary colt and purchased Virgil to stand at his Bluegrass operation. Daniel Swigert, owner of 1877 Derby winner Baden Baden, bought the farm and Virgil in 1881, the same year that Hindoo, another of Virgil’s sons, won the Kentucky Derby (the first was Vagrant in 1876).

Haggin purchased Ben Ali as a yearling from Swigert for $1,750 and sent him west to Haggin’s California farm Rancho Del Paso. An undated anonymous sketch of the Virgil colt shows him with a small white star on his forehead and a left hind sock. Broad Church’s observations from The Spirit of the Times described the colt as “well proportioned and racing-looking an animal as I ever laid eyes on.” 

At two, Ben Ali had only one win in five starts, the Hopeful Stakes at Monmouth Park, but started his sophomore season with wins in the Winters, Ocean, and Spirit of the Times Stakes in California before shipping east for the spring stakes. Ahead of the 1886 Derby, Haggin had nominated both Ban Fox and Ben Ali, the former considered the better of the two. 

By the time Haggin’s colts headed to Louisville, the stage was set for a California horse to break through, but a controversy in the betting ring would leave its mark on the famed race for years to come.

All About the Betting

In just a dozen editions, the Kentucky Derby had already reached a level of prestige that rivals its stature in the 21st century. The nearly $5,000 winner’s share gave owners another incentive to send their horses to Louisville for the big stakes, but James Ben Ali Haggin was not looking at just that: he was looking to score a few bets too.

Prior to the Derby, C. M. White purchased the betting rights for the day’s racing from the Louisville Jockey Club, intending to charge each bookmaker a $125 fee to operate. The bookmakers rebelled and White lowered the fee to $100, but found himself with no takers. Instead, Derby Day dawned with several auction pools and six pari-mutuel machines, but no bookmakers. 

Newspapers estimated a crowd of between 15,000 and 30,000 enjoying Churchill Downs’ opening card on a sunny May day. A breeze pushed the occasional cloud through the blue sky as spectators filled the grandstand and the infield, ready to witness another edition of the great race. The Derby was the third on the day’s card, following the Ladies Stakes for two-year-old fillies and a 10-furlong dash won by the accomplished race mare Modesty. The first tap of the bell after the second race cleared the racing surface and the second signaled the opening of the gates as the horses moved from the paddock to the track. A writer from the Chicago Tribune reported that Ben Ali “looked inquiringly at the cheering crowd as he passed the stand.” 

With Patsy Duffy in the saddle, Ben Ali stood in the fourth post, with Masterpiece to his left and Free Knight to his right. The field of 10 got off to a good start, Masterpiece showing first in the 12-furlong test. Ben Ali ran midpack early, Duffy biding his time throughout the long test. Jim Gray moved to the lead on the backstretch, with Masterpiece, Harrodsburg, and Free Knight bunched up behind him. Around the final turn, Free Knight had moved to the head of the pack, with both Ben Ali and Blue Wing starting their runs as they turned into the stretch. Blue Wing went wide coming out of that turn, losing ground and leaving the rail open for Ben Ali. The Haggin colt was a length ahead of Blue Wing, but his advantage slowly waned as the challenger made up ground in the straightaway. The drive was not enough to catch Ben Ali who crossed the finish line a half-length in front. 

Ben Ali returned to the grandstand a tired horse, but with a Derby record time of 2:36 1/2 for his efforts. His victory also made him the first California-based horse to win the famed race. Despite the satisfaction of winning this great stakes, Haggin left Churchill Downs an unhappy man thanks to the absence of options and one man’s temper.

A Consequential Remark

Before Ben Ali’s trip to the Derby starting line, Haggin had gotten wind of the bookmaker situation and was among the high rollers who took exception to this, stridently petitioning the track to allow bookmakers to participate. With no bookmakers on hand, the California horseman instead bought up every auction pool on Ben Ali, ultimately winning more than $100,000, but not enough to mollify Haggin’s fury about the situation. 

After the race, the victorious owner confronted Meriwether Lewis Clark, president of the Louisville Jockey Club and head of Churchill Downs, about the absence of bookmakers. Clark let his temper get the best of him and told the prominent owner, “that he could take his horses to ------,” in response to Haggin’s complaints. Incensed, Haggin swore off racing at Churchill Downs, ordering trainer Jim Murphy to move his Eastern stable to New York instead, and then spread word of his treatment to other owners. This led to a nearly 30-year embargo by some Eastern owners of the Derby and the Kentucky track, which affected the quality of horses the race could attract, a down era that needed a longshot and a Whitney to undo. 

After his Derby victory, Ben Ali won two more stakes, but the son of Virgil developed respiratory bleeding and a bad attitude that compromised his performance for the rest of his career. He retired to stud Haggin’s Rancho Del Paso, where he remained for the rest of his life, never siring another horse of his quality. Instead, Ben Ali’s 1886 Kentucky Derby is best remembered for one man’s ill-advised fit of temper and the Eastern embargo that it inspired.