Tall Tales of the Track, Kentucky Derby Edition: A Man of Firsts

February 9th, 2024

The 150 years of the Kentucky Derby features thousands of stories of both the horses and the people that have been a part of this American tradition. Some names, like Bradley, Calumet, and Whitney, are familiar to fans, but others, especially those part of its earliest years, are less recognizable but equally as important to its long history. One in particular was behind a list of Derby firsts, his horses notable not only for their time on the racetrack but also for their role in the race’s first decade.


 The second race on the Louisville Jockey Club’s opening day was a new 12-furlong stakes for three-year-olds, a race Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., envisioned as he journeyed around Europe’s classic racecourses. At 2:30 p.m. on that sunny Kentucky day came the first race, a 10-furlong test with a $300 purse. Six horses met the starter, including a four-year-old filly named Bonaventure.

Before the crowd of 15,000 present on May 17, 1875, Bonaventure, with Billy Lakeland in the saddle, rode the rail throughout the nameless race, taking over the lead at the half-mile mark and holding off all challengers to the wire. Afterward, Lakeland rode her to the judges’ stand, pulled off his saddle, and headed for the jockeys’ room to prepare for his next race. Bonaventure was led back to her stall, her status as the first horse to win a race at the track that would become Churchill Downs sealing her place in the sport’s history.


Kimball came to Louisville with a stellar record at age two and faced the starter in the 1880 Kentucky Derby with four others. The weather prior to the race had been dry, leaving the track dusty, the crowd unable to see past Fonso in the lead. 

For the first mile, Fonso ran easily as none of the short field wanted to expend too much energy early. At the mile mark, Billy Lakeland gave Kimball the cue and the colt took off, running head-to-head with Fonso around the far turn. Into the stretch, Kimball gave way to Fonso, an easy winner by a length. After the race, Lakeland approached the judges to claim a foul, asserting that Fonso had bumped Kimball at the head of the stretch. The claim of foul was denied, Fonso retained his win, and Lakeland and Kimball went down in history as the first to lodge a foul claim in the Kentucky Derby.


With Bonaventure’s race run, Lakeland next appeared for the second race, the Kentucky Derby. In the paddock, he mounted Ascension, one of two fillies in the 15-horse field, which included future Hall of Famer Ten Broeck. The field approached the starting line in unison, starter William Johnson watching intently. Satisfied with what he saw, Johnson dropped his flag and the barrier, and they were away. 

The rest is history. Aristides won by two lengths, Ascension rolling home 10th in the first Kentucky Derby. Descriptions of the race focus on the winner so her trip is unknown, but Ascension made her mark as more than just one of the first fillies to start in this historic race. She later foaled a colt named Ascender, who finished third in the 1883 Kentucky Derby, making Ascension the first Derby starter to produce another horse to run in the same race. 


In 1884, Buchanan arrived at the Derby a maiden but not for lack of trying. His six prior starts were all in-the-money placements in stakes, with his Belle Meade S. causing quite a stir. In that race, the three-year-old bolted and interfered with another horse; which prompted the judges at the Nashville racetrack to disqualify him from second to third. Isaac Murphy was slated to ride Buchanan in the Kentucky Derby but refused to take the mount, citing the colt’s bad behavior. If he did not take the mount, though, Murphy would not be able to ride in the race at all, so he relented.

Fitted with blinkers, Buchanan joined eight others with Murphy in the saddle. They ran off the pace for the first mile and then Murphy deftly moved the colt through the field on the far turn and took over the lead in the stretch, winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Buchanan would be the first of three maidens to win the Derby, with Sir Barton and Brokers Tip also on that short list. 

A Man of Firsts

Ascension, Kimball, and Buchanan all had one thing in common aside from their places in Derby history: they were all owned by the same man. William Cottrell emigrated from England in 1841 and settled in Mobile, Alabama where he shared a butcher business with his brother-in-law William Cole. As his business grew, Cottrell was able to indulge his interest in horses. His decades as a breeder and owner established him as one of the most respected men in racing during the latter half of the 19th century, so much so that the men behind Saratoga Race Track wanted to name a race for him. Cottrell declined so instead the race was named for his adopted home, becoming the Alabama Stakes.