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Aristides owner, Hal Price McGrath – a success in racing, with a checkered past

There is a record somewhere of Hal Price McGrath joining a church and singing in the choir. But the man who bred and owned Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby, was no choir boy.

That’s according to Peter Chew, a writer for the National Observer and author of The Kentucky Derby; The First 100 Years. Chew talked to folks talked to folks who had known folks who knew McGrath.

“McGrath had been a brawler, a high roller, and a thoroughly nasty piece of work when as a young man he left Kentucky to seek his fortune as a professional gambler,” Chew reports in The Kentucky Derby; The First 100 Years. “But this was conveniently overlooked when he came home to Lexington and started buying costly blood horses.”

At a farm he named McGrathiana, McGrath threw the largest parties in the Bluegrass horse farm country, complete barbecue and burgoo. In a side room of the McGrath mansion, a black servant named Old Pete served cold drinks on hot days, including the finest local bourbons, and a “restless ocean of champagne,” as one attendee noted.

But while polite society gave solicitous public nods to McGrath, they very well knew his back story. McGrath was born in the tiny Kentucky hamlet of Keene, near Lexington, and grew up poor in nearby Versailles. By his teenage years he was floating with crooked dice artists and extracting protection fees from touring gamblers. But he was a hale and hearty young pal for the sporting crowd, who particularly valued his opinion about horses. McGrath always knew about horses.

By his 20s, McGrath was riding the riverboats as a gambler. He took off in the California Gold Rush of 1849, where he worked the mining camps as a gambler and sharpie. Next, he opened a gambling house in New Orleans, and fancied the Southern cause in the Civil War, though not enough to forget there was money to made in war profiteering. Angles. Even widows of Confederate soldiers were not off limits for McGrath swindles. McGrath moved on to New York and made a fortune running a gambling house, then cashed in and moved back home.

All the while, McGrath had a plan. He poured his gambling profits into racing and breeding stock, and by the time he was 50 was ready to return, in style, to the Bluegrass.