Ben Brush (1893-1918) was a thoroughbred racehorse sired by Bramble, the champion handicap horse of 1879 who ran marathon distances when marathons were the way of the racing game. Walter Vosburgh, the legendary turf authority, said Bramble was "a breed as tough as pine nuts." The dam of Ben Brush was Roseville (by Reform), a full sister to the 1892 Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes winner Azra. On May 6, 1896, Bramble and Roseville's son Ben Brush was the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby at its modern distance of 1 1/4 miles. (Since its inception in 1875, the Derby had been staged over 1 1/2 miles, the length of the original Derby at Epsom Downs in England.) It was the 22nd running of the Derby and the first to drape a blanket of white and pink roses over the shoulders of the victor.
Ben Brush raced 40 times, won 25 of those races, placed in five, and showed in 5, earning a career total of $65,208. Yet Joe Palmer said of him in his "Names in Pedigrees," that he was "not a particularly impressive-looking animal." The colt was a "rather small horse, a bit longer for his height than Bramble, almost equally coarse about the head."
Under trainer Ed Brown, Ben Brush began racing in Louisville. In his first race at two, he was an easy winner by five lengths. In his second start, he came home by three lengths. His third effort saw him easily galloping home ahead of the good horse Nimrod. Ben then went on to Ohio, winning the Emerald Stakes and the Diamond Stakes.
After five wins in five starts he went to New York where he ran third at Sheepshead Bay, but then easily won an overnight handicap giving away 19 pounds to his nearest rival. He then lost to the high class Requital in the Flatbush Stakes. He ran out of the money for the first time in the Great Eastern Handicap, but won the Holly Handicap. The Eastern elites mocked him as an "overrated little goat." At this point he was sold to the famous gambler Mike Dwyer who had, with his brother, raced his sire Bramble as well as the champions Hindoo, Hanover, Miss Woodford, and Luke Blackburn. Ben Brush would be the last champion to carry Mike's colors. The reported sum was $18,000. (A race for three-year-olds, the Dwyer Stakes, held at Belmont Park since 1918, was named in their honor.)
Now ridden by the great Hall of Famer Willie Simms, an African-American considered one of the greatest riders of his day, and trained by Hardy Campbell, Ben Brush went on to win six more races as a two year old. All in all, as a virtual baby Ben earned $21,398 with 13 wins in 16 starts. In 1895, he was Champion 2-year-old. At this point the deeply impressed Walter Vosburgh said he "could have beaten any three-year-old of that season." Not bad for a "goat." Easterners were suitably rebuffed. (Wille Simms also rode in England, where he was the first to introduce the short-stirrup style. After his stint in Europe, he was retained by Dwyer as his stable rider, but such was Simms's stature that he had the freedom to accept mounts from other stables as well. The nation's leading rider of 1893-94, he remains the only African-American jockey to have won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.)
Ben's first race in his 1896 season was the Kentucky Derby. Without benefit of a prep race and having never run farther than seven furlongs in his career, he stumbled badly coming away from the barrier, nearly unseating Simms. By the time they recovered the race seemed over for Ben Brush and Willie Simms. But Ben made a tremendous move on the backstretch, caught First Mate on the turn for home, and then battled fiercely with Ben Elder down the stretch before winning by a nose. The correspondent for the "Spirit of the Times" wrote, "Simms made one last and desperate rally with Ben Brush, displaying as vigorous a piece of riding as was ever seen, and gradually but surely gaining on the other Ben, he finally beat him out by a nose in a terrific and hair-raising finish, which elicited a wild and spontaneous shout from the grandstand." When Simms saw how deeply his spurs had cut his game mount, and that his sides were covered in blood, he cried with shame. (Col. Clark, the guiding force behind the development of Churchill and then serving as the track's presiding judge, credited Simms with the victory. "It was a great race—one of the greatest I ever saw," Clark said. "There was no doubt in the world about the finish. Simms simply lifted Brush a foot or so in front at the last jump.")
Ben Brush finished his season with four wins and almost $27,000 in earnings.
At four Ben Brush was simply brilliant. In the view of many, it was Ben Brush's 1897 campaign that as Palmer put it, "perhaps put the stamp of greatness on him more unmistakably than did his performances at two and three." During this last racing season, Ben Brush met Ornament, the Champion Three Year Old Colt and 1897's Horse of the Year, giving Ornament nine pounds and still winning by three lengths. He beat the 1895 Preakness and Belmont winner Belmar; 1896 Belmont hero Hastings, later to gain immortality as the grandsire of Man o' War; 1897 champion three-year-old Ornament, the winner of 20 of 33 lifetime starts himself; and the elder statesman of the handicap set, the high class Clifford, who twice managed to defeat the great Henry of Navarre and Domino in 1894-95.
Ben Brush was a tremendous success at stud, so much so that he became one of the fundamental building blocks of the American Thoroughbred. Although his direct male line no longer exists, he continues to influence the breed. Ben Brush appears in the pedigrees of 48 of the last 50 Derby winners, including every Derby winner from 1972 onward. The leading sire of 1909, Ben Brush produced Delhi, the 1904 Belmont Stakes winner and Champion Three Year Old Colt; Pebbles, the Juvenile Champion of 1914; Broomstick, who won the 1904 Travers Stakes, set a new American record for a mile and a quarter in the Brighton Handicap, and then going on himself to lead the Sires's List from 1913 until 1915 (siring Regret, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby as well as ranking 71 in the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine; and Sweep, twice leading sire, winner of the 1910 Belmont Stakes, and a champion at two and three. Ben's most influential daughter was Belgravia, who produced the renowned sire Black Toney, sire of Black Gold.
Ben Brush died in Versailles, Kentucky on June 8th, 1918 at the age of 25. His headstone erroneously reads 1917.
Ben Brush was one of the first handful of horses inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955.