133 Days! 1886, the same year that the Statue of Liberty was unveiled, Ben Ali won the Kentucky Derby in what people described as the best field assembled in the 12 editions.
Ben Ali was the 3rd winner bred by Daniel Swigert, the founder of Elmendorf Farm in Lexington. His sire was Virgil, and Ben Ali was his third Kentucky Derby winner, the others being Vagrant and Hindoo. He was also the 4th and final winner foaled by daughters of the great sire, Lexington. He was owned by James Ben Ali Haggin of Sacramento, the owner of the large Rancho Del Paso, and named after his owner’s son.
At two, Ben Ali raced 5 times, but his only win came in the Hopeful. Ben Ali prepped for the Kentucky Derby by winning the Winters Stakes on April 10 at a mile and a half, the Ocean Stakes on April 12 at a mile and a half, and the Spirit of The Times Stakes on April 14 at a mile and three quarters. In the Kentucky Derby, all starters carried 118 pounds, making this the first time this weight had been assigned in the race. 7 of the 10 starters were KY bred, and Ben Ali was the favorite.
All horses had a good start, with Ben Ali staying bunched in the pack for most of the race. Entering the home stretch, he was second behind Free Knight with Blue Wing third. The trio battled it out, with Ben Ali and Blue Wing continuing to duel at the furlong pole. At that point, Blue Wing swerved to the outside, allowing jockey Paul Duffy to ride Ben Ali to victory on the rail, taking the race by half of a length. He even managed to set a new Derby record under the 118 pounds in going 2:36 1/2 for the mile and a half. The race was called by the New York Times, “the grandest Derby ever run”.
After the Kentucky Derby, Ben Ali was sent to St. Louis, where, on June 5th he won the St. Louis Fair Derby at a mile and a half, and won the June 10th Charles Green Stakes at a mile and a quarter. He would run until he was 5 and then spent his days with Haggin. Haggin would return to Lexington and buy the famous Elmendorf Farm in 1898, on his way to becoming America’s largest breeder.