Independence Day, 2017

In colonial America, the most popular sport was horse racing.  A number of early presidents of the United States were avid fans.

William Bushong, the Chief Historian of the White House Historical Association,  published an article in 2015 titled “Presidents and the Heyday of Horse Racing in the Federal City.”  He wrote:

“Presidential parties attending horse races was once a common occurrence in the colonial period and early republic.  Even before the seat of national government moved from Philadelphia to the new capital of Washington, D.C. in 1800, horse racing was a popular and well-established sport in the region.  George Washington, statesman, general, and president, embodied this generation of early Americans who found sport and pleasure in horse racing.  Washington regularly attended and wagered on horse races throughout his life at meetings in Annapolis, Alexandria, and Williamsburg.

Over the next two decades what became known officially as the National Race Course, located just outside the Washington city boundary two miles north of the White House near Meridian Hill, vied with the best tracks in the nation in terms of patronage and the quality of the racing. Thomas Jefferson and James and Dolley Madison rarely missed the meets.  The best horses in the country competed there into the 1840s, and the Jockey Club dinner and ball, a highlight of the social season, concluded the meeting.”

Bushong said that Presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, and James K. Polk were regular attendees at horse races, along with senators, congressmen, and other government office holders.  Ulysses S. Grant was the last president who was an avowed follower of horse racing, preferring Standardbreds.  After Grant, sitting presidents tended to distance themselves from the sport, at least publicly, because of its connections to gambling and its elitist reputation as the “sport of kings.”

Richard Nixon is the only president to have attended the Kentucky Derby while in office, in 1969.  However, future or former presidents have attended, such as Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.  According to Bushong, Franklin D. Roosevelt listened on the radio to the 1937 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Besides presidents, various cabinet officials have been not only fans of horse racing, but owners and breeders–for example, former Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, U. S. Senator and Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady, and Ambassador to Great Britain William Farish.

Horse racing was an integral part of the social and cultural milieu in early America.  While it is not so popular in contemporary times, it is firmly entrenched in American history as the first major sport.  To this day, large amounts of money and bragging rights hinge on the question of “Who has the fastest horse?”

Happy Independence Day USA!

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business


  1. This is an interesting article for us in Sweden, where horse racing and betting seems to be much more accepted than in the US!

    It seems that you could develop the list and mention the connection between later presidents such as D. J. Trump horse story with Mr President – the one that did not finish that well…

    Greetings from Stockholm and thank you for the article.