The sport of horse racing was deeply ingrained in American culture long before the American Revolution. The first race course was established in 1665 on Long Island in Hempstead Plains and was called Newmarket after the original site in England.
Immigrants from Great Britain brought their appreciation for horse racing with them to America. Colonial aristocrats and Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were fans of racing, as was John Marshall, who served longer as Chief Justice on the Supreme Court than any person. George Washington was an expert horseman himself and one of his leisure activities was fox hunting. He attended races in Annapolis, Maryland, and kept a written record of his gambling wins and losses.
Daniel Boone, who served under Lt. Colonel Washington in the French and Indian War and later became famous as a daring explorer, introduced a bill in Kentucky’s first legislative assembly to “improve the breed of horses.”
Patrick Henry, as governor of Virginia after the American Revolution, made a land grant to a man named Keen (eventually changed to Keene). The property passed down through several generations of the Keene family and part of it became the setting for Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky.
Many, perhaps most, of the jockeys in colonial America in the South were slaves, who were referred to only by a first name. Racing was the one aspect of life where slave jockeys competed on even terms with whites. After the Civil War, African-American jockeys were some of the top riders, men such as Isaac Murphy, Willie Simms, and Jimmy Winkfield, all of whom are inductees in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
In the first decade of the 19th century, future president Andrew Jackson was a prominent breeder in Tennessee, which at the time was a leading horse-racing state. The Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville was once a premier Thoroughbred breeding farm where Jackson boarded some of his stock. Its present-day motto is “history, horses, hospitality.”
In 1806, Jackson’s Truxton was to engage in a match race with Captain Joe Ervin’s formidable stallion Plowboy, but Ervin forfeited due to Plowboy coming up lame. Ervin was a Jackson political rival and there was bad blood between the two men. Circumstances surrounding the race and a slur by Charles Dickinson, Ervin’s son-in-law, against Jackson’s wife Rachel led to a pistol duel. Jackson was wounded but then killed Dickinson, who was purportedly the best pistol shot in Tennessee.
Another political enemy of Jackson, Henry Clay, was a Thoroughbred owner and breeder and a prolific bettor on horse racing (click here to read in detail about Clay’s involvement in breeding and racing). Clay, the Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, detested Jackson and ganged up against him to elect John Quincy Adams president in 1824 rather than Jackson. It became known as “the corrupt bargain” because Adams appointed Clay as his Secretary of State as a quid pro quo. Jackson referred to Clay as “the Judas of the West.”
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, four important breeding stallions were imported from Great Britain to the United States: Diomed, Medley, Messenger, and Shark. Diomed won the first Epsom Derby in 1780. The stallion was a disappointment as a sire in England and also had declining fertility. He was purchased and imported by two Virginians when he was 21-years-old, even though James Weatherby, the publisher of Britain’s initial General Stud Book in 1791, warned them that Diomed was not a good sire. After arriving in Virginia, Diomed’s fertility inexplicably improved and he sired exceptional racehorses, including Sir Archy, who was the best racehorse of his day and an exceptional sire.
Although the American Stud Book was not printed until 1868, breeders in colonial days began to keep their own records. Jockey clubs were organized to set rules and regulations. The Philadelphia Jockey Club, for instance, was founded in 1766.
In 1823, America’s first blockbuster spectator sports event was held on the Union Course in New York. Sixty-thousand people showed up for a match race between the North’s American Eclipse, by a son of Diomed, and the South’s Sir Henry, in an equine precursor of the bloody Civil War 38 years later that ripped the country apart. Senator Andrew Jackson attended the race, as did former vice president Aaron Burr (himself a notorious pistol dueler), and most of the members of Congress, which adjourned so that senators and representatives could travel to the race. American Eclipse won in three heats. Some Southerners reportedly bet and lost their plantations and, as a result, a few became so distraught that they committed suicide at the race course.
Horses have had a long and vital role in the United States in war and peace. The Narragansett pacer that Paul Revere rode in 1775 to warn the Massachusetts citizenry of British troops on the march became a legend in his time. The first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton in 1919, stood at stud for awhile at an Army cavalry remount station. Even today, U. S. Special Forces are using horse soldiers to combat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Horse racing in North America began in pre-revolutionary colonial days and has survived into the 21st century. Before the days of baseball, football, and basketball, horse racing was the sport of its day, attracting, as it does now, all classes of people.
Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business
Happy 4th of July to American readers! We owe our freedom to the men who had the courage to risk their lives by boldly affirming over their signatures…
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…