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…


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…


Between the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 and World War I, millions of lives were lost.   The Great War was settled by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the flu would run its course in 1920.   The Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution of 1919 outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol, beginning in 1920, and helped set the stage for the “roaring ‘20s.”

On the sports front, 1919 would long be remembered for historical “firsts” in Thoroughbred horse racing and Major League Baseball.

Ninety years ago, on Wednesday, June 11, 1919, Sir Barton won the initial American Triple Crown, although the term “Triple Crown” was not commonly applied to the winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes until 1930 during Gallant Fox’s victories in these races.   Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form columnist, helped to popularize the term “Triple Crown,” but he did not coin the phrase as is sometimes stated.   The English Triple Crown began in 1853 and was referred to as such.   Hatton’s role was to get the descriptor Triple Crown into common usage in the United States.   Canada, Japan, and several other nations also have their versions of the Triple Crown. 

In 1919, the Kentucky Derby was run at its present-day distance of 1 ¼ miles.   By contrast, the Preakness Stakes was 1 1/8 miles and the Belmont Stakes was 1 3/8 miles, compared to 1 3/16 miles and 1 ½ miles, respectively, today.   In addition, the races at Belmont Park were run clockwise, whereas at Churchill Downs and Pimlico they were run counterclockwise.

On May 10, the chestnut colt Sir Barton under jockey John Loftus led wire to wire to win the Kentucky Derby to defeat his stablemate Billy Kelly and seven other entries.   Sir Barton was coupled in the betting with the highly regarded gelding Billy Kelly, ridden by Earle Sande, who had selected his mount over Sir Barton.   Billy Kelly had won nine out of ten races as a 2-year-old, including his only meeting with Sir Barton.   The plan in the Derby was for Sir Barton to be a rabbit.   The book Boots and Saddles (written in 1956 by the son of J. K. L. Ross, who owned Sir Barton and Billy Kelly) stated: “Strategy for the Derby had been carefully worked out…Sir Barton, the speed horse, was to take the lead at once and set as swift a pace as possible, thereby killing off any front runners such as Eternal or Uncle Fire–the only two in the field …whom we considered had any chance of defeating Billy Kelly.   When Sir Barton had run himself and other challengers into the ground, Billy Kelly was to come on and win.   However, in the unlikely event that Sir Barton did not tire, Loftus was instructed to do his best to win.”

Sir Barton, in fact, did not tire and he easily beat Billy Kelly by five lengths on a heavy track.   He carried 112 pounds, which was the second lightest impost and 10 pounds less than the two highest weighted colts, Under Fire and Eternal.   Billy Kelly carried 119 pounds.  The Derby triumph was Sir Barton’s first win.

Eight days later in Baltimore, the Preakness Stakes was the next stop for Sir Barton but Billy Kelly was not entered.   Eleven colts and one filly contested the race.   Sir Barton and two other colts were assigned 126 pounds and conceded as much as 17 pounds.   Sir Barton was coupled in the betting with his stablemate Milkmaid, the sole filly in the race with an impost of 109 pounds.

Sir Barton’s trainer, H. Guy Bedwell, instructed Loftus to “Get to the front as soon as possible and stay there.”   Sir Barton led at every pole and was ahead of Eternal by four lengths at the wire.   Over the course of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Sir Barton had never been behind.

On Saturday, May 24, Sir Barton tuned up for the Belmont Stakes with a win in the 1-mile Withers Stakes at Belmont Park over five others.  This time, Sir Barton trailed Eternal until the stretch where he passed him and won by 2 ½ lengths.

June 11 at Belmont Park presented Sir Barton with the opportunity to sweep what would later be called the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes.  Only two colts were entered to take him on and all carried 126 pounds.   The race was considered for all intents and purposes a match race between Sir Barton and Sweep On.   Sir Barton laid in second place until the stretch and then he seized the lead and drew off over Sweep On by five lengths.  

Sir Barton won 13 races in 31 starts and bested such greats as Exterminator.   On October 18, 1920, at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Canada, Sir Barton and Man o’ War hooked up in a match race with Sir Barton carrying 126 pounds and 3-year-old Man o’ War 120 pounds.   Man o’ War bolted to the lead from the start and won the 1 ¼ mile race by seven easy lengths.   The chart of the race simply stated that Man o’ War was “never extended” in the final race of his career.

Sir Barton was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and is number 49 on Blood-Horse magazine’s list of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.    He had a mediocre record at stud and lived to be 21 years old.  H. Guy Bedwell is also in the Hall of Fame.

A sidenote:   On a winter day in 1919, J. K. L. Ross was approached at New York City’s Racquet and Tennis Club by a man he had never met.   The stranger offered to bet Ross that Eternal would finish ahead of Ross’ Billy Kelly in the Kentucky Derby.   Ross thought the man might want to put up a friendly wager of perhaps $100.   To the contrary, he wanted to wager $50,000 (equivalent to about $623,000 today).   Ross agreed and the wagers were held in escrow by a third party.   The high roller who ultimately lost his bet with Ross was Arnold Rothstein, who became notorious for being the alleged, but never convicted, mastermind behind fixing the 1919 World Series in what lives on in infamy as the “Black Sox” scandal. 

Turning to the Belmont Stakes, 2009:  If Calvin Borel wins on Mine That Bird, he would be the first jockey to sweep the Triple Crown races, in the same year, with two different mounts.   However, in 1995, D. Wayne Lukas trained the winner of all three Triple Crown races–Thunder Gulch took the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and Timber Country won the Preakness.  Remarkably, Lukas won six Triple Crown races in a row from 1994-1996.  Beginning with the 1994 Preakness, Lukas-trained colts won seven of the next eight Triple Crown races.

How does Lukas’ amazing win streak compare with Woody Stephens training the winners of five straight Belmont Stakes in the 1980s?  This is the kind of debate that can never be resolved but one that makes horse racing so intriguing.

If Mine That Bird wins the Belmont, the familiar racetrack phrase “what if” will be heard here, there, and everywhere.  What if Rachel Alexandra’s owners had kept her running against the fillies?   Mine That Bird would likely be the first Triple Crown champion since 1978, but one can’t tell for sure how a race would turn out if the winning entry were not in the equation to set the race up a certain way.

My wagers in the Belmont will be an exacta box and a trifecta box comprised of Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, and Mine That Bird.  A Superfecta box will contain Charitable Man, Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, and Mine That Bird. 

Aidan O’Brien is training six of the thirteen entries in today’s Epsom Derby.  The odds dropped on Rip Van Winkle when O’Brien’s main jockey, Johnny Murtaugh, got the mount.   The 2000 Guineas winner Sea of Stars has a lot of support.  One of these two colts should be the favorite and they are likely to be the two top choices of bettors.   

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business