The American Civil War began 150 years ago on April 12, 1861, and the observances of the sesquicentennial have begun. The Commonwealth of Virginia was in the vortex of this confrontation that literally tore the United States apart for four years. Virginia Civil War soldiers were renowned for their horsemanship, following the likes of the legendary JEB Stuart and John Mosby into battles that are still discussed and debated today. Over a hundred and thirty years prior to the Civil War, Virginia laid claim to being the cradle of the Thoroughbred racehorse breed in the United States.

In 1730, long before the present-day Thoroughbred horse capital Kentucky separated from Virginia in 1792 to become the fifteenth state, the first Thoroughbred stallion in America, Bulle Rock, was imported to Virginia. Bulle Rock, a 21-year-old by the foundation sire Darley Arabian, had been a consequential racehorse in England. Although Bulle Rock had not been a sought-after stallion in England, he was popular in his new Virginia home.

In 1798, John Hoomes of Bowling Green, Virginia, purchased the sensational English racehorse Diomed, who won the inaugural Epsom Derby in 1780. Diomed’s English owner, Sir Charles Bunbury, sold him for 50 guineas (a guinea equaled a pound plus a shilling) because the horse had been a failure as a breeding stallion and not very virile to boot. A breeding expert in England wrote to a fellow breeder in Virginia: “…avoid putting any mares to him, for he had fine mares to him here, and never produced anything good.” However, Diomed flourished in Virginia and sired numerous top-flight racehorses, including the great Sir Archy, who was the great grandsire of the famous Civil-War era Kentucky racehorse and stallion Lexington. Diomed was still fertile at age 29 and lived to be 31.

Native Virginians and future presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe were avid fans of horse racing, as was Old-Dominion born future chief justice John Marshall. Washington was an expert horseman and at times could be seen roaming the Virginia countryside engaged in fox hunting.

Virginia was deeply embroiled in the Civil War, beginning with the first major land battle that took place in July of 1861 at Bull Run and ending with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. The Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, fought some of the most famous battles of the War on the hallowed ground of places like Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.

A Confederate Captain Richard Hancock served under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. After the war, Hancock married Thomasia Harris, whose family owned a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia, called Ellerslie. The former Confederate officer eventually began to breed and raise Thoroughbred racehorses at Ellerslie. One of his and Thomasia’s four sons, Arthur B., founded Claiborne Farm in 1910 in Paris, Kentucky.

The Middleburg-Upperville area of Northern Virginia is and has been home to some of the most prominent racehorse breeding establishments, among others, Isabel Dodge Sloane’s Brookmeade Stable, Elizabeth Whitney Tippett’s Llangollen Estate, Jack Kent Cooke’s Kent Farms, Paul Mellon’s Rokeby, Bertram and Diana Firestone’s Newstead Farm, Joseph Allbritton’s Lazy Lane Farm, and Edward Evans’ Spring Hill Farm. These owners are associated with such racehorses as Sword Dancer, Mill Reef, Arts and Letters, Sea Hero, and Hansel.

The recently deceased business tycoon John Kluge of Charlottesville was also a racehorse owner of note.

Secretariat, the most famous racehorse of modern times, was a Virginia-bred. He was foaled at Christopher Chenery’s Meadow Stud in Caroline County, not far from Richmond. Bowling Green, where John Hoomes brought Bulle Rock, is located in Caroline County, making the area the location for two major events in the history of the Thoroughbred breed in America.

Virginia’s only racetrack, Colonial Downs, is in New Kent, about 30 miles from Richmond. Its signature event is the Virginia Derby on the turf.

While Virginia is no longer one of the leading states for breeding and racing Thoroughbred racehorses, it is where the sport emanated in Colonial times before there was a United States. The Old Dominion was instrumental in both the U. S. Civil War and American Thoroughbred breeding.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. Thomasia Hancock Cravens says

    Thomasia Harris Hancock is seldom mentioned when Captain Richard Hancock is being discussed. He fell in love with her when she was nursing his wounds during the Civil War and vowed to return and marry her if he survived his military service. Thanks for mentioning her.

  2. Virginia Garth Green says

    You say one of Richard J. Hancock’s four sons. You don’t mention the three daughters he also had. Emma Lewis Hancock, Elizabeth Harris Hancock and Jane Hancock Garth. We are the grandchildren of Jane Hancock Garth who married J. Woods Garth of Albemarle County.