Sunday, May 22, 2016

George Washington & his fellow countrymen's obsession - Horse Racing in Early America


Horse racing in the British American colonies dates back to the establishment of the Newmarket course on the Salisbury Plains in Hempstead Plains of Long Island in 1665. Only 1 year after the English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch, the first English governor of New York Richard Nicolls laid out the formal race course. The course was constructed 2 miles long on Salisbury Plain on Long Island. In contrast to the dense virgin forest which covered most of the eastern Atlantic seaboard, Salisbury Plain offered a tract of grass 4 miles wide & 16 miles long.


18C Woodcut

New York's new Governor Nicolls explained that the purpose of the race course was “not so much for the divertissement of youth as for encouraging the bettering of the breed of horses which through great neglect has been impaired.” To induce competition in the importing & careful breeding of horses, Nicolls offered trophies at the spring & fall meetings.  To foster quality in American horses, as early as 1668, the court of Massachusetts decreed that only horses “of comely proportions and 14 hands in stature” could graze on town commons. A law was enacted by William Penn in Pennsylvania in 1687, which set a minimum height of 13 hands for free ranging horses. Any horse more than 18 months old & less than 13 hands had to be gelded. In 1715, Maryland enacted a law, that any old stray horses could be shot on sight.

Many towns in early America had streets called “Race Street." Such streets gained their names from the habit of running horse races on them. In 1674, the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts evidently grew tired of the races in their village & created an ordinance forbidding racing. About a century later, Connecticut enacted a law which demanded the forfeit of a man’s horse, in addition to a fine of 40 shillings, if he was caught racing in the streets.



In Virginia, races were often held at courthouses, fairs, churches, or taverns attracting large gatherings of people of all sorts. But only gentlemen could enter horses in races. In York County in 1674, a tailor wagered 2,000 pounds of tobacco, that his mare could beat his neighbor’s horse. The county court fined him 100 pounds of tobacco, declaring that “it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race being a Sport only for Gentlemen.” 

William Penn (1644-1718) reportedly raced his horses in Philadelphia, down what would fittingly later be named Race Street. From 1682 to 1684, Penn, a Quaker, was in the Province of Pennsylvania, & he returned once more in 1699.  Penn declared that, "Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."  Sports & athletic contests had long been associated with gambling, drinking, & other earthly sins. Horse racing was one sport that the conservative early legislature did not specifically ban. 

Horse racing remained popular in Philadelphia for many years, and by 1760 races around the Center Square (Penn Square) had become a fixture with an admission fee of 7s. 6d. to a convenient spectators’ gallery. Four times around the square (estimated at 2 miles, though actually somewhat less) became the standard distance for the races. (J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia (Phila., 1884), iii, 1842–3.)

George Washington attended local races staged by the Philadelphia Jockey Club. In Philadelphia, Hunting Park opened as a race track in 1808, & doubled as a public pleasure garden. But in 1820, the Pennsylvania legislature banned horse racing throughout the state.

The June 1704, Maryland court records give an account of a suit by Joseph Addison against Capt. Edward Hunt. Addison charged that Hunt at Lyons Creek in Anne Arundel County "…stood justly indebted" for an itemized list of expenses that included "money lent you at the race" in the amount of 18 shillings. Obviously, there were horse races being held at Lyons Creek (near Herring Bay) as early as 1702.


The English Tradition - Watching racehorses at exercise at Newmarket by John Wotton (1682-1764) c 1753 Yale

While horse racing generally followed English rules in the northern Britis American colonies, another form of racing began to flourish in the southern regions.  The racetracks in these wooded regions were sometimes little more than 2 parallel race paths, 1/4 mile in length, cut through the forest. There was little space at either the beginning or the end of the track. The races were run on a straight course marked at the end by upright stakes, where the judges stood. Short sprints-about a quarter of a mile-were the most common distances for races in the 17C, & this continued in the backcountry in the next century. The quarter-mile track, therefore, gave both the race & the smaller horses their names.  It was not unusual for the competitors & spectators to travel far to these early quarter-race tracks in the woods & to place considerable wagers on their town’s horse. Typical side wagers included money, tobacco, slaves, & property.



 In 1724, Hugh Jones observed that Virginians “are such lovers of Riding, that almost every ordinary Person keeps a horse; and I have known some spend the Morning ranging several Miles in the Woods to find and catch their Horses only to ride two or three Miles to Church, to the Court-House, or to a Horse-Race.”  In December 1729, William Woodford wrote that when he took his young nephew to Williamsburg for the King’s Birthday celebration, the boy declined to go to the governor’s house or to the balls. Instead he “mist no Opportunity of seeing the Races which he took most delight in.”

The British American colonial's love affair with horses did not escape the capitalistic minds of commercial garden proprietors.  To increase traffic at his public pleasure garden, New Yorker Francis Child held a horse race there in 1736. Child operated Catiemuts Garden which was the favorite outdoor tavern of the city's sporting set. The prize, a silver plate valued at twenty pounds, could be won by any "Horse, Mare, or Gelding carrying Ten Stone, Saddle and Bridle included, winning the best of three Heats, Two Miles each Heat."



By 1735, horse races were occuring regularly at the Bowling Green House in South Carolina where The S C Gazette advertised a variety of prizes for the winners of these races from saddles & bridles to horses to silver swords to cash. For one 1735 race, a requirement to enter was "for white Men to ride." 

Many of the jockeys in colonial America in the South were slaves, who were referred to only by a first name. Virginia's George Mason (1725-1792) had a slave named Nace who was an expert horseman. He was paid by a neighbor of Mason’s to break a horse to ride. John Harrower mentions several slave jockeys at the horse races.  


By 1737, The Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg reported that, "there is to be Horse Racing every Saturday till October, at the Race Ground near this City."  The Virginia Gazette on December 9, 1737, reported that, "On St. Andrew's Day...a great Number of Gentlemen, ladies, and others; Booths were set up, and an extraordinary good Dinner provided for them, with Variety and Plenty of Liquors. The Horse and Foot Races whereon; and all or most of the Prizes contemned for, and won. The fine Saddle and Housing were won by a Bay Horse belonging to one Tynes, of Carolina County...Flag was display'd, Drums were beating, Trumpets founding, and other Musick playing, for the Entertainment of the Company, and the whole was manag'd with... good Order."



Continuing the tradition, but cleverly charging both entrants & spectators for the privilege, New Yorker Adam Vandenberg leased land of the Church Farm in 1742, next to his property, laying out a race course & advertising the familiar "run for a Piece of Plate by any Horse, Mare, or Gelding carrying Ten Stone, Saddle and Bridle included, of three Heats, Two Miles each." Vandenberg charged each race entrant half a Pistole. Observers on horseback or in chaises could expect to pay six pence apiece to watch the events. Vandenberg hoped that those at the track would wander over to his Mead House and Garden (or Drover's Tavern) after the race.  Vandenberg's garden & tavern was near the site of the later Astor House.

In wealthy Annapolis, Maryland, the highlight of the social season was a week of parties & plays organized around a racing meeting. In 1743, a silversmith was commissioned to make a trophy for the Annapolis Subscription Plate, a premier event of the city’s September races. 


Plan of Town of Newbern, North Carolina, 1769, by Claude Joseph Sauthier (1736-1802) shows the race course just outside the town.

In North Carolina, Halifax, Warren & neighboring counties in east Carolina were the horse raising sections of the state. There were racetracks at Halifax, Scotland Neck, Tarboro, by 1768 at Hillsbough, & earlier, in the late 1700’s, at Tuckers Paths.


18C Woodcut

Horseracing was exceedingly popular by the mid-18th century. On Friday, June 1, 1750, a New York newspaper reported a great race at Hempstead Plains, for a considerable wager, which attracted such attention that on Thursday, the day before the race, upward of 70 chairs & chaises were carried over the Long Island Ferry, plus a far greater number of horses.  The number of horses on the plains at the race was said to far exceed a thousand.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, & James Monroe were fans of racing. 

George Washington attended the Maryland Jockey Club race meeting frequently in 1762 going to the track for almost every carded event. He also attended race meetings in 1766, 1767, 1771, 1772, and 1773 in Annapolis, Maryland, & kept a written record of his gambling wins & losses. 

George Washington often wrote of wagering on horse races in his journals.  He also made notes of attending races in his diary. Washington wrote in his diary on 5 August 1768, "Went by Muddy hole—the Mill—& Doeg Run Plantations to a Race at Cameron.  Returnd in the Evening." Cameron was the name of the neighborhood which began at the junction of several major roads leading into Alexandria, between 1 & 2 miles west of town, extending several miles west along Cameron Run, the stream which fed into Hunting Creek. In Washington’s lifetime Cameron lent its name to a proposed town, several family homes, a mill, & an ordinary. Cameron was probably the junction point itself, a convenient location for horse-racing fans who lived in Alexandria or in the surrounding countryside. On September 29, 1768, Washington recorded, "Went to a Purse Race at Accatinck & returnd with Messrs. Robt. and George Alexander." Washington spent 12s. 6d. at the race & also paid Robert Sanford 12s. “for Pacing my Horse” (Ledger A, 277).

Washington also frequented George Weedon's (c.1734–1793) “large and commodious” tavern on the main street of Fredericksburg (now Caroline Street) “nearly opposite” the town hall & public market. Frequented “by the first gentlemen” of Virginia & “neighboring colonies,” it contained “a well accustomed billiard room” & was the place where local horse races were arranged (VA Gazette, 12 Sept. 1766 & 15 Sept. 1775; Fredericksburg VA Herald, 23 Oct. 1788). 

In the late 1760s, horse racing was still active in Williamsburg, where George Washington found himself. On May 3, 1769, while Washington was at the Raleigh Tavern there, he bought subscriptions to 3 Williamsburg purse races (Ledger A, 290). “There are races at Williamsburgh twice a year,” a visitor to the town about this time observed, “that is, every spring and fall, or autumn. Adjoining to the town is a very excellent course, for either 2, 3, or 4 mile heats. Their purses are generally raised by subscription, & are gained by the horse that wins 2 4-mile heats out of 3; they amount to 100 pounds each for the 1st day’s running, and 50 each day after; the races commonly continuing for a week.”

In the fall of the same year, the horse races in Philadelphia, scheduled by its famous Jockey Club for 25 & 26 September, had been postponed until Thursday & Friday, the 28th & 29th, in order to avoid conflict with the annual meeting of the Society of Friends (The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser, 31 August–5 October 1769).

On September 21, 1771, Washington wrote, "Set out with Mr. Wormeley for the Annapolis Races. Dind at Mr. Willm. Digges’s & lodgd at Mr. Ignatis Digges’s." The fall racing at Annapolis was an annual highlight of both the sporting & social seasons for the Chesapeake gentry, being an occasion not only for indulging in “the pleasures of the turf” but for going to dinners, balls, & plays in the city (Eddis, xxv—xxvi, 54–55). Sponsored by the prestigious Annapolis Jockey Club, the races attracted the finest thoroughbreds in the region to run for purses of up to 100 guineas. This year the jockey club had announced four days of racing to begin at 11:00 A.M. each day from 24 to 27 Sept. & 3 balls to be held on the nights of 24, 25, and 27 Sept. (Maryland Gazette, 12 Sept. 1771).

Washington noted in his diary on September 22. "Dind at Mr. Sam Gallaway’s & lodged with Mr. Boucher in Annapolis." Galloway belonged to the Annapolis Jockey Club, & on 24 Sept. he would race his horse Selim, for which he had paid £1,000 as a yearling in 1760 (Maryland Gazette, 26 Sept. 1771). Jonathan Boucher & Jacky Custis were living in the St. Anne’s Parish parsonage on Hanover Street. Jacky had written to Washington on 18 August, extending an invitation on behalf of Boucher to stay at his house, as it would be “almost impossible to get a Room at any of the ordinaries, the Rooms being preengaged to their [regular] customers.” On September 24th, Washington wrote, "Dined with the Govr. & went to the Play & Ball afterwards." He probably attended the races before dinner on this & the following 3 days. The track adjoined the town on the west, & because of the beautiful autumn weather “there was a prodigious concourse of spectators and considerable sums were depending on the contest of each day” (Eddis, 54). 

Washington noted on October 1, 1771, "Dined at Upper Marlborough & reachd home in the Afternoon. Mr. Wormley—Mr. Fitzhugh, Mr. Randolph, Mr. Burwell, & Jack Custis came with me. Found Mr. Pendleton here." Atty. Gen. John Randolph of Williamsburg & Edmund Pendleton (1721–1803) of Caroline County were retained by Washington about this time. John Randolph also had attended the races in Annapolis with his daughters, traveling there on board the armed schooner Magdalen (Virginia Gazette. 17 Sept. 1771).

Washington noted on October 4. 1772, that he was returning to Annapolis for the races. "Set of for the Annapolis Races. Dined and lodged at Mr. Boucher’s." Jacky Custis accompanied GW on this trip to the races (Ledger B, 60). On the 5th, he "Reachd Annapolis. Dined at the Coffee House with the Jocky Club & lodgd at the Govrs. after going to the Play." On October 6, he wrtoe, "Dined at Majr. Jenifers—went to the Ball and Suppd at the Govrs." The 4 days of racing began this morning at 11:00. The Maryland Gazette expected “good Sport, as a great Number of Horses are already come from the Northward and Southward, to start for the different Purses.” 




Detail 1772 George Washington (1732-1791) by Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827)

On September 26, 1773, Washington wrote, "I set of for Annapolis Races. Dined at Rollins’s & got into Annapolis between five & Six Oclock. Spent the Evening & lodged at the Governors." Most of the Rollins (Rawlins, Rawlings) families of Maryland lived in the South River & West River neighborhoods of Anne Arundel County, Md. One old Rawlings house, which served as a tavern for much of the colonial period, was owned by Ann Gassaway Rawlings & inherited by her son Gassaway Rawlings, who owned it until 1810. The next day Washington noted, "Dined at the Govrs. and went to the Play in the Evening." Five days of racing began this day with a 3-horse sweepstakes. As usual, all races began at 11:00 A.M. On the 28th, Wasington wrote, "Again Dined at the Govrs. and went to the Play & Ball in the Evening." Tuesday’s race was for the Jockey Club purse of 100 guineas, limited to horses of club members. This day's race was run in 3 heats of 3 miles each, for a purse of £50. 

John Harrower was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in America in 1774 in service to Colonel William Daingerfield tutoring his children at Belvidera, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Harrower kept a journal in which he recorded both details of everyday life just before the American Revolution. Harrower describes a day at the local horse races, where he was joined by “a number of genteel company.”  

But on October 20, 1774, as anger with Great Britain grew, the Continental Congress declared, "That we will, in our several Stations, encourage Frugality Economy, and Industry; and promote Agriculture, Arts, and the Manufactures of this Country, especially that of Wool; and will discountenance and discourage every Species of Extravagance and Dissipation, especially all Horse-racing, and all Kinds of Gaming, Cock-fighting, Exhibitions of Shows, Plays, and other expensive Diversions and Entertainments..."  A great deal of parliamentary maneuvering apparently was involved in Congress’s approval of this resolution & a companion one recommending to the states, that they adopt effectual measures for encouraging “true religion & good morals” & for suppressing “theatrical entertainments, horse racing, gaming, & such other diversions as are productive of idleness, dissipation, & a general depravity of principles & manners.” 

Apparently, racing continued in Virginia. a letter To George Washington from Alexander Spotswood, 8 March 1779, read, "I have purchased you 2 Exceeding fine horses—and shall Attend the Petersburg Races which happens on the 1st day of April next, where I shall get two more, & will bring them out with me in April."  Three race-courses existed in & around Petersburg, Va., during the Revolutionary War. Pride’s race ground in the Battersea neighborhood on the Appomattox River was the most popular of the 3, & presumably the site of the “Petersburg races” (see Edward A. Wyatt IV, “Newmarket of the Virginia Turf,” WMQ, 2d ser., 17 [1937]: 481–95).

George Washington's fellow Virginian George Mason (1725-1792) kept at least one racehorse of which he was extremely proud, named Vulcan.  Vulcan was pastured in the field on the land side of Gunston Hall.  From that pasture he could be admired by guests as they arrived at the house.


The war ended. By June of 1785, James Madison was writing, "Nonetheless, disestablishment (of religion) was an accomplished fact, a social symptom of declining interest in organized Christianity. Church-going in Virginia had long been on the decline as communicants found more reasons for attending Sunday horse races or cock fights than for being in pews." In 1784, a foreign traveler in Richmond noted that the village had only “one small church, but [it was] spacious enough for all the pious souls of the place and the region." 

Horse Breeding

In most of colonial British America horses were not delineated by breed, the large plantation owners did have some particular breeds which they used for both racing & fox hunting.  The known breeds among the plantation owners at the time include Naragansett, Andaulsian, Thoroughbred & Arabian.  George Washington’s famous racehorse, Magnolia, was a pedigreed Arabian.

Rhode Island, Maryland, & Virginia were centers of colonial horse breeding, along with South Carolina & New York. During the American Revolution, importations of race horses from England practically stopped but resumed after the signing of a peace treaty. 


"Mr. Jefferson was very fond of all kinds of good stock...But the horse was Mr. Jefferson's favorite. He was passionately fond of a good horse. We generally worked mules on the plantation; but he would not ride or drive any thing but a high-bred horse." (The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson 1862. pages 53 & 56.) 

Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in a letter that he could not tolerate any form of exercise other than riding, loved horses & was an accomplished rider. While he was president, he rode a horse almost every day. According to Memoirs of a Monticello Slave by Isaac Jefferson, while Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia, British forces came close to capturing him several times, but he managed to elude them by escaping on horseback.

Jefferson bought Tarquin, a large, elegant roan of distinguished blood lines, on 11 March, 1790. Tarquin was originally owned by William Fitzhugh (1741–1809) of Chatham, & had won one of the Fredericksburg Jockey Club purses on 5 October 1785, & on Friday, 21 October 1785, he came in 2nd in both heats in the 4-mile race at Alexandria. George Washington wrote of attending these horse races at Alexandria. 

Jefferson wrote to William Fitzhugh, 21 July 1790, that after he received Tarquin, the horse became lame. "Some time after his arrival here he was taken with a lameness which continued perhaps 3 or 4 weeks, not severe, but so as to render him unfit to be used. By leaving him at rest, it went off; and I have since avoided using him but merely for little rides about town. As this is my principal use for him, I hope he will answer my purpose. I am much attached to him for his size, form and properties."

Isaac, a Monticello slave whose reminiscences are remarkably revealing though sometimes inaccurate, said that “Mr. Jefferson never had nothing to do with horse-racing or cock-fighting: bought two race-horses once, but not in their racing day: bought em after done runnin. One was Brimmer, a pretty horse with 2 white feet‥‥ The other was Tarkill (Tarquin) in his race-day they called him the Roane colt: only race-horse of a roane Isaac ever see: Old Master used him for a ridin-horse” (Rayford W. Logan, ed., Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, Charlottesville, 1951, p. 33). 

Jefferson identified Tarquin’s sire as Eclipse & his dam as a roan mare “of the blood of Monkey, Othello, & Dabster” (Account Book, 11 March. 1790). Monkey was one of the 1st English-bred horses to be established in America & was distinguished for 2 things: his is the only known portrait of a horse imported into America before the Revolution &, as a pioneer who found few blooded mares in Virginia, he bred up the native stock, “imparting something magical to his filly foals which made of them the foundation stock for successful quarter racers which it was the privilege of Janus ultimately to galvanize” (Fairfax Harrison, The Roanoke Stud 1795–1833, privately printed, Richmond, 1930, p. 113–7). Monkey, if not imported by Nathaniel Harrison of Brandon, certainly stood in the Brandon stud, as did Othello, who was described by Harrison as being “as high bred a horse as ever came to America” (Virginia Gazette, 11 April 1777). Dabster, another import from the English turf, was in the Carter & Byrd studs from 1743 to 1761. 

Tarquin’s dam was a roan mare owned by Peyton Randolph (Betts, Farm Book, p. 96). On the side of his sire, his lines may have been even more distinguished. Jefferson’s description in the Account Book states that the gelding was 9 or 10 years old & that he excelled “in 2. mile heats 140. ℔.” Betts, Farm Book, p. 95–6, points out that he could not have been quite so old if his sire was the Eclipse owned by R. B. Hall, for that courser had been on the English turf in 1781–1783 & had been imported into Maryland in 1784. There were 2 stallions of this name in Virginia, either of which could have sired Tarquin. One was Harris' Eclipse, foaled in 1771, “a beautiful bay 15 hands 3 inches high,” owned by John Harris (1749–1800) of Powhatan. The other was Burwell’s Eclipse, foaled 1774, bred by Lewis Burwell (1738–1779) of Gloucester, & exported to Georgia at an indeterminate date; he was also a bay 15 hands high. Both horses were the get of Old Fearnought, who was “entitled to the palm in preference to any stallion that had preceded him in giving the Virginia turf stock a standing equal to that of any running stock in the world” ([Fairfax Harrison], “The Equine F. F. Vs,” VMHB, xxxv [1927]. 359–60, quoting “An Advocate for the Turf [George W. Jeffreys],” whose Annals of the Turf, originally published in the Petersburg Intelligencer in 1826, was the first systematic study of the bred horse in colonial Virginia).  Fearnought was also called “the Godolphin Arabian of America,” the summit of praise, & his get were noted for size, stamina, & distance running. It seems probable that Tarquin’s sire was Harris’ Eclipse, for in October, 1790, Jefferson also bought Brimmer from Carter Braxton & that horse was a grandson of Harris’ Eclipse.

William Fitzhugh of Chatham “I am much pleased to hear you are satisfy’d with the Horse. His figure is elegant, & I am in Hopes with gentle usage, he will recover his Lameness, & be equal to what you require of him." 

Jefferson thought that Tarquin had only one fault: he stumbled in going down hill. In the Albemarle region, this was enough to cause him to dispose of the animal, & in 1793, he gave him to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. 


Jockey Clubs

Horse racing expanded after the American Revolution, as jockey clubs were established in nearly every region, annual races became major social events, & horse breeding became big business. It became necessary to standardize racing weights, distances, & other variables.

Before the days of baseball, football, & basketball, horse racing was the sport of its day.  Jockey clubs were organized to set rules & regulations.  Maryland maintained some 20 racing centers before the Revolution.  In 1765, a British officer noted that “there are established races annually at almost every town and considerable place in Virginia." To supply the horses demanded for quality racing, a breeding industry steadily grew in Virginia. By the time of the Revolution, there were 27 important breeding farms in the vicinity of the James, York, Rappahanock, & Potomac rivers.  

America’s 1st jockey club, composed of wealthy horse owners & breeders, was organized in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1734. There were tracks in Charleston, Strawberry Ferry & Pineville plus on James & Johns islands. The 1st account of a horse race appeared Feb. 1, 1734, in the South Carolina Gazette. The prize was a saddle & bridle valued at 20 pounds. The race was run "on the green on Charleston Neck, opposite a public house known as the Bowling Green House" & consisted of mile heats with 4 entries each. A year later, owners were invited through newspapers to enter a race at the York Course for a purse of 100 pounds. Subsequent races offered a gold watch valued at 140 pounds and "a finely embroidered jacket valued at 90 pounds." The most famous South Carolina venue was the Washington Race Course, established in 1792 & known as Hampton Park today. The S.C. Jockey Club book notes that the inner ditch was 1,760 yards, or one mile or 8 furlongs. The track remained active from 1792 until 1900. The big event was Race Week, held in February.

The Maryland Jockey Club is a sporting organization dedicated to horse racing, founded in Annapolis in 1743. Two popular racecourses existed in Baltimore after the founding of the Maryland Jockey Club in 1745. The 1st was at Whetstone Point, now Locust Point, along the Patapsco River in southern Baltimore; the 2nd, officially sanctioned by the city commissioners for purses ranging from £5 to £1,500, was located on property owned by John Eager Howard at what is now Pine Street & Lexington Market.

The Philadelphia Jockey Club was founded in 1766, "to encourage the breeding of good horses and to promote the pleasures of the turf." Many prominent men in Philadelphia were members, including Governor Penn, president of the club, and John Cadwalader, vice-president. On 18, 19, & 20 in May 1773, an important series of races was run in Philadelphia. The races were run under the auspices of the Jockey Club & were among the most important social events of the year in Philadelphia. Governor Eden had entered his bay horse, Why-Not, in the Jockey Club Purse, the first & richest of the races, but the race was won by Israel Waters’s horse, King Herod (Pennsylvania Chronicle, 24 May 1773)

The Wilmington, North Carolina Jockey Club was established in 1774. As early as the 1730s, writer John Brickell noted North Carolina's fondness for horse racing. Early racing became more refined in the last 2 decades before the Revolution, when planters imported expensive English breeding stock to Virginia & North Carolina. Gradually plantation owners with the financial resources to purchase, breed, train, & race horses dominated the sport, a way for North Carolina's financial elite to display their wealth. Gambling on horse races was widespread among all classes. The famous race horse Janus was kept in North Carolina during the 1770s, establishing an enviable breed of thoroughbreds.

As English thoroughbreds were imported into the South, Virginia race horses were no longer sprinters but distance runners. The circular mile-long track, where horses competed for a subscription purse, grew in popularity. On November 25, 1773, New England school teacher Philip Vickers Fithian attended a race between 2 horses at Richmond Court House. He wrote: “One of the Horses belonged to Colonel John Taylor [Tayloe], and is called Yorick—The other to Dr. [Nicholas] Flood, and is called Gift—The Assembly was remarkably numerous, beyond any expectation and exceeding polite in general...The Horses started precisely at 5 minutes after 3; the Course was 1 Mile in Circumference, they performed the first Round in 2 minutes, third in 2 minutes & a-half...when the Riders dismounted very lame; they run five Miles, and Carried 180 lb.”

From John Lawrence, The History and Delineation of the Horse (London, 1809)

In the Chesapeake in the new nation, where races were regularly scheduled during court days, public gardens organized events around the horse races. In 1801, the Hay-Market Gardens in Richmond, Virginia announced their special arrangements for race days. The owner, Mr. J. Pryor, had ordered and installed a new organ for his music gallery that would play for the first time during the races. He had built an "extensive building surrounding the gallery" in preparation for theatrical performances planned for the third day of the races. There will be a BALL on the first night of the races--a Grand Concert accompanied with the organ and voices on the second night." He was also looking for "two good Bar Keepers and a few waiters" to meet the increased demand he expected during the races.

Horse racing was the most popular sport in America during Jefferson’s presidency. As president, Jefferson enjoyed attending the meets at the National Race Course, which opened in 1802, just 2 miles north of the White House. An experienced architect, Jefferson designed the horse stables that are now part of the White House’s West Colonnade.  By the mid-19C, horse racing across America attracted large crowds.


A Race Meeting at Jacksonville, Alabama by W.S Hedges Birmingham Museum of Art


Research from Founders Online here.


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