Horse Racing in Colonial America and the Early Republic
Updated: Feb 26
I was born and raised in the Louisville, Kentucky area and, even though I left the area when I was about 17, I think there are still traces of Bourbon and Bluegrass in my blood. Growing up I loved to watch the horses run at Churchill Downs and to this day, still try to watch the Kentucky Derby on TV although I have long ago quit following the horses entered each year. With this in mind, when I got to thinking about outdoor recreations of the residents of Colonial America and the Early Republic, it just seemed natural that I would decide to write on a subject near and dear to my heart – Horse Racing.
Sports involving horses have their roots in warfare, hunting, and herding practices, in which fast horses were a necessity. Organized horse races were the inevitable outcome of human efforts to breed ever-faster horses that performed well in battle. Archaeological records show that horse racing occurred in ancient Babylon, Syria, and Egypt, as well as in the Greek Olympic Games as early as 664 B.C.
Ancient Greek Olympic equestrian events took place on a wide, level, open space with two pillars at the ends, one marking the start and the finish, and the other marking the turning post with 4 stades (769 m) covered on each circuit. These horse races, held at Olympia, included the following: the keles, a race for fully grown horses with a rider (648 BC onward); the kalpe (trot), or race for mares (496 BC onward); and a race for foals (256 BC onward).
While the Romans did hold races such as we think of the today (single horse with a rider) the preferred style of horse racing was chariot races, held in huge in huge arenas called hippodromes, the most famous of which was the Circus Maximus. These races occurred between small, two-wheeled vehicles drawn by two-, four-, or six-horse teams with four to six chariots competing in each race.
Horse Racing in England
Horse racing with riders became widespread during the Middle Ages, particularly in England. Racing in medieval England began with horses for sale, ridden in competition by professional riders to display the horses’ speed to buyers. During the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189–99), the first known racing purse was offered, £40, for a race run over a 3-mile (4.8-km) course with knights as riders. In the 16th century Henry VIII imported horses from Italy and Spain (presumably Barbs) and established studs at several locations.
Records show organized racing at Newmarket, in Suffolk County, England, as early as the time of James I. Charles II was known to attend races on Newmarket Heath with his brother, the future James II. The first recorded race was a match for £100 between horses owned by Lord Salisbury and Marquess of Buckingham in 1622. The racecourse itself was founded in 1636. Around 1665, following the Restoration, Charles II changed the face of Newmarket when he transformed it into the national center for horse racing and inaugurated the Newmarket Town Plate (a trophy). In 1671 he became the first and only reigning monarch to ride a winner.
The modern racehorse developed in England beginning in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Fast Arabian stallions, imported and bred with sturdy English mares, produced a new line of horses called Thoroughbreds. Thoroughbred racing was popular with the aristocrats and royalty of British society, earning it the title "Sport of Kings." During the early 1700s, the typical race became a longer contest—four miles was the classic distance—between groups of horses competing for money and trophies.
Up until 1744, the two most valuable races run at the Newmarket course were the King's Plate and the Town Plate. Two more Plate races were added in that year, paid for by local traders, both worth 50 guineas - one was a race for five-year-olds carrying 9 stone (126 lbs.), one was an open age race in four mile heats. Another paid for by landowners was a four-year-old race over four miles, each carrying 8 stone 7 lbs. (119 lbs.). At that time, formal races at Newmarket only took place twice a year - once in April, and once in October however, a second Spring meeting was added in 1753.
By 1750 the Jockey Club was formed to control the Newmarket races, set the rules of the game, prevent dishonesty, and making for a level field. The five British Classic Races began with the St Leger Stakes, run at Doncaster, (1776), followed by the Epsom Oaks (1779), Epsom Derby (1780), Newmarket 2000 Guineas Stakes (1809) and was completed by the Newmarket 1000 Guineas Stakes in 1814. Although the oldest race in the series, the St Leger, was first run 1776, the races were not designated "classics" until 1815, shortly after the first running of the 1,000 Guineas.
Several different types of races developed in England over the years, these include: flat racing, where horses gallop directly between two points around a straight or oval track; Steeple chasing or Hunt Racing where horses race over obstacles; and harness racing, where horses trot or pace while pulling a driver in a sulky, originally a lightweight two-wheeled, single-seat cart used as a form of rural transport in many parts of the world.
Horse Racing in North America
Horse racing in the United States and on the North American continent began in 1665, when Governor Richard Nicholls built a large, oval turf track, named Newmarket after its English forerunner, on the open flatlands known as the Hempstead Plains of Long Island. Governor Nicholls oversaw this first racing meet in North America there and for more than a century all New York society, from gentry to farmers, flocked there.
Here in North America we quickly developed our own distinct breed of horses that were used for shorter races, the American Quarter Horse. The breed originated in the 1660s as a cross between native horses of Spanish origin used by the earliest colonists and English horses imported to Virginia from about 1610. Bred for performance, the breed had considerable Thoroughbred blood as well as traits of other lines. The first surviving written record of quarter-mile length races dates to 1674 in Henrico County, Virginia. By the late 17th century, these horses were being raced over quarter-mile courses in Rhode Island and Virginia and thus came to be called Quarter Horses.
For many years, horse racing was considered the exclusive enjoyment for the rich gentleman. In 1674, a court in Virginia gave a fine to James Bullock, a tailor, who proposed a race. It was against the law for a laborer to make a race, and according to the court, horse racing was a sport exclusive to only rich gentlemen.
Already well accepted among England’s elite in the early 1700s, racing grew in popularity quickly among wealthy colonists in the mid-Atlantic. Until the 1720s, the typical race was a quarter-mile sprint between two horses, usually resulting from an argument between wealthy country gentlemen convinced they owned the faster horse. The men often rode their own horses, sometimes grabbing and punching each other as they barreled down narrow racing lanes surrounded by fans shouting bets back and forth. These rowdy affairs, known as path races, took place in front of taverns, on city squares or at country fairs. They were particularly popular in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas.
The sport soon took an evolutionary turn. Wealthy horse owners and breeders, organized Americas first jockey club in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1734 and the idea soon spread to all the major horse racing areas. Five years later, Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette heralded a race in which eight horses competed over a one-mile course, with a trumpeter’s blast signaling the start and the winner earning 40 shillings.
In Annapolis, where it was said that the inhabitants, were more British than the British, the highlight of the social season was a week of parties and plays organized around a racing meeting. In 1743, Annapolis silversmith John Inch was commissioned to make a trophy for the Annapolis Subscription Plate, a premier event of the city’s September races. It is claimed to be the oldest surviving silver object made in the state of Maryland, the oldest horse racing trophy in North America, and the second oldest trophy of any kind on the continent.
In 1752, William Byrd III, a Virginian, imported a new horse, named Tryal, from England. Byrd, who was an insatiable gambler, wanted nothing more than to show off his new horse, and at the same time, rake in a big gambling win. The result was the first historically significant Thoroughbred horse race on American soil: an epic five-horse, four-mile contest on a hilly Tidewater location known as Anderson’s Race Ground, held before a noisy swarm of racing fans in Gloucester, Virginia, near Williamsburg, on December 5, 1752.
Byrd’s judgment in horseflesh was flawed in one important regard: Tryal had not been a success when raced in England. The chestnut horse was also, at 10 years old, long past whatever prime he may have once enjoyed. Byrd’s challenge, as foolish as it was bold, attracted interest. John Tayloe II offered to put up a thousand pistoles (a Spanish gold coin, sometimes called a doubloon) and run two imported Thoroughbreds against Tryal. Another Virginian, Francis Thornton, entered a fast gray mare that had not been imported. Colonel Tasker, the brother-in-law of Maryland’s governor, sent word from Maryland that he would bring a mare named Selima. The race was thus worth 2,500 pistoles, an astonishing sum at a time when a winning horse typically earned about 30 pistoles.
Selima’s sire was one of three Middle Eastern horses that had started the Thoroughbred breed. Foaled in Yemen around 1724 and shipped through Syria and Tunisia, the stallion, known to history as the Godolphin Arabian, had found his way, the legend goes, to the royal stable of France’s King Louis XIV. An Englishman named Edward Coke saw him in Paris, bought him and brought him back to England. After Coke died, the horse was passed on to Francis Godolphin, son of the lord treasurer to Queen Anne. Known as the Earl of Godolphin, Francis had a stud farm near the racing town of Newmarket.
The Godolphin Arabian was bred with the earl’s finest mares, one of which, a bay later known as Shireborn, could be traced to Queen Anne’s personal stable. Shireborn delivered Selima on April 30, 1745, at the earl’s stud farm. Tasker, in England on an extended visit, bought her for an unrecorded amount. There is no record of her racing in England before being shipped to Maryland in September 1750.
Few details of the race survive. The only surviving newspaper account was a brief report in Annapolis’ Maryland Gazette listing the order of finish and referring to the occasion as “great.” But we can imagine the event. For instance, although the jockeys went unnamed, many in the era were young male slaves. And the era’s typical handicapping weight—the amount each horse had to carry— was 140 pounds (10 to 15 more than the best American Thoroughbreds carry today) including the jockey and his riding tack. A trumpeter started the race. It takes little imagination to conjure up the rest of the day’s images: the taciturn Tasker sitting on racing’s version of an unbeatable hand at poker; the confident Byrd unaware that he had been caught in a trap he had set for himself; hundreds of spectators spread across the race grounds, making wagers and shouting loyalties to Maryland and Virginia.
Selima won, followed by Tryal, Thornton’s gray mare, and Tayloe’s two imports, one of which later became a popular sire. The victory was monumental. Tasker and Selima were welcomed back as heroes in Maryland, having defeated not just the imprudent Byrd but all of Virginia. Selima’s winning time went unrecorded, but the era’s fastest horses covered four miles in about eight minutes. For many years, a purse of £100, four-mile heats, was run for at Williamsburg, each spring and fall.
In 1771 the advertisements in the Virginia Gazette give an idea of the number of Thoroughbred horses in Virginia. There are notices of the sale, at Blandford, by Augustine Willis, of "about twenty likely blooded horses, mares and colts," the property of the estate of Col. John Willis, deceased, of Brunswick; and on the 7th of October, at Indian Fields, Charles City, of a number of blooded horses, mares and colts, belonging to the estate of Littleberry Hardyman, deceased, including Partner and half interest in Aristotle ; and in this or one of the years immediately following are offered for sale fifty head of thoroughbreds, composing the stud of Col. John Baylor, deceased, of Newmarket, Caroline.
Racing during the Colonial period ended with a most successful year in 1774. On April 7th the Gazette states, that:
“on Monday preceding, a match for 200 guineas was run for at Fredericksburg between Mann Page's, Esq., of Gloucester, horse Damon, and Moore Fauntleroy's mare, Miss Sprightly, and was won with great ease by the former.”
There were other races for the rest of that year however, by the beginning of 1775, public sentiment had changed. The political situation in the colonies had now become so dark that many persons thought that racing should be stopped. A correspondent to the Virginia Gazette on July 21st, identified only as "A Virginian," recommended that the Fredericksburg and Portsmouth Jockey Clubs suspend their meetings during the present troubles, and contribute the purses to the people of Boston.
Horse Racing in the Early Republic
The importation of British Thoroughbreds to North America stopped during the Revolutionary period, although many horses brought over by English officers were captured and became part of American pedigrees. Conversely, the British confiscated American horses for use as military load haulers and cavalry mounts. They often killed colonial horses, if they had no use for them, thus destroying some of the finest breeding stock. The loss of horses and infrastructure was particularly severe in Virginia and brought the sport to a halt for a while following the end of the Revolution. This encouraged the westward shift of Thoroughbred racing and breeding into Kentucky and Tennessee.
Although suffering from the setbacks of the war, eventually horse racing expanded its hold after the American Revolution. Jockey clubs were set up in every region and annual races became major social events. It became necessary to standardize racing weights, distances, and other variables. As a result, horse racing became the first sport to become regulated. The preferred distance for the top thoroughbred races was the so-called "heroic distance” of four miles. In the Chesapeake region of the Early Republic, horse breeding became big business. Traveling through Maryland in 1797, Polish émigré Julian Niemcewicz found “in the inns the doors covered with two kinds of placards or notices. The first announce that such and such a stallion offers its services to mares at such and such a price. The others all begin with the words ‘Run away’”
On May 27, 1823, Thoroughbreds American Eclipse and Sir Henry met in three four-mile races at Union Racecourse for a first North versus South match-up. When American Eclipse was nine years old, a challenge was issued with the intent to race five top horses against American Eclipse, who would stand for the North. The race was to be run six months from the date of the challenge over the old Long Island Union Course. (This kind of thing was often done, with no one knowing what condition a horse might be in after six months, and in this case, with the South not having to name the horses challenging.) The South's noted horseman William Johnson trained six horses from the South before deciding that Sir Henry was to race American Eclipse. The race was to be decided with the best two of three four-mile heats for a purse of $10,000.
Over 60,000 people attended to see the 9-year-old American Eclipse contest with the 3-year-old Sir Henry. Also racing were the horses John Richards and Washington. Neither had been tested at such a distance, but with so much time before the race, their owners intended that they would be. By the time the race came round, two Southern horses had pulled out: Washington for proving not good enough in his training, and John Richards for injury. Among the great crowd at Union Course on May 27 was Andrew Jackson, then American governor of Florida as were the Vice-President of the United States, Daniel Tompkins, and the infamous Aaron Burr, who had shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel about 19 years earlier.
Racing against Sir Henry and ridden by William Crafts, American Eclipse lost the first heat by a length (the only time he was ever beaten) to Sir Henry, whose time of 7:37 was the best yet seen in America over four miles. American Eclipse, at nine, carried 126 pounds (57 kg), while his much younger rival carried 108 pounds (49 kg). The famed turf historian Cadwallader R. Colden (who wrote under the name "An Old Turfman”) said that American Eclipse was ridden badly by Crafts, who whipped and spurred him in the first heat. William Crafts was replaced after this heat by the noted Samuel Purdy, who had retired but gladly rode a horse he had ridden in his youth. In the second heat, American Eclipse raced close to Henry and won this heat. In the third and last heat, the horses were exhausted, but American Eclipse was more seasoned and won by three lengths, to the jubilation of the North.
Horse Racing Moves West
Following the American Revolution, the area west of the Appalachian Mountains opened for legal settlement and many from the mid-Atlantic horse breeding region moved west, bringing their stock with them. As it turned out, the native Bluegrass of these regions was ideal for pasturing and raising racing stock. As a result, these areas that would become Kentucky and Tennessee quickly established themselves as new centers of horse racing and breeding, surpassing Virginia and Maryland.
The first horses brought into Kentucky by settlers were all, by necessity, working horses required for taming a wilderness and the needs of an agricultural society, but even these common sorts were pitted against one another in races. Among the early settlers, however, were men of wealth and a sporting disposition who soon began to import Thoroughbreds from the east - horses described as “hot-blooded” and bred for speed on the racecourse. Horse racing was the first spectator sport in America, and by 1800, nearly every significant community in Kentucky had set up a racecourse of its own.
One of the earliest paths for quarter racing in Kentucky was laid out around 1783 at Shallow Ford Station in Madison County, about eight miles from Boonesborough. The race path paralleled the road from Boonesborough to Harrodsburg, in a straight line, about two hundred yards from the road. No reports of race events survive to the present day. The first records of actual races were the 1783 competitions near Harrodsburg at “Humble’s race path” in April and at “Haggin’s race path ” on May 10. Another early site was an actual dirt track built in 1788 beside the Wilderness Road in Lincoln County by William Whitley. The track, laid out in a circle around a prominence near his house, gave observers who congregated at the top of “Sportsman Hill” a perfect view of the proceedings. Whitley’s facility bears the distinction of being the first known circular course in Kentucky.
Horse racing in the streets was so common that, in 1793, the Kentucky legislature approved an act banning racing or other obstructions of the streets of Lexington. In separate pieces of legislation, the General Assembly also prohibited the same activities in Bardstown, Georgetown, Washington, Paris, Milford, Danville, Maysville, and Stanford. In 1798, becoming tired of the town-by-town approach, the General Assembly universally prohibited street racing, showing stud horses on main streets or in public squares in any town in Kentucky.
Some organized events on private property occurred even before the prohibition on street racing. The Kentucky Gazette of August 22, 1789, published the first notice of a formal purse race, consisting of “three-mile heats, to be held at Lexington at one p.m. on the second Tuesday of October, the prize money collected by subscription.” Many advertisements for purse races at the Lexington and other regional courses during the 1790s specified, “Three horses to start or no race.”
By 1800, Kentucky was home to nearly ninety thousand horses, more per-capita than any other state in the nation. Many of the early Kentucky settlers came from Virginia or the Carolinas, where there was a long-established tradition of breeding and racing fine horses among the gentry. Since horse racing was banned from public spaces in the state, venues for the sport had to be set up on private property. As a result, in the early national and antebellum periods, courses and tracks were typically supported by private associations made up of local elites.
During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, race meetings in Kentucky were short affairs, most scheduled for no more than three consecutive days of heat racing. Meetings began on a Wednesday or Thursday and ran until Friday or Saturday. By the late 1820s, some of the largest and most popular courses, such as those at Lexington and Richmond, began to offer longer race meetings of four or five days, beginning earlier in the week and completed by Saturday; there was no Sunday racing.
In 1804 the first official horse race in Tennessee was held in Gallatin. Andrew and Rachel Jackson attended the race, in which Jackson ran his horse, Indian Queen, against Dr. R. D. Barry's horse Polly Medley. Although Jackson's horse lost this race, he became known as the leading breeder and racer in the state. Two of his best racers were Truxton, foaled in Virginia in 1800, and Pacolet, foaled in 1808. He also bought the Thoroughbred Greyhound, a horse which had previously beaten both Indian Queen and Truxton. The Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville was once a premier Thoroughbred breeding farm where Jackson boarded some of his stock. In 1805 he bought an interest in Clover Bottom, an important racetrack for the time.
In 1806, Jackson’s Truxton was to engage in a match race with Captain Joe Ervin’s formidable stallion Ploughboy, but as the date of the race drew near, Erwin noticed that Ploughboy’s training runs had slowed and were not showing signs of improvement. Erwin decided to stem any further losses by agreeing to a forfeit. A dispute over the terms of the forfeit erupted that focused on the identity of the promissory notes that would be exchanged in satisfaction of the debt.
The dispute was settled, but a Mr. Thomas Swann told Erwin and Dickinson that Jackson had impugned their integrity. Jackson responded that anyone who said such a thing was a “damned liar.” Swann took offense, and insinuated himself further into the situation, demanding his own satisfaction from Jackson. Jackson did not accept Swann’s challenge, but believing that Swann was acting on Dickinson’s behalf, wrote a response intended for Dickinson, saying that a “base poltroon and cowardly tale-bearer will always act in the background.”
Dickinson then published a response to Jackson, calling him “a worthless scoundrel, a poltroon, and a coward.” He also made disparaging public remarks about Jackson’s wife Rebecca. Now Jackson demanded satisfaction. On May 30, 1806, the combatants met at Harrison’s Mill, Kentucky, to settle their differences with a duel. Jackson knew that Dickinson had a reputation as a formidable marksman, so he resolved to hold his fire, allowing Dickinson to fire first and then carefully aim before returning fire. Jackson also took the precaution of wearing a coat that was too large for his frame, hoping this would cause Dickinson’s shot to miss his heart. Dickinson fired first, and it looked like he missed his mark. Though it had first appeared Dickinson’s shot had spared Jackson, in fact, it had struck him in the chest, causing blood to trickle down Jackson’s leg and accumulate in his shoe. The bullet that struck Jackson was so close to his heart that it could not be removed. Jackson then took careful aim and pulled the trigger, but his pistol locked at half-cock. Struggling through the pain, Jackson steadied himself, recocked his pistol, and fired, striking Dickinson in the abdomen. Dickinson died at dusk.
By 1816 Jackson had sold most of his horses as he was busy fighting Indian wars and was heavily involved in politics. He went on to become President of the United States in 1829, but even then, kept a hand in racing, taking some horses to race in Washington D.C. By the end of 1839, jockey clubs and race tracks were located at Beans Station, Madisonville, and Red Bridge in East Tennessee; at Clarksville, Fayetteville, Franklin, Gallatin, Hartsville, McMinnville, Mount Pleasant, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Petersburg, Pulaski, Shelbyville, and Winchester in Middle Tennessee; and at Bolivar, Dresden, Jackson, La Grange, Memphis, Paris, and Somerville in West Tennessee.
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