At 24 years of age, William Byrd III presided over a vast Virginia estate that included Westover, a prosperous tobacco plantation on the James River. He possessed a round face, soft eyes, immaculate public manners and a new toy—a horse named Tryal he had just imported from England. Byrd was also an insatiable gambler captivated by dice, cards, horse racing, billiards, backgammon, lotteries—anything an American colonist could bet on in 1752.
The young aristocrat wanted nothing more than to show off his new horse and, at the same time, make a gambling score, the bigger the better. His flamboyant urges resulted in the first historically significant Thoroughbred horse race on American soil: an epic five-horse, four-mile contest on a hilly Tidewater loam known as Anderson’s Race Ground, held before a noisy swarm of racing fans in Gloucester, Virginia, near Williamsburg, on December 5, 1752. It was “in many ways the most important race of the colonial era,” according to John Hervey, an eminent racing historian from the first half of the 20th century. It also foretold the fortunes of two of its principals—Byrd himself and a remarkable Thoroughbred named Selima.
Byrd’s grandfather had come to America from England around 1669 and parlayed an inheritance into a profitable fur-trading business. Byrd’s father collected books and wrote witty poems and intimate diaries, founded Richmond, built a breathtaking Georgian mansion at his Westover plantation in Virginia and increased the Byrd fortune through land speculation before his death in 1744.
Young Byrd wanted to maintain the family’s place in society, and he seemed well on his way. He was already a justice of the peace and had been elected to Virginia’s governing House of Burgesses, following in his father’s footsteps. He relished displaying his wealth, the more ostentatious the better. While commanding a military unit at a remote outpost several years later, he received a wagonload of wine, coffee, brandy, soap and chocolate, enabling him to maintain his abundant lifestyle in difficult circumstances.
“I think he thought he was the wealthiest man in the world, and he certainly behaved that way,” says Marion Tinling, a historian who has studied the Byrd family correspondence.
Running a horse in an important race was, Byrd believed, yet another way to emphasize his prominence. “That was what the wealthy gentlemen of the day did: they raced their horses against each other and staked their reputations on it,” says Ellen Moyer, the current mayor of Annapolis, Maryland, a racing center during the colonial era.
Neither Byrd’s father nor his grandfather had raced horses, so the young aristocrat saw the Gloucester race as a chance to succeed on his own, apart from their enduring influence. But what he found more enticing was a chance to win money. He had taken up gambling when his parents sent him to London to study law at age 18. Sheltered as a boy in Virginia— his schooling took place at home because his parents feared exposing him to smallpox—he cut loose mightily once he was on his own. There was a story that he had lost thousands of pounds to the Royal Duke of Cumberland in a single sitting at a West End club. As popular as gambling was among England’s privileged, Byrd was smitten beyond reason.
When he returned to Virginia, he married the daughter of another wealthy tobacco planter, built a mansion on a hill near Richmond and started a family. When the mansion at Westover, where his mother still resided, was damaged in a fire, he rebuilt it with the finest materials and objects, including the most expensive billiards table in Virginia. But while he seemed the very embodiment of colonial gentry, sinister influences lurked inside. He would turn on his mother who doted on him, calling her “insane.” And a French visitor to a Williamsburg tavern later wrote that Byrd was “never happy but when he has . . . Dices in hand.” Gambling consumed him.
“He was an unfortunate man in many respects,” says Tinling. “He had no head for business and didn’t know how to manage his money. He didn’t make very good friends. He didn’t like his mother, who wanted the best for him. There was not a lot that went right.”
After importing Tryal around 1752, Byrd issued a challenge that was audacious even by his standards: he would put up 500 Spanish pistoles, an outrageous amount, for any horse in the land to race against Tryal, with the winner taking the entire purse. He used Spanish currency, the backbone of the shipping trade, but the gamble was colossal in any coin. One pistole was the cost of a cow. Five hundred could furnish a mansion or buy a dozen slaves.