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Off to the Races

Before the American Revolution, no Thoroughbred did more for racing's growing popularity than a plucky mare named Selima

“The money on the table was phenomenal,” says Stephen Patrick, director of the City of Bowie Museums, which include the BelairMansion and the BelairStableMuseum in Maryland.

America in 1752 was a divided sprawl of Quakers and Puritans, Catholics and Dutch, Yankees and Southerners, Tories and slaves. More than a million people resided in what was still, in some ways, a brutal frontier, with disease claiming many children, Indians attacking the fringes, and pickpockets and horse thieves being put to death. But a sophisticated society was rapidly evolving as every year ships delivered more people and culture from England. There was theater to enjoy, newspapers to read and postal routes for the mail.

The population was still too far-flung and disparate to agree on much, especially independence, an idea just beginning to percolate. But colonists from Rhode Island to the Carolinas could all agree that nothing was more heavenly than a fast horse.

Racing in the New World dated to 1665, when New York’s royal governor plotted a track on a Long Island plain shortly after the Dutch surrendered the territory. Until the 1720s, a 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 frequently rode their own horses, often grabbing and punching each other as they hurtled down narrow racing lanes surrounded by fans hurling bets back and forth. These bawdy 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.

A more sophisticated sport known as course racing had already sprouted in England by the early 1700s. Queen Anne opened the royal track at Ascot, and other racecourses followed. The typical race became a longer contest—four miles was the classic distance—between groups of horses competing for money and trophies.

In the colonies, the sport soon took a similar evolutionary turn. America’s first jockey club, composed of wealthy horse owners and breeders, was organized in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1734. 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 wealthy Annapolis, whose inhabitants, it was said, 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, a silversmith was commissioned to make a trophy for the Annapolis Subscription Plate, a premier event of the city’s September races.

The prestige and money associated with racing success inspired breeders to try to produce speedier horses. British soldiers had long returned from desert battle fronts with stories of their opponents’ astounding horses sprinting through the sand, so Middle Eastern sires were imported to England, leading to the foundation of a new breed, the Thoroughbred. At first known simply as blooded horses, these leaner, faster equines soon arrived in the colonies, attracting gawkers and vastly increasing interest in the sport. New oval tracks that gave spectators a better view further increased its appeal.

Only the wealthy could pay for a horse to take a threemonth boat trip across the rough Atlantic, of course. Samuel Gist of Hanover County, Virginia, was the first on record to do it, bringing over Bulle Rock, a 21-year-old, in 1730. Bulle Rock was much too old to race, but Gist wanted him to sire a new generation of faster horses. Others who imported Thoroughbreds included Samuel Ogle, the royal governor of Maryland; Ogle’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Tasker Jr., a young colonel in the militia serving Anne Arundel County, Maryland; and John Tayloe II, an avid horseman whose Mount Airy estate, in Richmond County, Virginia, later became a racing center.

Byrd wanted to be included in such company, but his judgment in horseflesh was flawed in one important regard: Tryal “had not been a success when raced” in England, according to John Hervey. The chestnut horse was also, at 10 years old, long past whatever prime he may have once enjoyed.

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