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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

Byrd’s challenge, as foolish as it was bold, attracted interest. Tayloe offered to put up a thousand pistoles and run two imported Thoroughbreds against Tryal. Another Virginian, Francis Thornton, entered a fast gray mare that had not been imported. Colonel Tasker 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 racewinning horse typically earned about 30 pistoles.

Tasker’s decision to enter Selima incited passions in Maryland, where horse owners and breeders believed their racing was superior to Virginia’s, an attitude their neighbors loathed. The colonies had battled over many issues, including rights to the Chesapeake Bay, and Selima’s entry took on sizable symbolic weight.

Like Byrd, Tasker was from society’s pinnacle. His father was the mayor of Annapolis. His sister was married to Maryland governor Ogle. At 32, he was an Annapolis city councilman and served in the upper house of Maryland’s colonial legislature. If contemporary paintings are a guide, Tasker was distinctively handsome with high cheekbones, a sharp nose and trim build. He would later represent Maryland at the Albany Congress, where the idea of colonial unity was first broached. “He was a popular man, and very active in political life,” says Shirley Baltz, a historian in Bowie, Maryland, who recently relocated to New Jersey.

But he was different from Byrd in that, as the grandson of a self-made man who came to America as an indentured servant, he did not take his wealth and comfort for granted. He had endured terrible despair—the deaths of five brothers before adulthood—and even his last name intimated a sense of purpose.

When Ogle died in 1752, leaving a 3-year-old son as his primary heir, Tasker and his father assumed responsibility for the boy. Unmarried and childless himself, Tasker moved into Ogle’s sprawling country estate, known as Belair, 15 miles west of Annapolis. Some might have perceived this as opportunism, but Tasker’s profits from the arrangement were minimal; he used his own money on major improvements that raised the value of the estate for his nephew, Benjamin Ogle, who would later gain control of the property and become governor of Maryland in 1778.

The Maryland Gazette described Tasker as “courteous . . . steady and sincere,” and Benjamin Franklin, whom Tasker met at the Albany Congress, called him “amiable and worthy.” Putting 500 pistoles on the line was not a decision to be made casually. But he accepted Byrd’s challenge because he had faith in Selima and because his equine judgment, unlike Byrd’s, was sound. At age 7, Selima was at the peak of her racing prowess. Abay mare with a faint white star on her forehead and a splash of white on her left hind ankle, she was the first preternatural talent to cross the Atlantic and race in the colonies.

“She was the whole package,” says Anne Peters, a pedigree consultant who is also editor of Owner-Breeder International, an equine magazine, and co-founder of the Thoroughbred Heritage racing history Web site.

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 amount lost to history. There is no record of her racing in England before being shipped to Maryland in September 1750.

According to the earl’s studbook, which was uncovered in the 1930s by C. M. Prior, an English pedigree expert, Selima was supposedly in foal—pregnant—when she was shipped across the Atlantic. “But there is no evidence that she produced a foal,” Peters says. “She probably either lost it on the long trip across the Atlantic, or it died.”

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