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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

Selima was trained to race at Belair in 1751 and 1752. “It may well have been that they said, ‘Well, she’s not in foal, so let’s just put her in training and see what happens,’” Peters adds. Her racing debut was in Annapolis in May 1752. There, she defeated another English mare, Creeping Kate, winning 40 pounds, or about 50 pistoles. Her speed and heart were apparent. Described by Hervey as “one of those majestic matriarchs whose greatness is monumental,” she was a more formidable racehorse than Byrd ever expected Tryal to encounter at Gloucester.

Her trip to the race was painstaking. Belair was almost 150 miles from Gloucester, and she likely walked the entire distance, led by a succession of stablehands. “A horse seldom rode in a cart to a race in those days; for the most part, they were walked,” says Tom Gilcoyne, a former historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. The horses belonging to Byrd, Tayloe and Thornton also were walked, but their trips were shorter; they were stabled just a few miles from the course.

Few details of the race survive. The only known newspaper account was a brief report in Annapolis’ Maryland Gazette listing the order of finish and referring to the occasion as “great.” But racing historians can help set the scene. For instance, although the jockeys went unnamed, many in the era were young male slaves, Gilcoyne says. 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. Atrumpeter probably 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. “Agreat rivalry between the states started that day,” Annapolis mayor Moyer says.

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. Today’s best American horses seldom race longer than a mile and a quarter, the distance of the KentuckyDerby (though the Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Triple Crown, is a mile and a half).

Virginia’s racing community was outraged at losing so much money to an imported horse like Selima. New Yorkers no longer allowed such imports, which they called ringers, to race in their colony, and Virginians somehow believed Tasker had duped them. (Never mind that three of the horses Selima defeated, including Tryal, also were imports.) They banned all Maryland horses from competing in Virginia. “It seemed the feeling in Virginia was, ‘You took our money, a lot of our money, and we’re not happy about it,’” Moyer says.

Maryland breeders soon circumvented the ban by taking their pregnant mares to Virginia to deliver their foals, producing animals that were technically Virginia born and thus eligible to race there, even though they would be maintained in Maryland.

Selima’s victory was “the beginning of the competition between Maryland and Virginia,” says racing historian Francis Barnum Culver, author of Blooded Horses of Colonial Days, a volume self-published in 1922.

Selima was retired from racing after 1752, her colonial career as spectacular as it was brief, consisting of two victories in two starts. She proved even more estimable as a broodmare. Mated only with stallions imported from England, she produced ten sons and daughters, the first six for Tasker and four for Tayloe, who, when Tasker died in 1760, bought her for an unknown amount and moved her to MountAiry. “Out of the ten, there was only one clunker in the bunch,” says Owner- Breeder’s Anne Peters. “Alot of people presume a great race mare is going to become a great broodmare, but the reality is it seldom happens. Selima was the best of both. She not only dominated in racing, she dominated the breeding of her time through her sons and daughters.

“Out of all the mares that were imported in that era, she was the most influential.”

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