Off to the Races

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

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Her most famous son was Selim, a temperamental bay foaled at Belair in 1759. Sold as a yearling to Samuel Galloway, proprietor of the Tulip Hill estate near Annapolis, Selim began competing at age 4 and never lost until he was 9, then continued with few defeats until retiring at 13. In his greatest victory, a virtual replay of his dam’s finest moment, he defeated Yorick, a Virginia-bred chestnut, in a Chestertown, Maryland, race that took place in 1766 when the local gentry raised 100 pistoles to lure what Culver called “the two most famous horses on this continent.”

Selima’s offspring also included a succession of females that produced many generations of winners and champions. “For 50 years or more, whenever they gave the bloodlines of a horse, they would always try to track it back to Selima to prove its worthiness,” says historian Baltz. “Selima’s name appeared very frequently in advertisements long after she was gone. Hers was very much a special bloodline.”

Her direct descendants included Lexington, the greatest American sire of the 19th century; Foxhall, one of the best American-breds that ever ran in Europe; and Hanover, winner of 17 straight races, including the 1887 Belmont Stakes. “Her [pedigree] line continued to produce the greatest runners America ever had,” Peters says.

Selima’s genetic impact was so profound that her name remained in circulation long after most of her contemporaries had been forgotten. Maryland’s Laurel Park named a major race for her in 1926 at the suggestion of William Woodward Sr., a New York banker who then owned Belair, which was still one of America’s top racing stables. (Woodward’s son William was shot to death by his wife, Ann, in 1955 in a celebrated case that became the basis for Dominick Dunne’s book The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.)

Much as Selima’s abiding fame was prophesied in Gloucester, the race also augured Byrd’s dismal fate. Undaunted by Tryal’s defeat, he continued to import blooded horses and to breed Thoroughbreds, but he never took part in another major race.

He achieved respectability as a soldier in the late 1750s and early 1760s, commanding the Virginia Militia’s second company, then replacing George Washington as the first company’s commander. Later, he was an important administrator at the College of William and Mary. His family’s prominent descendants include brothers Richard Byrd, a Naval officer who explored the North and South poles, and Harry Flood Byrd, a Democrat who was governor of Virginia and then represented the state in the U.S. Senate from 1933 to 1965. (Robert Byrd, the current U.S. senator from West Virginia, is not related.)

In 1756, he deserted his wife, with whom he had had five children, and later took up with a daughter of a former mayor of Philadelphia. Climbing up a chest of drawers in their home, his still distraught wife, according to one source, was searching for letters she believed would confirm his adultery. The chest tipped over, crushing her to death.

Byrd remarried and had ten more children, but he went deeply into debt after a tobacco glut led to a downturn in the market in the 1760s, and his hopes for recovery were undone by his gambling and expensive tastes. He put his holdings up for sale in a private lottery in 1768, but the return was disappointing. Pitifully, he thought the 1771 deaths of his mother and eldest son might save him, but he was largely ignored in their wills. “His family turned against him,” says Tinling. “He had lost their respect.”

With his debts overwhelming and his credit gone, he added to his troubles by favoring moderation rather than independence before the Revolutionary War, further isolating him from colonial leaders with whom he had once collaborated in society, politics and war. On the first day of 1777, at age 48, distraught and deeply in debt, he shot himself dead. “His life was a series of unfortunate choices,” says Tinling.


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