by Harold B. Gill, Jr.
Virginians of all ranks and denominations were, as one writer put it, “excessively fond of horses.” He might have added they were also excessively fond of racing their horses. In 1724 Hugh Jones observed that Virginians “are such lovers of Riding, that almost every ordinary Person keeps a horse; and I have known some spend the Morning ranging several Miles in the Woods to find and catch their Horses only to ride two or three Miles to Church, to the Court-House, or to a Horse-Race.”
Proud owners boasted of their horse’s speed and endurance, only to be challenged by another braggart. From such informal challenges, organized racing soon followed. These were often held at courthouses, churches, or taverns, and they attracted large gatherings of people of all sorts. But only gentlemen could enter horses in races. For instance, in York County in 1674, a tailor wagered 2,000 pounds of tobacco that his mare could beat his neighbor’s horse. The county court fined him 100 pounds of tobacco, declaring that “it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race being a Sport only for Gentlemen.”
By the middle of the 17th century, races were usually held on Saturday afternoons. The races were run on a straight course marked at the end by upright stakes, where the judges stood. Short sprints—about a quarter of a mile—were the most common distances for races in the 17th century, and this remained so in the backcountry in the next century. The form was carried westward and still survives in the Southwest, where quarter horses are still bred for racing. John Hervey, in his Racing in America, described the quarter-mile contest as “one of the most picturesque and vivid aspects of turf sport ever seen in this or any country.” It was a rough-and-tumble affair with jockeys trying to foul their opponents and unseat their rivals.
Horses suitable for quarter racing were of a “peculiar breed,” with powerful hind legs giving them remarkable speed for short distances. Fairfax Harrison, who made a study of Virginia racing and was the author of The Equine F. F. Vs., believed the quarter horse was bred from imported English horses with “an infusion of Andalusian blood, derived from the southern Indians, following Edward Bland’s Occaneechi exploration of 1651.” He thought this crossbreeding explained the “combination of spirit and small size” of the quarter horse. Many English visitors noted the small size of Virginia horses.
Arabian blood was introduced into Virginia racing in 1732, when Bulle Rock was imported by Samuel Gist of Hanover County. Harrison claimed that Bulle Rock was the first Arabian horse in the English-American colonies. His introduction to the colony was the beginning of a rapid increase in the quality of the racing stock of the colonies.
From Harrison’s research we know the names and pedigrees of 50 English stallions and 30 mares imported into Virginia by 1774. All of them were descended from three Arabians imported into England about the beginning of the eighteenth century; The Arabians were the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian. Gist’s Bulle Rock, bred with many Virginia mares, was descended from the Darley Arabian. The aristocracy began to take an even greater interest in thoroughbred racing, and many of the gentry imported the best blooded horses they could get. By the 1750s a number of them were in Virginia. These included Jolly Roger, probably imported by John Tayloe of Richmond County but owned by Ralph Wormeley of Rosegill in Middlesex County. Jolly Roger, said to be the first horse to give real distinction to Virginia’s racing stock, was descended from the famous horse Partner, supposedly the best racer and stallion of his time. Later owned by James Balfour of Brunswick County, Jolly Roger died in 1772 at the age of 31, leaving a large progeny.
The Tayloe family played a leading role in improving the racing stock in Virginia. John Tayloe II imported the famous Childers in 1751, and John Tayloe III continued the tradition by importing at least nine racers. William Byrd III was also active in acquiring pedigreed horses. While Byrd was away from home during the French and Indian War, his wife wrote him with good and bad news: “Your horse Valiant has lost the race that Mr. Page & Mr. Lewis made with Mr. Boothe. My Calista has brought forth a very handsome female colt.” Mr. Booth’s winner was likely Janus, a chestnut horse descended from the Godolphin Arabian and imported by Mordecai Booth of Gloucester County in 1752. Besides the stallion Valiant, Byrd owned six young English mares in 1757.
In 1761 John Baylor of Newmarket in Caroline County asked his agent in England to buy him a stallion “provided he is at least 15 h[hands] high—a good Bay strong & beautiful & high spirited.” He included a list of possible candidates taken from “Race Horse list.” A year later he had not yet gotten a stallion and wrote again including another list. He explained that his list was drawn from “Hebers Yearly Race Book affording me an op’y of discovering their performances though not their shape and size.” Baylor emphasized he wanted “A most beauti’l strong bay at least 14 H[hands] 3 l[inches] high, as much higher as possible, provided he has beauty strength and spi’t with it, and one that has won some King’s plates with a pedigree at full length and cert. of age under a noblemans hand, as most of the list belong to noble’n.” He also asked that a “good groom” be sent with the horse. In the spring of 1764 Baylor got word that his agent had purchased Fearnought, who arrived shortly thereafter. Fearnought, too, was a descendent of the Godolphin Arabian and had won the King’s Plate. Life at Baylor’s Newmarket must have agreed with Fearnought; by July, Baylor had “twenty-six mares, most of them very fine, in foal by Fearnought.”
With the importation of fine racehorses, racing now took on a different aspect. The result of the introduction of Arabian blood, Virginia horses were no longer sprinters but distance runners. The circular mile-long track, where horses competed for a subscription purse, grew in popularity. On November 25, 1773, Philip Vickers Fithian attended a race between two horses at Richmond Court House (now called Warsaw). He wrote: “One of the Horses belonged to Colonel John Taylor [Tayloe], and is called Yorick—The other to Dr. [Nicholas] Flood, and is called Gift—The Assembly was remarkably numerous, beyond any expectation and exceeding polite in general.” He went on to describe the race: “The Horses started precisely at five minutes after three; the Course was one Mile in Circumference, they performed the first Round in two minutes, third in two minutes & a-half, Yorick came out the fifth time round about 40 Rod before Gift they were both, when the Riders dismounted very lame; they run five Miles, and Carried 180 lb.”
In subscription races the purse was made up from membership and entry fees. Each horse was required to run three heats, and the winner of two heats won the purse. A horse was “distanced” if he was more than an eighth of a mile behind the winner and was eliminated from the next heat.
The announcement in the Virginia Gazette on March 27, 1752, of a race to be run at Yorktown in 1752 spelled out the rules:
To be RUN for, at York, on Thursday next,
A Purse of Sixty Three Pistoles, four Mile heats, the best two in three, the Rider to weigh 135 lbs to start at One o’Clock, to rest half an Hour between each Heat
He who subscribes Four Pistoles )
to pay One )
He who subscribes Three Pistoles )
to pay Two )
He who subscribes Two Pistoles )
to pay Three )
He who subscribes One Pistole )
to pay Four )
And a Non-subscriber )
to pay Ten )
Pistoles at Entrance
The Horses to be enter’d with John Gibbons, or James Mitchell, five Days before the Race.
The race was won by John Tayloe’s mare Jenny Cameron.
In the following August a race was announced to be run on September 26, 1752, at Leedstown, on the Rappahanock:
To be RUN for, at Leeds Town, On Tuesday the 26th of September next, a Purse of about Forty-five Pounds Value, by any Horse, Mare, &c (that has not already won one of them) the best of three Four Mile Heats, each Horse carrying ten Stone: a Non-Subscriber to pay Ten Pistoles Entrance Money, or by no Means to be entitled to any Part of the Purse, or Stakes, which entrance Money is to be for the second best Horse: And on Thursday following, a Purse of about Ninety Pounds Value to be run for, on the Terms aforesaid. Every Horse, &c. that runs must be shewn at Leeds Town, and Enter’d the Tuesday S’ennight Before the Race Day, and the Entrance Money paid, etc.
Subscription races were popular in Williamsburg, Gloucester, and Fredericksburg, as well as Leedstown and Yorktown. The first intercolonial race between Virginia and Maryland horses was held at Gloucester in December 1752. William Byrd III entered his horse Tryal and wagered 500 pistoles that he would win over “any that could be brought.” Such a challenge could not be resisted. Benjamin Tasker, Jr., of Maryland entered the best from his stables, the bay mare Selima, winner of the Annapolis purse the previous year. John Tayloe entered two horses: Childers and his mare Jenny Cameron, and Francis Thornton entered a mare. The results of the race must have been devastating for Byrd. The horses ran one four-mile heat, with Tasker’s mare taking first place, Byrd’s second, Thornton’s mare third, and Tayloe’s mare fourth. Tayloe’s Childers was distanced.
The Williamsburg races became part of the events of Publick Times and when the town was crowded with people attending the fairs. On July 1, 1737, the Virginia Gazette announced that there would be “Horse Racing every Saturday till October, at the Race Ground near this City.” As early as December 1729, William Woodford wrote that when he took his young nephew to Williamsburg for the King’s Birthday celebration, the boy declined to go to the governor’s house or to the balls. Instead he “mist no Opportunity of seeing the Races which he took most delight in.”
The track in Williamsburg was near the present intersection of the present-day Lafayette and York Streets. The Williamsburg track was a circular track measuring one mile. At the fair held in Williamsburg in December 1739 was a horse race on each of three days. It was noted that the race was “round the Mile Course, adjacent to this City.” A later deposition suggests that the track was east of the Nicolson House and north of York Street.
At this time in America as well as in England, races were wild and rough. Jockeys whipped and kicked and tried to unseat opponents. Usually about six horses started the race, and the going was as rough on horses and riders as in quarter racing.
Thomas Jefferson noted that the introduction of horses of Arabian blood was an economic asset to Virginia—”an article of very considerable profit.” He wrote, “A good foundation is laid for their propagation here by our possessing already great numbers of horses of that blood, and by a decided taste and preference for them established among the people. Their patience of heat without injury, their superior wind, fit them better in this and the more southern climates.” Besides that, “their fleetness and beauty will recommend them.”
Indeed, besides the excitement of the sport of racing, there was money to be made from stud fees. James Balfour charged 15 shillings “the leap, 40 s. the season, and 3 l. to ensure as stud fees for Jolly Roger. John Baylor advertised in the Virginia Gazette that “Fearnought will cover mares at Newmarket at eight pounds the season, if the money is sent with the mare, or when she is carried away; or at ten pounds the season if booked.” It was often thought useful to outline a horse’s pedigree and racing history when offering his services at stud. John Baird, who lived near Petersburg, included his horse’s history in his advertisement:
The, blood of these notable horses that made Virginia famous for its thoroughbreds still runs through the veins of the horses that run at Churchill Downs and at Virginia’s new Colonial Downs.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 1997 edition of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.