How to Make a Race, 1832

Feb 3rd 2010 08:58 pm |

Sketch from the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, 1832

The most anticipated race in 2010 isn’t the Kentucky Derby but the possible match-up between Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Zenyatta.  The announcement by Jerry and Ann Moss that they would race Zenyatta this year was welcome news to race fans.  After Zenyatta won the Classic last year, few thought that 2010 would bring another opportunity to witness these two great race horses in competition together.

The boosted purse for the Apple Blossom, scheduled to run on April 3rd at Oaklawn Park, makes it the front runner to host the big race.  I think Zenyatta is likely to run there but comments from Rachel Alexandra’s owner have not been reassuring.  If Oaklawn’s fat purse can’t bring them together, then maybe Jerry and Ann Moss could do it like they did back in the early nineteenth century.

I couldn’t help but think about the Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra race when I came across the letter below in the 1832 edition of the American Turf Register.  In the 1830s, when racing still bore a resemblance to its “My horse can beat your horse” origins, wealthy owners of fast thoroughbreds would challenge each other to races setting conditions, stakes, and location.   Challenges would come in many forms either verbal or via notices like the one found here from 1832:

“Mr. Editor: You will do the community, and myself in particular, a singular favour, if you will be so kind as to state in the next number of your Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, that I propose to run Bertrand, Jr. and Little Venus, against Andrew and Bonnet o’ Blue, four mile heats, carting one hundred pounds each, for five thousand dollars a side each horse, half forfeit. The race to be run over the Washington Course, at Charleston, South Carolina, on the Monday and Tuesday week preceding the first day of the Annual races at that place. The acceptance of this challenge, with the name of the horse that may be matched against those of mine , respectively named, to be forward to the Secretary of the Washington Jockey Club, or to myself, at Fulton post office, on or before the first day of September next. James B. Richardson”

According to the publisher, the letter arrived late to their office and by the time it had been printed in the September edition, the race and condition had been agreed to by both owners. However, like modern racing, bringing horses together to race did not always go as planned. The following was printed in the Turf Digest the following month:

“For the great trial, between Bertrand and Andrew; and Little Venus and the Bonnets, the venue has been changed by consent of the parties, and it is to take place at Columbia on the 23d and 24th of January next – four miles and repeat, each carrying, according to the terms of the challenge, one hundred pounds….we can only wish them what they are sure to find ‘a fair field and no favor;’ and hope that the event may turn upon a fair trial of speed and bottom, without accident or misfortune to either.”

And, like the modern race horse, they did not always respond to the whims of their owner. Only two of the four horses proposed to run by owner Richardson ran at Columbia, South Carolina in January. Reporting the result of the much anticipated race, the Turf Digest had this in April 1833:

“The match race, $5000 a side, between Col. W.R. Johnson’s Bonnetts o’ Blue and Col. James B. Richardson’s Little Venus, over the Columbia Course, on January 24, 1833, was decided in favor of Little Venus in one heat — four miles.

“Time, precisely 8 m. [that is, 8 minutes for four miles]

“Bonnets was drawn after the first heat, in consequence of receiving an injury in her right hind hock.  The injury, we regret to learn, is permanent, and her owner has determined to withdraw her from the turf altogether.”

While the actual race flopped, the owner’s were able to overcome the limited communications of the era to make the race happen. If James Richardson and W.R. Johnson could arrange a match race in the days when the only way to deliver a message was to put ink to paper and physically have it carried to the intended target, then Jess Jackson and Jerry Moss can make it happen between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, right?

American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine
American turf register and sporting magazine, Volume 3, September 1832

American turf register and sporting magazine, Volume 3, October 1832

American turf register and sporting magazine, Volume 4, April 1833

The American Turf Register is the most accessible primary source for racing in the United States before the Civil War. Sixteen volumes have been digitized and are available at the Internet Archive.

Read more about Little Venus owner James B. Richardson in The American Thoroughbred from 1905

If you are interested in this era of racing history, John Eisenberg’s The Great Match Race is an excellent and entertaining book.

And finally, Second Pass — a great blog for book lovers — posted an excellent review of Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing (a Colin’s Ghost favorite).  Check it out!


Filed in Antebellum Horse Racing,thoroughbred racing history

2 Responses to “How to Make a Race, 1832”

  1. Pete says:

    Dear Professor.

    As I go thru this free class, how many Credits upon completion.

    Yes I have little quid on my person. Yes this is a shame for you-
    This has been my impression for the entirety on your writing.

    You should find a way to be payed for your service. Do you write your opinion to be heard? No. Every Post teaches something to us about the Game we luv so much
    Im am Thankful that I can sit in as a Cyber Student.

    Now we need Accrediidati for credits to be given out

    Blessing, Keep up the good work-

  2. Teresa says:

    I’m not sure which I like more: the actual history that I learn from your site, or the seemingly endless list of sources you provide. Love this–