Salvator: Folk Song of the Turf, 1890s

Feb 4th 2015 08:15 am |

I spent a lot of time over the last month reading the work of racing historian John “Salvator” Hervey as it appeared in the Daily Racing Form in the 1920s. I have been down this road before but have come nowhere near exhausting the great writer as a source.

As I read (and re-read) his work, threads are beginning to emerge. Hervey riffed on certain topics continuously during the decade. I’ll return to some of these topics later but one outlier article has come back to my mind many times since reading it a few weeks ago. So I figured it had to be the place to get 2015 started here at Colin’s Ghost.

In May 1922, Hervey wrote a piece titled “Folk Song of the Turf” where he documented the lyrics to a song sung among African American backside workers in the 1890s. His article about the song appears to be the first and only documentation of this historical gem.

One thing you learn when reading Hervey is that he was more scientist than artist. While he certainly had moments of sentimentality (only the most cold historians do not), his writing rarely strays into anything outside the norm of your everyday racing obsessive. So it’s no surprise that Hervey was never inspired to write in (or about) poetry. Writing poems about horse racing was something the English did and Hervey, I have come to discover, had a rather sour view of the Brits. According to Hervey, quality poems about American racing were rare and the those being produced from the turf press of the day he called “crude and amateurish.”  The literature (both high and low) of the turf did not interest Hervey, which makes this particular piece unique among his prodigious writing output.

What makes its focus interesting is that it wasn’t the writing of a well known writer or even the work of a single author that inspired Hervey to write about the subject of poetry and the races. Instead it was a “chanty” or “folk song” he heard among racetrack workers about the legendary racehorse Salvator. As you will see, there was nothing British about this particular tune. In fact, it resembled, according to Hervey’s description in 1922, the most American form of music: Jazz.

Here is how Hervey introduced the song to his readers in the Daily Racing Form in 1922:

In those days, especially if you were given to loafing about the stables in the twilight or after dark and heard the sounds of a guitar or banjo, and then a mellow negro voice lifted in song, you did not need to be told what it was singing. Involuntarily your footsteps turned that way and perhaps you found yourself beside an impromptu campfire, where a group of grooms had gathered to while the time away. And as the song proceeded you found yourself yielding to the magic of its rhythm, your feet twitching to its measures, and your own voice joining in the chorus.

He then provided a full transcription of the lyrics “after so many years, and never having seen them in print.” Here are the lyrics as sung by long forgotten backside workers during the 1890s:

Wait till I get down Sheepshead Bay.
Is what I heard ole Haggin1 say
I don’t care if Tenny starts
I’m gonna break ole Tenny’s heart –
But they couldn’t ketch Salvator
But they couldn’t ketch Salvator
They brought ‘im to a drive an’ he run in two-five
But they couldn’t ketch Salvator

Johnny Campbell he well understood
To have ole Cassius2
Fit an’ good to set the pace
An’ kill off the heavyweights in the race –
But he couldn’t beat Salvator
But he couldn’t beat Salvator
They brought ‘im to a drive an’ he run in two-five
But he couldn’t beat Salvator

They run the quarter in twenty-fo’
They was down to the half in fo’ty-eight
First three-quarters in one-thirteen
Ole Salvator jest a gittin’ up steam
But they couldn’t ketch Salvator
But they couldn’t ketch Salvator
They brought ‘im to a drive an’ he won in two-five
But they couldn’t ketch Salvator

They run the mile in thirty-nine
Old Tenny he six lengths behin’
The Snapper3 he begin to ride
But he couldn’t ketch ole Haggin’s hide –
But he never caught Salvator
But he never caught Salvator
He brought ‘im to a drive an’ he run in two-five
But he never caught Salvator

The end of the article has the author in the role of music historian, finishing with insight into the feel and rhythm of the song, and perceptively identifying it as the forerunner to the popular music of his day:

That was before the day of jazz. Ragtime was also still in the offing, but beginning to be heard of. This ditty of Salvator and Tenny was sung to a subtly, syncopated rhythm quite irresistible. You didn’t have to “watch out” for it just “got you” anyway. It had a sway and a swing, a gliding dancing step, alternated with dramatic pauses exotic accents, interpolated cadenzas and all the rest of those semi-barbaric4 modes and tempo which, in subsequent years, were to take possession of the world. They were all new then, and in combination with the verses and the stage setting formed something that left to the sympathetic hearer memories that could never fade.

Brilliant, beautiful, and a wonderful piece of racing and music history documented by the legendary John Hervey.



Read Salvator’s article in full from the Daily Racing Form, May 30th 1922

Poet Ella Wheel Wilcox wrote a poem called “How Salvator Won” about his famous match race with Tenny in 1890. Hervey dismissed the work as being a “piece beloved of those addicted to elocutionary stunts.” You can judge for yourself here

I attempted to find some similarities in the lyrics to an actual race. None of the facts I found aligned to a real race. UPDATE, 2/28/15: See comments below.

One interesting omission, there is no mention of Salvator’s jockey, Isaac Murphy, the legendary African American rider. Considering the performers and writers, it is a glaring omission and one that is difficult to explain.

If you missed my first post of 2015 last Saturday morning, here it is again.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

  1. James Ben Ali Haggin (1822-1914) was the owner of Salvator and best know for his breeding operation at Elmendorf farm in Lexington, KY. The Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland is named in his honor. []
  2. The second place finisher in the 1890 Suburban. In a report of that race in the New York Times the writer claimed the horse was “…despised by the multitude as being of an inferior class.” He set the pace in the Suburban as he did in the unidentified race described in the song. []
  3. Jockey Edward ‘Snapper’ Garrison []
  4. What the modern ear reads as racism can – unfortunately – be found sporadically in Hervey’s work []

Filed in Hervey, John,Salvator,thoroughbred racing history

6 Responses to “Salvator: Folk Song of the Turf, 1890s”

  1. rob concors says:

    The only racing poem I ever saw or remember was the Runyan piece on Earl Sande. Handy Sande or something like that.

  2. Aggie BANE says:

    That was a beautiful piece of Americana. I am so glad this fragment of the backside found its way to your column. Think of what else was lost over the years. To this day I always think when observing 2 year Olds in training..” half mile work in 48, going to the races, going to the races…”

  3. Brad Telias says:

    Rob, Damon Runyon’s famous words still ring melodically true. Runyon immortalized Sande in 1923 with the following final verse to the poem.

    Maybe We’ll have another,
    Maybe in 90 years!
    Maybe we’ll find his brother,
    With his brains above his ears,
    Maybe- I’ll lay agin it,
    A million bucks to a fin.
    Never a handy guy like Sande,
    Bootin’ them babies in!

    Kevin, One the finest pieces of historical thoroughbred writing, as you no doubt know, has to be Hervey’s three volumes of the 5-part Jockey Club Racing in America series. The volume that covers 1922-36 is especially rewarding with some fabulous pix of the horses and racetracks of the era.

    Your readers should try to lay their hooves on any one of those volumes as it’ll be wonderful learning experience and a strong gallop down Racing’s memory lane.

  4. Owen Klein says:

    It is of note that while the current quality of racing has flattened out- the quality and amount of excellent research and writing about racing is accelerating.

  5. Paul Joseph Pluth says:


    I’m not sure what you meant when you wrote “I attempted to find some similarities in the lyrics to an actual race. None of the facts I found aligned to a real race.”

    Because, except for the race’s fractions and final time, they describe the 1890 Suburban Hcp (at Sheepshead racetrack) that you footnoted. Cassius (owned by Beverwyck/Campbell) set the pace, Salvator stalked and won, while Tenny with Snapper Garrison on board made a late rush for third.

    According to the writeup in the link below, the final time of 2:06 4/5 was only a tick behind Kingston’s record, so that the fractions in the song were poetic license.

    Salvator and Tenny only raced each other again twice, and in each they were the only competitors. So that the lyrics cannot refer to any other race except the one footnoted.

  6. Kevin says:

    Hi Paul:

    Thank you for the correction. Yes, it was the discrepancy of the times that determined that conclusion. Based on your comment, i agree with you, while the time is wrong the rest of the evidence points to the 1890 Suburban.

    I appreciate your contribution!