Horse racing in the British American colonies dates back to the establishment of the Newmarket course on the Salisbury Plains in Hempstead Plains of Long Island in 1665. Only 1 year after the English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch, the first English governor of New York Richard Nicolls laid out the formal race course. The course was constructed 2 miles long on Salisbury Plain on Long Island. In contrast to the dense virgin forest which covered most of the eastern Atlantic seaboard, Salisbury Plain offered a tract of grass 4 miles wide &16 miles long.
Governor Nicolls explained that the purpose of the race course was “not so much for the divertissement of youth as for encouraging the bettering of the breed of horses which through great neglect has been impaired.” To induce competition in the importing & careful breeding of horses, Nicolls offered trophies at the spring & fall meetings. To foster quality in American horses, as early as 1668, the court of Massachusetts decreed that only horses “of comely proportions and 14 hands in stature” could graze on town commons. A law was enacted by William Penn in Pennsylvania in 1687, which set a minimum height of 13 hands for free ranging horses. Any horse more than 18 months old & less than 13 hands had to be gelded. In 1715, Maryland enacted a law, that any old stray horses could be shot on sight.
Many towns in early America had streets called “Race Street." Such streets gained their names from the habit of running horse races on them. In 1674, the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts evidently grew tired of the races in their village & created an ordinance forbidding racing. About a century later, Connecticut enacted a law which demanded the forfeit of a man’s horse, in addition to a fine of 40 shillings, if he was caught racing in the streets.
In Virginia, races were often held at courthouses, fairs, churches, or taverns attracting large gatherings of people of all sorts. But only gentlemen could enter horses in races. 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.”
The June 1704, Maryland court records give an account of a suit by Joseph Addison against Capt. Edward Hunt. Addison charged that Hunt "at Lyons Creek in Anne Arundel County…stood justly indebted" for an itemized list of expenses that included "money lent you at the race" in the amount of 18 shillings. Obviously, there were horse races being held at Lyons Creek (near Herring Bay) as early as 1702.
While horse racing generally followed English rules in the northern American colonies, another form of racing began to flourish in the southern regions. The racetracks in these wooded regions were sometimes little more than 2 parallel race paths, 1/4 mile in length, cut through the forest. There was little space at either the beginning or the end of the track. 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, & this continued in the backcountry in the next century. The quarter-mile track, therefore, gave both the race & the smaller horses their names. It was not unusual for the competitors & spectators to travel far to these early quarter-race tracks in the woods & to place considerable wagers on their town’s horse. Typical side wagers included money, tobacco, slaves, & property.
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.” In 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 British American colonial's love affair with horses did not escape the capitalistic minds of commercial garden proprietors. To increase traffic at his public pleasure garden, New Yorker Francis Child held a horse race there in 1736. Child operated Catiemuts Garden which was the favorite outdoor tavern of the city's sporting set. The prize, a silver plate valued at twenty pounds, could be won by any "Horse, Mare, or Gelding carrying Ten Stone, Saddle and Bridle included, winning the best of three Heats, Two Miles each Heat."
18th Century Woodcut
By 1735, horse races were occuring regularly at the Bowling Green House & the Quarter House in Charleston, South Carolina. The South Carolina Gazette advertised a variety of prizes for the winners of these races from saddles & bridles to horses to silver swords to cash. For one 1735 race, a requirement to enter was "for white Men to ride." Many of the jockeys in colonial America in the South were slaves, who were referred to only by a first name.
By 1737, The Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg reported that, "there is to be Horse Racing every Saturday till October, at the Race Ground near this City." The Virginia Gazette on December 9, 1737, reported that, "On St. Andrew's Day...a great Number of Gentlemen, ladies, and others; Booths were set up, and an extraordinary good Dinner provided for them, with Variety and Plenty of Liquors. The Horse and Foot Races whereon; and all or most of the Prizes contemned for, and won. The fine Saddle and Housing were won by a Bay Horse belonging to one Tynes, of Carolina County...Flag was display'd, Drums were beating, Trumpets founding, and other Musick playing, for the Entertainment of the Company, and the whole was manag'd with... good Order."
Continuing the tradition, but cleverly charging both entrants & spectators for the privilege, New Yorker Adam Vandenberg leased land of the Church Farm in 1742, next to his property, laying out a race course & advertising the familiar "run for a Piece of Plate by any Horse, Mare, or Gelding carrying Ten Stone, Saddle and Bridle included, of three Heats, Two Miles each." Vandenberg charged each race entrant half a Pistole. Observers on horseback or in chaises could expect to pay six pence apiece to watch the events. Vandenberg hoped that those at the track would wander over to his Mead House and Garden (or Drover's Tavern) after the race. Vandenberg's garden & tavern was near the site of the later Astor House.
In wealthy Annapolis, Maryland, the highlight of the social season was a week of parties & plays organized around a racing meeting. In 1743, a silversmith was commissioned to make a trophy for the Annapolis Subscription Plate, a premier event of the city’s September races.
Plan of Town of Newbern, North Carolina, 1769, by Claude Joseph Sauthier (1736-1802) shows the race course just outside the town.
In North Carolina, Halifax, Warren & neighboring counties in east Carolina were the horse raising sections of the state. There were racetracks at Halifax, Scotland Neck, Tarboro, by 1768 at Hillsbough, & earlier, in the late 1700’s, at Tuckers Paths.
18th Century Woodcut
Horseracing was exceedingly popular by mid-century. On Friday, June 1, 1750, a New York newspaper reported a great race at Hempstead Plains, for a considerable wager, which attracted such attention that on Thursday, the day before the race, upward of 70 chairs & chaises were carried over the Long Island Ferry, plus a far greater number of horses. The number of horses on the plains at the race was said to far exceed a thousand. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, & James Monroe were fans of racing. George Washington attended the Maryland Jockey Club race meeting frequently in 1762 going to the track for almost every carded event. He also attended race meetings in 1766, 1767, 1771, 1772, and 1773 in Annapolis, Maryland, & kept a written record of his gambling wins & losses.
Rhode Island, Maryland, & Virginia were centers of colonial horse breeding, along with South Carolina & New York. During the American Revolution, importations of race horses from England practically stopped but resumed after the signing of a peace treaty.
Before the days of baseball, football, & basketball, horse racing was the sport of its day. Jockey clubs were organized to set rules & regulations. Maryland maintained some 20 racing centers before the Revolution. In 1765, a British officer noted that “there are established races annually at almost every town and considerable place in Virginia." To supply the horses demanded for quality racing, a breeding industry steadily grew in Virginia. By the time of the Revolution, there were 27 important breeding farms in the vicinity of the James, York, Rappahanock, & Potomac rivers. America’s first jockey club, composed of wealthy horse owners & breeders, was organized in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1734. The Maryland Jockey Club is a sporting organization dedicated to horse racing, founded in Annapolis in 1743. The Philadelphia Jockey Club was founded in 1766, "to encourage the breeding of good horses and to promote the pleasures of the turf." The Wilmington, North Carolina Jockey Club was established in 1774.
As English thoroughbreds were imported into the South, Virginia race 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, New England school teacher Philip Vickers Fithian attended a race between 2 horses at Richmond Court House. 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...The Horses started precisely at 5 minutes after 3; the Course was 1 Mile in Circumference, they performed the first Round in 2 minutes, third in 2 minutes & a-half...when the Riders dismounted very lame; they run five Miles, and Carried 180 lb.”
from John Lawrence, The History and Delineation of the Horse (London, 1809)
Horse racing expanded after the American Revolution, as jockey clubs were established in nearly every region, annual races became major social events, & horse breeding became big business. It became necessary to standardize racing weights, distances, & other variables.
In the Chesapeake, where races were regularly scheduled during court days, public gardens organized events around the horse races. In 1801 the Hay-Market Gardens in Richmond, Virginia announced their special arrangements for race days. The owner, Mr. J. Pryor, had ordered and installed a new organ for his music gallery that would play for the first time during the races. He had built an "extensive building surrounding the gallery" in preparation for theatrical performances planned for the third day of the races. There will be a BALL on the first night of the races--a Grand Concert accompanied with the organ and voices on the second night." He was also looking for "two good Bar Keepers and a few waiters" to meet the increased demand he expected during the races.
William Penn (1644-1718) reportedly raced his horses in Philadelphia, down what would fittingly later be named Race Street. From 1682 to 1684, Penn, a Quaker, was in the Province of Pennsylvania, & he returned once more in 1699. Penn declared that, "Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it." Sports & athletic contests had long been associated with gambling, drinking, & other earthly sins. Horse racing was one sport that the conservative early legislature did not specifically ban. George Washington attended local races staged by the Philadelphia Jockey Club. Pennsylvanians had long been familiar with sporting public pleasure gardens. In Philadelphia, Hunting Park opened as a race track in 1808, & doubled as a public pleasure garden. But in 1820, the Pennsylvania legislature banned horse racing throughout the state.