Four-legged 19th century star athletes: Endorsement deals, paparazzi, and glory

In honor of the running of the Hambletonian Stakes, a major event in American Harness Racing, on August 2, intern and equestrian Ariel Caruso investigates the history of horseracing in America.

Athletes today are considered celebrities for their stunning physical achievements, but in the 19th century trotting horses were as popular as some of the most well-known sports figures of the time. Harness racing, in which horses race around a track while pulling a driver in a two-wheeled cart, began in the 18th century as a favored leisure pastime for rural communities, as well as a means of transportation. As the sport grew in popularity in the 19th century, the first tracks were established and incorporated into county fairs.

Lady Suffolk in an advertisement for Kinney Bros “High Class Cigarettes”
Lady Suffolk in an advertisement for Kinney Bros. "High Class Cigarettes"

Early trotting horses were raced under saddle in the same fashion as flat-track Thoroughbreds because it was faster than when the horse was attached to a cart. As practical transportation began to favor wagons, the sport of harness racing reflected the movement away from saddle horses. Lady Suffolk, affectionately known as the "Old Gray Mare" was the first trotter to complete the mile under saddle in under 2:30. In 1843 she became "Queen of the Turf" by finishing with a time of 2:26 ½, reducing the previous record by almost five seconds.

Her popularity was greatly due to William T. Porter, a journalist, who used his weekly newspaper The Spirit of the Times to publish her exploits. A long-time fan of the sport, Porter was responsible for catapulting the popularity of harness racing in the press and turning the horses into well-known celebrities. As is the case today, these "athletes" became so well-known that they were used to sell consumer products, like in this print of Lady Suffolk, which promotes a cigarette brand. Advertisements featuring trotting promoted commercial interest as diverse as carriage manufacturers and oil companies.

Photo of the Hambletonian Stakes in 2011 by flickr user “Mike L” via the creative commons license
Photo of the Hambletonian Stakes in 2011 by flickr user "Mike L" via the creative commons license

After the Civil War, racing standards came to dictate the pulling of a two-wheeled cart, or sulky, with a driver over a mile-long track in less than two minutes and 30 seconds. These standards gave way to new breeding techniques that produced the Standardbred breed, named for the racing requirements, from an imported English Thoroughbred named Messenger. This line was shorter and more muscular than their flat-track counterparts so they could run faster when attached to the sulky. Today, other harness racing breeds include the Canadian Pacer, the Norfolk Trotter, the Hackney, and the Morgan.

Photo of the Hambletonian Stakes in 2011 by flickr user “Mike L” via the creative commons license
Hambletonian with his owner William Rysdyk

One of these offspring was the most famous trotter of all time, Hambletonian 10, Messenger's great-grandson. He was bred in 1849 in Sugar Loaf, New York, and was purchased by William Rysdyk for $125. Hambletonian had unusually long hind legs, which made him more successful than his rival and half-brother Abdallah Chief.

In 1852, their rivalry was finally settled at the Union Course in Long Island when Hambletonian trotted the mile in 2:48 ¼, a full seven seconds faster than Abdallah Chief. However, it is his stud career that made him legendary and earned Rysdyk $200,000. Hambletonian fathered 1,331 foals after being bred to 1,900 mares. Every Standardbred horse since has been a descendant of the "Father of the American Trotter."

One of the most famous matches in trotting history was the rivalry between Dexter and the team of Ethan Allen and his running mate, Charlotte F. A Standardbred, Dexter had four white stockings, which was traditionally believed to be unlucky in the racing community. He defied the superstition by achieving a best ever time of 2:17 ½, and was able to trot under saddle, in harness, and hitched to a wagon. Ethan Allen was a Morgan horse known for being the most handsome and longest harness racer, with a total of 18 seasons. He was highly popular at stud.

The match race took place at the Fashion Course in Long Island on June 21, 1867, in front of a crowd of 15,000 people. The race was fashioned by the trotting community as a race between the Standardbred and Morgan breeds. It was three heats, and Ethan Allen's team won every race for a purse of $2,000. Even though Dexter lost, his performance in the race was considered one of the greatest trotting achievements so far achieved. Not yet settled, there was a rematch scheduled for July 4, 1867, in Morristown, New Jersey, but the same results were achieved. Dexter retired at the end of that year.

Ethan Allen and Charlotte F. coming in ahead of Dexter
Ethan Allen and Charlotte F. coming in ahead of Dexter

Hambletonian, Lady Suffolk, Dexter, and Ethan Allen were all inducted into the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and memorialized in lithograph imagery. Sporting art was widely circulated in the 19th century to capture the nostalgia of great sporting achievements, and the lithograph was considered the medium of popular art. These prints were able to be mass produced and reflected the important status of trotters, much like the athlete posters of today. The 19th century sporting prints were hung in gentleman's clubs and men's offices, and they can still be seen in taverns and dining clubs. As a long-time equestrian, I relished the opportunity to research these prints in the Harry T. Peters "America on Stone" Collection during my internship.

Ariel Caruso is a recent graduate of Dickinson College and interned in the Division of Home and Community Life this spring under associate curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs.