When I first saw the oil study of Proctor Knott winning the First Futurity stakes held at Sheepshead Bay on Long Island in 1888, I didn’t immediately realize that the painting’s title referred to the name of the horse, not the jockey. Shelby “Pike” Barnes was up, one of several leading African-Americans in the sport at the end of the 19th century and the first to win over 200 races in one season (Read more about Pike Barnes’ record-breaking career on the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame website). Following closely in second place was Salvator ridden by Tony Hamilton, another leading black jockey. The purse collected by the winning race horse’s owner was a whopping $40,900 (over $1,000,000 today), the highest race earnings at the time.

Louis Maurer (American, 1832 – 1932), Proctor Knott (The First Futurity, 1888, Jerome Park, Sheepshead Bay, a Close Finish), c. 1888, oil on canvas, 12 ½ x 18 ⅛ inches, Gift of The Margaret Kendrick Blodgett Foundation in memory of Peter Winants, Director Emeritus of the National Sporting  Library, 2001

The hunched figures in the oil study by Louis Maurer in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection may be construed by viewers as caricatures, especially in light of the fact that the artist drew conservative political cartoons that are blatantly racist and denigrating by today’s standards. Currier and Ives published them leading up to Republican Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election in 1860. One of the most extreme examples is titled An Heir to the Throne, Or the Next Republican Candidate.

The Library of Congress’s description for the image: “The Republicans’ purported support of Negro rights is taken to an extreme here. Editor Horace Greeley (left) and candidate Abraham Lincoln (resting his elbow on a rail at right) stand on either side of a short black man holding a spear. The latter is the deformed African man recently featured at P.T. Barnum’s Museum on Broadway as the “What-is-it.” (A poster for this attraction appears on the wall behind.) Greeley says, “Gentlemen allow me to introduce to you, this illustrious individual in whom you will find combined, all the graces, and virtues of Black Republicanism, and whom we propose to run as our next Candidate for the Presidency.” Lincoln muses, “How fortunate! that this intellectual and noble creature should have been discovered just at this time, to prove to the world the superiority of the Colored over the Anglo Saxon race, he will be a worthy successor to carry out the policy which I shall inaugurate.” The black man wonders, “What, can dey be?” Source and image: https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3a05736/

Although this is difficult imagery to associate with Currier & Ives and Louis Maurer, the successful lithography firm’s company policy was business before politics. They produced satire expressing sentiments held across the political spectrum. For example, Maurer drew a pro-Lincoln cartoon, The Political Oyster House, also published by the firm in the same year.

Currier & Ives was much more widely known for creating a market for its broad variety of affordable art prints than for its caricatures. Among the last images Maurer contributed to the firm was the completed painting of the 1888 First Futurity race upon which the NSLM’s oil study was based. It was reproduced as a large chromolithograph titled The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay to appeal to middle-class collectors who could afford the image that commemorated an important moment in racing history.

inscribed: To the Coney Island Jockey Club this print of The Futurity Race at Sheepshead Bay. Sept 3, 1888. Value $50,000 Won by Proctor Knott is dedicated by the publishers. Painted by L. Maurer. Copyright 1889 By Currier & Ives, New York. Printed in oil colors and published by Currier & Ives, 115 Nassau St. N.Y.  Proctor Knott (Barnes) Salvator (Hamilton) Galen (Turner), Image and source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.00720/

The large original oil on canvas is in the collection of the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. The painting and print reveal a stylistic consistency between the depiction of the African-American and Caucasian jockeys portrayed in the composition with the crowd in the distance focused on the action of the race.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Sheepshead Bay was in the racing capitol of the United States. From 1879 and 1910, three venues were established in Brooklyn within miles of one another which were accessible by new rail lines. The Brighton Beach track opened in 1879; then the picturesque dirt and turf tracks at Sheepshead Bay were begun in 1880 and 1886 respectively (where the First Futurity took place). The Gravesend Track operated by the Brooklyn Jockey Club was started in 1886. These tracks attracted sportsmen and race-goers from across all walks of life to Coney Island.

Louis Maurer (American, 1832 – 1932) First Futurity (detail), 1888, oil on canvas, 36 x 60 inches, National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame’s Permanent Collection, Gift of George D. Widener. Image Source: https://www.racingmuseum.org/sites/default/files/styles/front_page_rotator/public/1955.15-1140×500.jpg?itok=Lfxvfux4

At the height of their popularity, the races drew as many as 40,000 spectators to the region during the season of May through October. The booming flat racing industry was fueled by sportsmen and supported by jockeys, trainers, grooms, and stable hands who traveled there seasonally. A community of hospitality workers also arose.

Many of these working-class men and women were African-Americans facing the rising tide of racism that would soon culminate in the spread of segregation laws across the United States by the early twentieth century. While race relations were  complex, Louis Maurer’s painting, oil study, and print of the 1888 First Futurity as well as works by other artists of the era capture a slice of history to be embraced and honored for what they represent, a time when African Americans dominated the sport of racing as acclaimed  top athletes and were depicted in this historically significant role.

To read more about this topic, please see They Rode to WinClarice & Robert H. Smith Educator Anne Marie Barnes’s blog and the upcoming public program on June 13, 2017, Race Forms: African-American Jockeys in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion and Gilded Age Philadelphia by Dr. John Ott, a part of the Heroes & Underdogs lecture series.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

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In the racing world, horses and jockeys are the heroes of the track. Amid trainers, grooms, and thousands of spectators, no individual is easier to identify than the brightly-clad jockey. They are a symbol of power, skill, and grace, a psychological link between man and horse. African-American jockeys are no exception.

Early American racing history was directly shaped by black hands. Slaves and freed men alike raced and trained Thoroughbreds throughout the country. After the Civil War, former slaves became paid jockeys and stable staff at the farms and plantations where they grew up taking care of the horses. Their knowledge of and connection with race horses were an underpinning of American racing, and many races featuring African-American jockeys, often in equal number to white competitors. In fact, in the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (1875-1903), 15 of the winners were African-American.

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Edward Muybridge, The Horse in motion. “Sallie Gardner,” owned by Leland Stanford; running at a 1:40 gait over the Palo Alto track, 19th June 1878 , albumen, 1878, Library of Congress. 
Muybridge’s early photographic records of black jockeys and boxers show conflicting messages in 19th century race relations. They perpetuate imagery of African-American strength and obedience, while also representing the social mobility of successful black individuals within those sports.

Men like Isaac Murphy, Oliver Lewis, Shelby “Pike” Barnes, and many others used the stereotype of black athleticism to garner respect and greater social and economic freedom. Some were able to negotiate salaries of up to $400,000 in today’s money, an income almost unheard of for black Americans at the time. They raced with a passion familiar to all sport lovers. After an 1890 win at Sheepshead Bay, Isaac Murphy told a reporter simply, “I ride to win.”

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Louis Maurer (American, 1832-1932) Proctor Knott (The First Futurity, 1888, Jerome Park, Sheepshead Bay, a Close Finish), 1888, oil on canvas, 13 1/4 x 19 inches
Gift of the Margaret Kendrick Blodgett Foundation, at the request of Mrs. Blodgett’s granddaughter, Margaret Hall Whitfield, in honor of Peter Winants, Director Emeritus of the National Sporting Library, 2001
      Favored to win, Proctor Knott with Shelby “Pike” Barnes up takes 1st place at the 1888 First Futurity and a record $40,000 purse. Barnes was the leading U.S. jockey in both 1888 and 1889. He was also the first jockey to win over 200 races in a year and was among several successful African-American jockeys that dominated the sport in the late 19th century. Barnes was inducted into the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame in 2011.

 

However, the heyday of black American jockeys came to an end. Jim Crow laws and 1896’s “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson made it harder and harder for black jockeys to find employment. While African-Americans were welcome trainers, grooms, and stable hands throughout the 20th century, they were often shut out from the more visible and lucrative position of jockey. Although tracks are now desegregated and several black jockeys have been elected into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, there are significantly fewer African-American wearing silks today. According to a 2013 Jockey’s Guild study, there are only about 30 African-Americans in a membership of nearly 1,000 individuals.

Andre Pater (Polish, American, b. 1953) Going to the Post, 2011, oil on canvas, 24 x 28 inches, Collection of Nils and Samantha Brous © Andre Pater.
Contemporary sporting artist Andre Pater began incorporating African Americans into his work in acknowledgment of the previously marginalized black jockeys of the 19th century.

 

Andre Pater (Polish, American, b. 1953) Jockey Up, Turquoise and Gold Silks, pastel on board, 34 x 24 inches, 2008. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jose Laudo De Camargo © Andre Pater

Racing contributions and successes by black jockeys demonstrate the value of representation- both on the track and on canvas. African-American jockeys in the closing years of the 19th century dominated the sport in many ways. Yes, they won countless races and took home impressive purses. But they also showed – and still show – great tenacity and passion. They are smart, skilled, and talented competitors whose achievements continue to inspire us.

Want to know more about African-American jockeys and Gilded Age imagery? Join us on June 13th for a Heroes & Underdogs talk with Dr. John Ott of James Madison University. Dr. Ott will be presenting “Race Forms: African-American Jockeys in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion and Gilded Age Philadelphia”.

 


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Anne Marie Barnes is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail

 

This coming Saturday is a big day in the horse racing world! You don’t need us to tell you that May 6 is the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The Virginia Gold Cup is also this Saturday, just down the road from us at Great Meadow in The Plains.

There are so many amazing horses, talented people, spectacular stories, and fun facts associated with both of these big events – we could never share them all. Here are just a few stories about some of the four-legged stars connected with the collections here at the NSLM.

Sea Hero
This long-shot bay colt won the Derby in 1993. Today, Sea Hero is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner and is enjoying a life of retirement standing at stud in Turkey.

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Tessa Pullan (English, b. 1953), Sea Hero, 1995, bronze, on stone base, 88 x 29 ½ x 96 inches, including base, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999, Acquired 2014 [(c) Tessa Pullan]
Determine
One of the very few grey horses to win the Derby (only eight have ever done so), Determine won in 1954 – the same year the National Sporting Library was founded.

Man O’War
One of the most famous names in American horse racing never actually ran in the Kentucky Derby, but his progeny went on to win quite a few. The chestnut stallion’s offspring included 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, and he is found in the bloodlines of most top thoroughbreds, all the way up to American Pharaoh (2015) and Nyquist (2016). Another son was steeplechaser Battleship, the first American horse to win the English Grand National Steeplechase in 1938.

Marilyn Newmark (American, 1928-2013), Man O’War, 1977, bronze, 10 ½ x 14 ¾ x 3 ½ inches, Gift of Jacqueline B. Mars, 2016.  Newmark, who is known primarily for her equestrian sculpture, created this posthumous portrait after referencing the many photographs documenting the champion thoroughbred.

Gallant Fox
Gallant Fox was the second horse to ever win the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont races (1930), and the first to be referred to as a “Triple Crown” winner by the press. Gallant Fox: A Memoir, written in 1931 by the horse’s owner, William Woodward, Sr., is one of the scarcest books ever printed by the Derrydale Press. The copy in the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room here at the NSLM is numbered one of fifty (but the whereabouts of only five copies are currently recorded).

The Celebrated Horse Lexington, by Boston, out of Alice Carneal, and Churchill Downs, Derby Day, c. 1946, Published by Currier & Ives, Gift of Mrs. Parker Poe, 1978

Lexington
Lexington never ran in the Derby either. In fact, he died in 1875, the first year the Kentucky Derby was run. But Lexington was the leading sire in America for decades. This print in the NSLM collection features a portrait of Lexington after Louis Maurer (German/American, 1832-1932). The portrait is surrounded by images of the first 71 Derby winners – from Aristides (1875), up through Hoop Jr. (1945).

Secretariat
You can see a portrait of the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, along with Derby winners Smarty Jones (2004), Barbaro (2006), and many other gorgeous thoroughbreds in our newest exhibition Andre Pater: In a Sporting Light.

Andre Pater (Polish/American, b. 1953), Secretariat, 2004, pastel on board, 20 x 24 inches, Private Collection [(c) Andre Pater]

Happy Race Day!

In 1933, a stunning new art exhibition opened at The Field Museum in Chicago. Brought together by none other than Marshall Field, the exhibition was an exclusive selection of 19 sculptures by Herbert Haseltine from his series British Champion Animals.

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“Portrait of Herbert Haseltine by Sir William Orpen, R. A.” frontispiece of Herbert Haseltine: An Exhibition of Sculpture of British Champion Animals, 1933. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Haseltine (1877-1962) was the son of a painter, and was born in Rome (then in the independent state of Lazio). He reputedly took an interest in horses at 12 years old when Buffalo Bill‘s “Wild West” show visited Italy to perform. Haseltine studied in various parts of Europe before settling in Paris (where he lived a great deal of his life).

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Herbert Haseltine (American, 1877 – 1962) Polo Pony: Perfection, 1930 bronze, 10 x 12 ½ x 4 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Jacqueline B. Mars. A selection of Haseltine’s series, British Champion Animals was exhibited at the Field Museum in 1933. Haseltine sent a copy of the exhibition catalog to artist Paul Brown.

The 1933 exhibition presented an opportunity for American artist Paul Brown to reach out to Haseltine. Because of careful retention of the paper record, a view of the relationship between both artists is in the NSLM collection.

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Brown forwarded Haseltine a book of his artwork, and Haseltine returned the favor. The exhibition catalog for British Champion Animals is inscribed “To Paul Brown from his admirer, Herbert Haseltine.” National Sporting Library & Museum.

Brown (1893-1958) was a hugely popular equestrian artist in his own right. He took advantage of Haseltine’s visit to the United States to forward a book featuring his artwork, and received back an exhibition catalog for British Champion Animals, and a letter. The letter shows that Haseltine was eager to “talk shop.”

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“I enjoyed looking at the horses. They are beautifully drawn and terribly alive.”
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“There is also a certain sameness about the mens [sic] faces.”
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“But you have a wonderful foundation for sculpture or painting. I saw your portrait of a horse of Scribners — a little too much detail — if you don’t mind my saying so. Also some of the horses’ ears a little rabbityfied at the points.”

Haseltine can’t keep himself from technical critique, but he tries to lighten the mood, too.

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“Please forgive all this HOT AIR.”

Below is a full transcription:

19th February, 1933

Dear Paul Brown,

Thank you a thousand times for the book – I enjoyed looking at the horses. They are beautifully drawn and terribly alive. Do you mind if I say something?

In the grouping – I would think of the composition in such a way that you couldn’t take anything out of it – without it’s being ruined. If it isn’t ruined, well it would be just as well without it. It all ought to hang together and make one. There is also a certain sameness about the mens faces.

But you have a wonderful foundation for sculpture or painting. I saw your portrait of a horse of Scribners — a little too much detail — if you don’t mind my saying so. Also some of the horses’ ears a little rabbityfied at the points. Look at a horse’s ears, especially a well bred one and you will see what I mean.

Please forgive all this HOT AIR. I hope we shall meet soon again.

Yours,

Herbert Haseltine

We don’t know what Brown thought about the letter, but he prized it enough to keep it, and the exhibition catalog. Both were donated to NSLM by Brown’s daughter, Nancy Brown Searles in 2011 and are now part of our manuscripts collection.

Long after the Field Museum exhibition, three smaller casts of Haseltine’s sculptures are in the permanent collection at NSLM. They’re often on view in the Permanent Collection exhibition, so plan your visit to see them in person soon!


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

You may have seen the hashtag #5womenartists on your feed or in the news in the last few weeks. It has been shared broadly, but it was first begun by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in honor of Women’s History Month last year. “Using the hashtag #5womenartists, the campaign will encourage NMWA’s online community to help address the gender imbalance in the presentation of art both in the United States and internationally,” notes the NMWA webpage. Here are five women artists that you can find at the National Sporting Library & Museum.

#1 – Jean Bowman was a leading 20th century, American equestrian portraitist and a founding member of the American Academy of Equine Art.

Jean Bowman, Mongo
Jean Eleanor Bowman (American, 1917-1994), Mongo on the Turf at Laurel Racetrack, Maryland with Charles Burr Up, 1964, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches, Gift of Jacqueline B. Mars, 2012 © John H. Pentecost

The painful reality is that unlike institutions such as NMWA which focus on female artists, only 3-5% of museum permanent collection objects in the U.S. and Europe have been produced by women (NMWA’s Get the Facts). Depressing, right?

#2 – Susan Catherine Moore Waters was an early female artist who attained recognition during her lifetime for her animal paintings, exhibiting at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Susan Waters, Chickens & Raspberries
Susan Catherine Moore Waters (American, 1823-1900), Chickens and Raspberries, c.1880, oil on canvas, 24 x 16 ½ inches, Gift of The Phelan Collection, 2012

I was curious to see how the NSLM’s permanent collection would hold up to this statistic. 41 objects by females out of 962 paintings, works on paper, sculpture, prints, and trophies from 17th century to the present were recorded in the 2015 full inventory. This equals 4.3% females.

#3 – Tessa Pullan was commissioned by Paul Mellon to sculpt the three-quarter life-size bronze of his winning Thoroughbred Sea Hero, now installed in the NSLM’s boxwood garden.

Tessa Pullan, Sea Hero
Tessa Pullan, (British, b.1953) Sea Hero, bronze on slate stone base, 96 x 88 x 29 ¼ inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999, Acquired 2014 © Tessa Pullan

Looking at objects made from the 20th century to the present in isolation, however, reflects a stronger number of 27.5% women. This mirrors the rising number of female artists attaining success throughout the 20th century. Additionally, 31% of the original art that came to the NSLM since the Museum opened in 2011 was created by women artists.

#4 – Clarice Smith’s exhilarating three-dimensional exploration of a horse race brings an edgy and contemporary perspective to the traditional subject.

Clarice Smith, Gallop
Clarice Smith, (American, b.1933), Gallop, 2009, oil with gold and copper leaf on canvas, on 5-panel screen, 50 x 77 ½ inches, Gift of Clarice Smith, 2015 © Clarice Smith

In addition to the artists from the permanent collection highlighted in this post, I must add Marie-Rosalie “Rosa” Bonheur (French, 1822 – 1899) to my #5womenartists. She was an innovator in her time and stands as a beacon to 20th century women artists. Even though NSLM does not yet have a work by Bonheur in its permanent collection, you can currently see one of her paintings at the Museum on loan. She is on our wish list, as the collection continues to grow through generous donations and bequests.

#5 – French painter and sculptor Rosa Bonheur is one of the most revered artists of the 19th century. See her painting in The Chronicle of the Horse in Art exhibition on loan through March 19, 2017.

Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur (French, 1822-1899), Highland Ponies, 1861, oil on canvas, 14 ¼ x 20 inches, Collection of Amy Chuckrow (on loan to The Chronicle of the Horse in Art exhibition through March 19, 2017)

We as keepers of history do not wish to revise the past, but we have our eyes open to the promise of the future. Today 51% of visual artists are women (NMWA’s Get the Facts).

What are your favorite #5womenartists? We would love to hear from you.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

 

Since 1939, the Piedmont Foxhounds have hosted the Piedmont Point-to-Point races in Upperville, Virginia. The most prestigious race of the meet is the Rokeby Challenge Bowl, which, for decades, has attracted top horses in training for major steeplechase races. From 1939 until his death in 1999, the race and trophy were sponsored by Mr. Paul Mellon, who was a member of Piedmont and an avid supporter of jump racing. The winner of the race received a small trophy to keep and their names were engraved on a large perpetual trophy which they could keep for one year. Those who won the race three times (not necessarily consecutively or with the same horse) retired the trophy and could take it home for keeps. The trophies provided by Mr. Mellon were exquisite examples of silver and were highly sought after prizes.

The Rokeby Bowl, Piedmont Point-to-Point trophy, c. 1720, sterling silver, on wood and silver base, 15 x 10 ⅞ inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Mary Gillian Fenwick, 2016

One of the original silver Rokeby Bowl trophies has been generously donated to the NSLM by Mary Gillian “Gill” Fenwick. Mrs. Fenwick retired the Rokeby Bowl after winning the race three consecutive years, in 1961, 1962, and 1963. She was just the third owner to retire the trophy (five more have done so since then). Her winners were piloted by the famous steeplechase jockey Crompton “Tommy” Smith, Jr., all three years. The horses were Bay Barrage (1961), General Tony (1962), and Fluctuate (1963).

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Tommy Smith aboard Fluctuate, in the 1963 Rokeby Bowl steeplechase. Tommy Smith (1937-2013) was a five-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner and became famous for winning the British Grand National race in 1965 with Jay Trump.  Photo courtesy of Carol Fenwick. ©Howard Allen Photography, LLC

All three were talented racers. After winning in 1961, Bay Barrage ran again in 1962 with Olympic equestrian Frank Chapot on board. He placed third against his stablemate General Tony. Past Maryland Hunt Cup winner Fluctuate, nicknamed “Chris,” won in 1963 when he was 16 years-young and was rewarded with well-earned retirement.

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Gill Fenwick (right) and Tommy Smith (left) accepting the Rokeby Bowl trophies from Mrs. Thomas B. Glascock, Jr. (center) in 1961. Photo courtesy of Carol Fenwick. ©Howard Allen Photography, LLC

The original course was on Mellon’s Rokeby Farm property in Upperville. The race was 4 1/4 miles long, included 22 post and rail fences averaging 3’9″ high, and included two in-and-outs! In 1957, the point-to-point was relocated to the farms of Mrs. J. F. F. Stewart and Dr. and Mrs. A. C. Randolph along Route 50 in Upperville, now known as the Salem Farm course.

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Frank Chapot (1932-2016) on Bay Barrage in the 1962 running of the Rokeby Bowl. Chapot, who just recently passed away in 2016, was an Olympic medalist, USET coach, and world-renowned trainer, who also occasionally rode in steeplechases. Photo courtesy of Carol Fenwick. ©Howard Allen Photography, LLC

The trophy itself has more stories to tell. The bowl is almost 300 years old, dating to the year 1720. The plain silver punch bowl is hand-engraved with an image of a horse and jockey and inscribed with the words “Silver Tail’d Betty” and “Banbury Town Plate 1720.”  Town Plates (flat race meetings) were held in towns all over England for centuries. Prior to the establishment of the Jockey Club in the early 1750’s, each meet featured its own set of rules. The town of Banbury is located in Oxfordshire, in Southern England.

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Detail of Rokeby Bowl trophy, with engraving of horse and jockey and “Silver Tail’d Bettey”

After Mr. Mellon acquired the bowl, he added a tiered wooden base with sterling silver bands and donated it to Piedmont for the race. The NSLM is grateful to Mrs. Fenwick for gifting this special piece of racing history to the collection. It has traveled a long way since it was first used as a race trophy in 18th century England, then awarded at steeplechase races in 20th century America, and now has a home on display at the NSLM.

The 76th running of the Piedmont Point-to-Point takes place Saturday, March 25th at the Salem Farm course in Upperville, Virginia. For a schedule of all the Spring Steeplechase races, visit the Virginia Steeplechase Association calendar.

While leafing through a copy of the June 3, 1905 edition of The Thoroughbred Record, I happened across a piece under the heading “Local Turf News,” that detailed the visit of John Porter to their editorial offices in Lexington, Kentucky.

Surely this didn’t mean the famous trainer of racehorses, John Porter (1838-1922), who trained horses for the likes of the Duke of Westminster and King George V? The first sentence describes the man who visited:

John Porter, jockey; 4 feet 1 inch in height; weight 98 1/2 pounds, was a caller at The Thoroughbred Record office on Thursday afternoon. There is nothing unusual about Porter’s being a jockey. His height and weight would indicate as much, but when one becomes aware that he is just about seventy-five years old — Porter says he is not quite sure as to his correct age, but “that’s how old white folks tells me I am” is the way he puts it — it dawns upon one that he must indeed be the oldest of all American jockeys now living.

It’s obvious this isn’t the British John Porter, but a man with no less remarkable experience with horses. Upon reading the small piece, I found myself drawn to the mysterious story of the unheralded African American jockey who was still riding at age 75.

The first thing to note is that it’s extremely difficult to find anything about John Porter. He is confirmed as an African American jockey residing in Lexington in the Directory of African Americans in Lexington, KY, 1893 by D. Y. Wilkinson. If he was indeed 75 in 1905, he would have been born in 1830. The article in The Thoroughbred Record says that

Porter was born at the Col. Innis place on the Maysville pike and has been a resident of Lexington all his life, and was exceedingly proud of his owners and trainers badge which gained him admittance to the recent spring meeting, which was by no means his first, and, it is hoped, will not be the last…

It’s likely that Porter was born a slave as were many jockeys of the period. The antebellum racing scene was run largely on the labors of talented African American trainers and jockeys. Porter worked with horses from an early age, exercising horses for John Cameron at the Kentucky Association Course.

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Kentucky Association Racetrack, 1920, by Kraemer Art Company Postcard Proofs – Kentucky Historical Association. Via Wikipedia.

His first mount for a race was on a half-sister of Lexington named Maid of Orleans. It did not go well, at least not immediately. From The Thoroughbred Record:

[S]he jumped the fence, spilling Porter, who claims she ran away clean to the Dicks River cliffs before she was caught. She was eventually found and brought back, and gave Porter his first winning ride on the next day of the meeting.

Success brought opportunity and Porter landed at the stables of Dr. Elisha Warfield, who bred Lexington, then known as Darley. The complexities of the ownership and running of Lexington are their own story, but when ownership shifted and Darley was re-named Lexington, the jockey who rode the newly-christened horse to victory at the 1853 Phoenix Hotel Stakes was John Porter.

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Lexington, c. 1870, Edward Troye (American, 1808-1874) charcoal on paper, 26 x 18 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Ms. Elizabeth J. D. Jeffords, 2008.

In fact, it appears that Porter was the preferred jockey for Lexington again for his most famous match against Le Compte, but Porter, according to The Thoroughbred Record, was “with” a Mr. Viley who refused to allow Porter to travel to Louisiana to ride.

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Lexington in Stable, James Mullen – Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views of Kentucky, 1875. Via Wikipedia.

A facial infection caused Lexington to go blind, forcing his retirement in 1855, but was a leading sire 16 times before his death in 1875. Porter, however, went on to success as a jockey, and trainer.

I found another article in The Thoroughbred Record about John Porter, this time from September 7, 1918:

An unique figure at the Kentucky Association track is an exercising boy named Porter, grandson of the famous jockey, John Porter, who rode at Lexington in many races, including the Phoenix Hotel Stakes, and who had the mount on Ten Broek in the St. Ledger at Louisville when the noted record-holder finished second to King Alfonso in that classic.

Another John Porter, a grandson carrying forward the family tradition of working with horses. When giving tours at our Library, I often point out that the threads of history are extremely delicate. Although John Porter was considered famous in Kentucky horse circles in 1918, he is today very difficult to find in the pages of history.

The contributions of African American jockeys were so often unacknowledged in historical accounts, but they made huge contributions to their sport. Although the record-keeping is imperfect, we’re fortunate to have at least some resources that let us trace the events. Without them, I never would have heard about our John Porter, the man who once rode to victory aboard one of the greatest race horses in American history.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail