In the antebellum period, the races were fueled by political tensions, pitting northern horses against southern horses in a high-stakes spectacle.
While millions will watch the Kentucky Derby this weekend, there was a time--before football, basketball, or baseball--when horse racing was perhaps America's most popular sport. This 19th-century print conveys the same carnival-like atmosphere that is always a feature of the "Run for the Roses." Then, as now, crowds of spectators from every walk of life cheer and bet on their favorites.
There are differences as well. The typical race in the 19th century, for instance, was four miles, not the mile and a half that is run at the Derby. While fierce competition between jockeys, trainers, and breeders is a timeless feature of the sport, in the antebellum period, races were fueled by political tensions--characterized by heated rhetoric between North and South over who was superior in equine breeding and training.
The rivalry extended back to 1823 when Henry, a Southern favorite, was defeated by the Northern champion Eclipse in a well-publicized race. By 1845, press and politicians encouraged a series of North/South match races that would capture passions from Maine to Florida. A challenge was issued in the popular weekly sporting journal, Spirit of the Times, that resulted in a May 10, 1842, match race. Fashion, a New Jersey-bred equine superstar nicknamed "Queen of the Turf," defeated the Richmond-bred stallion, Boston, dubbed "Pride of the South." Fashion won by 35 lengths, setting a world record. Inflammatory headlines such as "Northern Champion Defeats the great Southern Stallion" had Southerners demanding a rematch.