Authored by Yudi Yuviama in Horse Racing
Published on 12-12-2008
Thoroughbred racing began its final evolution into the modern sport during the second half of the 19th century, with the Civil War providing the catalyst for change. The scorched earth of the postwar South could no longer supply the horses for the regional match races that had dominated the attention of the racing public before the war.
The war also minted hundreds of new millionaires in the North. Dozens of these new kings of industry believed themselves to fit right into the Sport of Kings. Horse breeding and ownership boomed. More important to racing’s future was the fact that there was plenty of money in the hands of ordinary people too, thanks to increased factory wages. The money quickly found its way into betting pools and bookmakers’ pockets at the dozens of new racetracks that appeared across the continent. From just one modern-style Thoroughbred racetrack in regular operation at the end of the Civil War, there were more than 300 by the turn of the century. At the same time, the structure of Thoroughbred racing became more appealing to spectators and bettors. Traditional heat racing was abandoned in favor of dash racing.
The distances of the dashes varied, from 3/4 mile to more than two, making it more difficult to pick winners. But the new races weren’t won by the last survivor, as heat events often were, and bettors loved the idea of pure speed conquering all. Since speed was what breeders had spent a hundred years perfecting in the Thoroughbred, it was the ideal match.
Harness racing began to take on its modern trappings even earlier. Its immediate English ancestor featured horses ridden at the trot over coaching roads, challenging the clock rather than other horses. Since a horse lasts longer at the trot than at the gallop, these races could be very long indeed, sometimes several heats of 20 to 50 miles each. Occasionally, the horses were timed while pulling various vehicles at the trot, but the ridden races were more popular in England.
The enthusiasm for ridden trotting races did not long survive the voyage across the Atlantic. Fast trotting remained popular, but ridden trotters did not. Although some ridden races were held, especially in the early years of the 19th century, trotting in America became almost exclusively a harness sport by mid-century.
Quarter Horse racing, in its organized incarnation, is a much newer sport because its governing body wasn’t even formed until the 1940s. But short racing did exist in a mostly unstructured form, primarily in Texas and a couple of other Southwestern states much earlier. The animal widely considered the first of the modern Quarter Horses, the legendary Steel Dust, made his reputation in the Southwest just before the Civil War.