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An Historical Interlude

With the holidays upon us, there is not a huge amount going on in the racing world for the next few weeks. With that in mind, I will most likely spend the next few weeks ruminating on matters historical. An article on the Belair Stables Museum in Maryland got me wondering about the earliest thoroughbreds imported to the US (or, more accurately, the Maryland and Virginia colonies as they were at that time). While horses in general were obviously imported to the Americas from the 16th century (initially by the Spanish) and the 17th century by English settlers, the first horses imported with a view toward racing arrived in the mid-18th century.

Governor Samuel Ogle imported stallion Spark and mare Queen Mab in 1747; the horses were a gift of Charles Calvert, the fifth Lord Baltimore – he was simply re-gifting the pair (a gesture which seems appropriate at this time of year), having received them from Frederick, Prince of Wales (perhaps best known as the father of George III). Benjamin Tasker, Jr. added to the reputation of what had become known as Belair Stud with the importation of Selima in the early 1750s. You may recall that the Selima Stakes for 2-year-old fillies on grass was named in her honor (and it seems a shame that a former G1 event, won by the likes of La Prevoyante and Shuvee, was so unceremoniously retired – see Brooklyn Backstretch for a similar sentiment about the Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct).

Virginia got into the game early as well; Jolly Roger (pictured here) was imported in 1751 and became an important broodmare sire; the speedy Janus came in 1756 and produced many quarter-mile specialists (although he himself had had success at the four-mile distance). Janus, by a sire also named Janus, went by a number of names to differentiate himself from the older horse (on the rare occasions when anyone seemed to care about that; early record-keeping was not entirely scrupulous) – he was also know as Little Janus or, for some reason, Stiff Dick – one imagines the Jockey Club would have many litters of kittens about such a moniker today). Size and stamina were imported to Virginia in the form of Fearnaught (imported 1764), a four-mile specialist; five of his daughters are considered American foundation mares. The four-mile distance was seen as somewhat unique to what was becoming American racing at that point:

“While there were contests at four miles and even at four miles and repeat in England, such events were not considered the true test of merit in a horse; that kind of racing became really American, since for seventy-five years the four-mile-heat horse was the king of his day.”

It’s rather a change from today.

Virginia was also responsible for importing the great Diomed (pictured) in 1798, aged about 21 at the time – he would become the pre-eminent sire of early American racing.

But it wasn’t just the South doing all the early importation; James De Lancey in New York was at work somewhat later, but with no less influential horses. Wildair and Lath (imported in the mid-to-late 1760s) were both useful stallions, but the Cub Mare, know as ‘the Selima of the Northern turf‘ had perhaps the biggest impact. Her daughter with Wildair, Maria Slamerkin (aka Old Slamerkin) became one of the first great racing stars in New York. Their descendants include Black Gold and Nearco. Wildair was sold and sent back to Britain where he continued his stud career when Tory De Lancey dispersed his stock.

Some very interesting, if not entirely accurate, information on early American racing and breeding can be found in The American Thoroughbred, by Charles E. Trevathan, published in 1905 – now available on Google Books. Enjoy!

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