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1800s | Horse Racing Timeline

1839 - Grey Eagle vs. Wagner

September 30, 1839, Oakland Race Course in Louisville held “the greatest race west of the Alleghenies,” between the pride of all Kentuckians, Grey Eagle, and the Louisiana horse, Wagner.  The growing competition between the two thoroughbreds had developed into a rivalry between the two states.  Oakland was struggling financially by 1839 when promoter and entrepreneur Yelverton C. Oliver arranged a match race offering a purse of $14,000.  In those days, racecourses were three to five miles long and there was no starting gate, which did not appear until the following century.  Horses often ran in two to three races a day, and this match was for the best two out of three four-mile heats, winner take all.  Wagner took it all and Kentucky fans were not satisfied and wanted a rematch, which they got the next month.


On October 5, 1839, the second contest between Wagner and Grey Eagle took place at the Oakland Race Course in Louisville five days after the original race.  The Jockey Club supplied the purse of $1,500 and an estimated 10,000 people (or more) were in attendance.  Hundreds of racing enthusiasts made the long trek across the mountains from the Atlantic seaboard; among the noted aristocrats on this day was a contingent from Lexington, led by Henry Clay.  Grey Eagle won the first heat; Wagner the second.  The excitement was intense during the running of the third heat, but the race never finished.  Grey Eagle gave way in the second mile and broken down.  He never raced again.

1863 - Saratoga Springs

August 3, 1863, was Saratoga’s opening day.  “Mr. Morrissey deserves great credit for the excellent manner in which the whole detail of his attractive entertainment is managed.”  So wrote an approving reporter on August 4, 1863, edition of the Daily Saratogian, following the first day of the inaugural racing meet in Saratoga Springs.

1875 - 1st Kentucky Derby & Oaks / Isaac Murphy’s Wins First Race

May 17, 1875, a four-year-old filly named Bonaventure won the first race ever run at a track that would later be known as Churchill Downs.  Capt. William Cottrill, a Civil War Confederate officer, owned the filly.  He never let sectionalism interfere with his love of racing.  His Magnolia Farm bred and raced horses in both the North and South while earning deep admiration.  In 1872, the Saratoga Association’s leadership offered to name a race, the Cottrill Stakes, in his honor.  Modest as always, the Southern gentleman declined and asked instead that the race be called the Alabama Stakes after his home state.


Monday, May 17, 1875, 10,000 lucky fans witnessed the first Kentucky Derby run on a track later known as Churchill Downs.  It was also the first day of racing for this new track.  The distance was 1 1/2M, run in 2:37.75.  Aristides, a small colt roughly 15 hands, won by two lengths over 14 other contestants.  13 of the 15 jockeys were African American, including the winner Oliver Lewis.  Ansel Williamson, who was born a slave, was the winning trainer.  Hal Price McGrath, a native Kentuckian, owner of gambling parlors in NYC, owned and breed Aristides on his extravagant McGrathiana Farm, now known as UK’s Coldstream Farm.  There were no roses for the winning connections, but Mr. McGrath did win $2,850.


Wednesday, May 19, 1875, the first Kentucky Oaks was run at the Louisville Jockey Club, later known as Churchill Downs.  Vinaigrette won the then 1 1/2M race in 2:39¾, winning $1,175.  The Oaks and the Derby are the oldest continuously contested sporting events in American history and the only horse races held at their original site since their conception.


Friday, May 28, 1875, Tom Ochiltree wins the 3rd Preakness.  Owner J.F. Chamberlin won $1,900.  L. Hughes guides home the winner over a slow track going 1 1/2M.  Tom Ochiltree is by the grand sire Lexington.


Saturday, June 12, 1875, “Calvin” wins the 9th Belmont Stakes still at Jerome Park at 1 1/2M.  Price McGrath, the winning owner and breeder, also owned the second-place finisher Aristides and the 4th place finisher Chesapeake.  August Belmont entered had two entries. 


September 15, 1875, Isaac Murphy’s won his first race.  The win came at the Lexington Crab Orchard track, aboard B. F. Pettit’s chestnut filly Glentina (future winner of Louisville’s Jockey Club’s Colt & Filly Stakes).  Crab Orchard, located 46 miles south of Lexington, was the oldest circular track in the state and was a testing ground for potential stake winning horses and the talented jockeys.
The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy By Pellom McDaniels III

1890 - 16th Derby / 18th Preakness / 24th Belmont / Benning Racetrack in Washington, D.C. Opens

1890, so successful was racing in New Jersey, that a new Monmouth Park was built several miles away from the original track.  It opened with the largest all-iron grandstand ever built.  The track was 1 3/4M around with a 1 3/8M straightaway.


In 1890, the Kentucky Association faced financial problems and sold the track to a group of investors.  Due to the poor economy, the track owners had difficulty attracting horses for important events.


April 1, 1890, Benning Racetrack, Washington, D.C. opened to the public.  John Madden, “the Wizard of the Turf,” liked Benning, and brought as many as 36 horses at a time.  “The meetings at Bennings race track are increasing in importance annually and the stakes here offered are well worth the attention of any owner,” said the Daily Racing Form in 1903.  A Tennessee congressman carried a bill through Congress to prohibit racetrack gambling in Washington.  A Kentuckian lectured Sims in a different hearing on moral reforms: “Your innocent little amendment to a road bill destroyed the Benning race track.”  This anti-racing sentiment started in N.Y.spread across the U.S.  Other tracks reopened once the laws lightened, but Benning never did.  The last race was on April 12, 1908.  The grandstand burned down in 1915.


Wednesday, May 14, 1890, Riley wins the 16th Kentucky Derby run at a distance of 1 1/2M. 


Tuesday, June 10, 1890, Morris Park Racecourse hosted both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.


The 18th consecutive running of the Preakness moved to New York.  The New York Jockey Club would keep the distance at 1 1/2M.  The race would not run again till 1894.  The Preakness Stable owned the 4-5 favorite named Montague, who paid $10.40 to his backers.   Gross value: $1,665.


The 24th Belmont Stakes was the first time Morris Park hosted the historic event.  Burlington wins the 1 1/4M in 2:07.34.  The purse was double from the previous year, $8,560 but would drop back to $5,070 in 1891.


June 25, 1890, Isaac Burns Murphy raced in the most memorable contest of his life.  Matched against a white counterpart, jockey Ed “Snapper” Garrison, the race would settle the debate about which rider was the better jockey, in a match race that had definite racial overtones.  Murphy was victorious in a race so close it is known to be one of the first “photo finishes” in horse racing history.

1894 - 20th Derby / 19th Preakness / 28th Belmont / Aqueduct Racetrack Opens

1894, Monmouth Park officials, who built a new, lavish racecourse and grandstand in 1890, had badly misread New Jersey politicians’ mood.  Anti-gambling legislation shut down racing in the state after 1893, and it did not return for more than 50 years.


February 9, 1894, the American Jockey Club was incorporated in New York City by a group of prominent horsemen led by August Belmont II and Wall Street financier James R. Keene.


Tuesday, May 15, 1894, Chant wins the 20th Kentucky Derby.  Due to the growing crowd size, a 285-foot grandstand was constructed to accommodate the growing number of race fans.


Thursday, May 19, 1894, the 19th Preakness makes its return at a new track and a new distance.  The Brooklyn Jockey Club’s Gravesend Course hosted the 1 1/16M test.  Assignee wins on a fast track in 1:491/4 at odds of 4-1.  The colt by Spendthrift earned $1,830 for the Keene family. 


Tuesday, June 19, 1894, Henry of Navarre beats two others to win the 28th Belmont Stakes.  Willie Simms guided the winner home in 1:56 1/2 for the 1 1/8M distance.  Owner B. McClelland won $6,680. 


September 27, 1894, Aqueduct Racetrack opened on the property that belonged to the old Brooklyn Water Works, which was home to a conduit that brought water to New York City from the vast Hempstead Plain.  Also known as the “Big A,” Aqueduct is the only racetrack in New York City, occupying 210 acres in South Ozone Park, in the borough of Queens.  It is located just eight miles from its sister track Belmont Park.  Another Aqueduct neighbor is John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Through the years, the Big A has been the scene of racing’s landmark events, including the only triple dead heat in stakes history.


November 24, 1894, the articles of incorporation for the new Louisville Jockey Club were filed in the County Clerk’s office.  The incorporators were Messrs. Emile Bourlier, Henry Wehmhoff and W.E. Applegate, each of whom held twenty shares valued at $100 per share, W.F. Schulte and C.J. Bollinger, fifteen shares, and M.S. Simonton, ten shares.  The capital stock was fixed at 110,000.