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The Trotter

July 2024
7min read

At a flying clip the trotting horse moved effortlessly through the nineteenth century, easily distancing all competitors as the country’s most widely acclaimed hero of sport. In lesser circumstances he pulled a sleigh, a road wagon, or a plow. He was a dashing symbol for a nation that liked its pleasures to have a practical aura. The trotter was a favorite of the printmakers, and their portraits of him on the track, on the road, in the solitary splendor of his stall, or in a quiet pasture brightened walls of homes, hotels, offices, and livery stables.

He had been a long time reaching the perfection he attained in the nineteenth century. The ancients, both Greeks and Romans, undoubtedly trained some horses to trot consistently—that is, to move a foreleg on one side and a hind leg on the other at the same time. This gait greatly increased the smoothness and endurance with which a horse could pull a chariot or wagon. Trotting matches were popular in many parts of the Old World, and the term “trotters,” derived from a French word meaning “to tread,” was in use in the sixteenth century.

Trotters came to Virginia and New England almost with the first Englishmen, though the Puritan ministers of the north frowned upon all horse racing. But in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the advantages of a good trotter under saddle or pulling a buggy dawned on the circuit-riding parsons, their opposition rapidly declined. As a result ministerial tirades were seldom hurled against the harness races at the state and county fairs that were so much a part of the nineteenth-century American scene. The unutilitarian flat racers never got any such seal of approval.

Early in the 1850’s, a writer surveyed the country’s equestrian scene and observed that the breeding, training, and racing of trotting horses was “the people’s sport, the people’s pastime and, consequently, is, and will be supported by the people.” Currier and Ives, best-known of the nineteenth-century lithographers, at an early date billed themselves as publishers of “Colored Engravings for the People,” a sobriquet applicable to most American printmakers. It is little wonder that the lithograph—already the medium of popular art—reflected the nation’s favorite sporting pursuit. Only town views outnumbered horse portraits, track scenes, and views of trotters on the road among subjects in the commercial lithographer’s repertory.

Everyone—tradesman, artisan, businessman, farmer, clergyman, doctor, mechanic—whose affairs required the services of a horse kept “a fast and hardy trotter.” By the iSgo’s, north and east of the Mason-Dixon Line, it was not, according to the writer Frank Forester, unusual in a day’s time in any rural district to see “a hundred persons travelling in light wagons, sulkies, or chaises, for five—I hardly think I should err, if I were to say for one—on horseback.”

In the selection of a roadster, as the fast trotters were called, even the most style-conscious buyer had a wide latitude. Some owners liked a horse that was round and smooth, with soft hair, fine coloring, and a proud, showy style—one not too fast or endowed with any great endurance, but an animal that might attract the admiration of their neighbors. Color was a serious criterion to many horse owners. White, light sorrel, cream-colored, and spotted horses were objectionable; bays, chestnuts, blacks, and dark browns were the rage.

Men of means such as William H. Vanderbilt adopted the trotter and made his perfection an avocation. Robert Bonner, owner of the New York Ledger , and proprietor of a marvelous stud farm and stables at Tarrytown, at one time or another owned most of the champion trotters of the last half of the nineteenth century, among them Dexter, Rarus, Lady Palmer, and Fiatbush Maid. Boston’s Brighton Road, where the boys were “wont to exercise their fast nags,” and New York’s Harlem Lane, which enjoyed “a wide reputation with the lovers of the turf,” were most frequently pictured and perhaps best known. Then there was Philadelphia’s Rope Ferry Road, the popular thoroughfare to Point Breeze Park and the races. These scenes in the big cities were simply projections on a larger scale of the stylish prancing visible in towns and hamlets throughout the country.

The road offered special pleasures in winter. Hiram Woodruff wrote nostalgically of the 1840’s and of “sleigh-riding, when the air is keen and frosty, the sky clear, the snow deep and crisp.” But by 1868 in New York City the sound of sleigh bells and the crunch of snow under a trotter’s hoofs had largely disappeared. “The street railroads,” wrote Woodruff, speaking of the horsecars, “have done lor all that.” In country towns and villages, however, the road in winter remained the delight so often seen in lithographic views. The Boston winter scenes by Haskell & Alien of the Fearnaught Stallions and of the mélange of sleighs leaving Brighton for the Mill-Dam prove to any eye that trotters, toddies, and Albany cutters were an exhilarating combination.

In the veins of the trotting horse so essential to this scene mingled the blood of English thoroughbreds and of sturdy American mares. The quality of the stock was improved by the sound crossbreeding of proven track performers. The stallion Messenger arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1788 and was a fountainhead of American trotters. The turf favorites of a century—Lady Suffolk, Dexter, Goldsmith Maid, Flora Temple—all had a trace of Messenger blood, as did William Rysdyk’s prodigious stallion, Hambletonian. The famous New England breed of Morgan horses was founded at the end of the eighteenth century with a stallion owned by one Justin Morgan, a schoolteacher from Randolph Center, Vermont. By mid-nineteenth century no breed of horse was more popular or sought after, and such Morgan stalwarts as Ethan Alien and Black Hawk added to the luster of the tribe. Bellfounder (imported by James Root of Boston in 1823), the Canadians (derived from French stock), and the Copper Bottoms of Kentucky and the Middle West were but a few of the individual horses and strains which strengthened American trotting.

At first trotters raced “under saddle,” but were later harnessed to a high four-wheeled wagon or a two-wheeled sulky, and, at last, exclusively, “to the bike sulky.” The best horses were, as a rule, six seconds slower for the mile when hitched to wagons than a trotter under saddle, and three seconds slower for that distance when harnessed to a sulky. Owners and breeders struggled to trot the mile in two minutes or under, and prized the stamina that permitted a horse to go the distance through several heats.

In the 1850’s, trotting matches dominated agricultural fairs, and racing meetings provided a lively interest for all levels of society from April through November. From the sixties onward, to the end of the century, the mania magnified, and a series of prints—both portraits and action scenes—documented a successive wave of champions: Flora Temple, Dexter, Goldsmith Maid, Rarus, St. Julien, Cresceus.

When Yankee trotted the mile in 1806 in two minutes and fifty-nine seconds, the lithograph had not been adapted to the demands of a popular art form. In 1818, the year of the first public, on-track trotting match in America, Bass Otis, a Philadelphia artist, had just made the first lithograph in this country by following a technique perfected in Bavaria by Alois Senefelder. When, however, the assault upon the two-minute mile began in earnest, between 1840 and 1860. Lady Suffolk’s 2:29 1/4 in 1845, Tacony’s 2:27 in 1853, and Flora Temple’s 2:19 3/4 in 1859 were top subjects for this relatively new mode of communication. In the sixties, Dexter, who starred in a series of spectacular trots and finally achieved 2:17 1/4, was most frequently illustrated matched against his arch rival Ethan Alien. Between 1871 and 1878 Goldsmith Maid came to the fore. Her best efforts eventually lowered the mile mark to 2:14; and then, as the decade closed, Rarus, trotting at Cleveland in August of 1878, reduced it to 2:13 1/4. In the 1880’s, St. Julien made it in 2:11 1/4, and Maud S. did it in a little over 2:10. The printmakers, never missing a bet, published colorful views documenting these achievements. Many of these marks were made on tracks of the Grand Circuit—the major league of harness racing—which became an institution after the Civil War. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, trotting matches attracted large midweek crowds, and tracks ottered big purses to assure topflight competition. At the same time, the rise of “driving parks” at Point Bree/.e, Cambridge, Mystic, Hartford, Rochester, Cleveland, Saginaw, Chicago, and, in the Far West, at San Francisco and Oakland, was documented by the printmakers.

The thrill and enjoyment of a good heat was not all that was imbibed by the racing crowds. By the 1850’s the concomitant gambling and drinking—had become alarming problems. Moralists feared that the agricultural fairs, conceived to demonstrate improvements in agricultural techniques and animal husbandry, were being corrupted “by the exciting scenes upon the circular track.” Horsemen and sportsmen entrenched on the other side of this question thought that the moralists were “fanatical,” “foolish,” and “prick-eared.”

In spite of the critics, fine trotters drew splendid crowds, and when horses of the caliber of Goldsmith Maid and Judge Fullertoii met, the stands were always full. At East Saginaw, Michigan, in July of 1874, amidst what the press called “hushed voices” and “breathless silence,” the Maid moved through three heats in 2:19 3/4, 2:16 1/9, and 2:16 Hat—the fastest average yet recorded—in what was considered one of the best-laid trotting courses. At the end of the last heat there was pandemonium. The press reported a lady waving furiously and ignoring, in the excitement of the moment, her crying baby, which lay unceremoniously on the floor of the stands. When a bystander remonstrated, “Madam, your childl” the young matron replied, “Oh, I forgot all about Baby; but it makes no difference; I expect to have several babies, but I never expect to see another Goldsmith Maid!”

The aura of a trotting park late in the century is suggested by a four-day meet at Hartford’s Charter Oak Park held in August, 1889 (page 33). But things had already changed. Not carriages but trains on both the Central New England and Consolidated roads brought the crowds to Hartford. It was no longer the artist’s sketchbook that recorded the panorama of the park, but the photographer’s camera. As always on the Grand Circuit, patronage continued high and the grandstand was packed.

After 1900 the trotting horse was rapidly reduced to the role of being merely the sportsman’s delight. The motorcar replaced him on the highway, and the tractor soon ended forever the need for animals that could be, at one and the same time, useful on the farm and a pleasure on the road. But on the turf the trotter retained a faithful following despite the inroads of such spectator attractions as baseball, football, and Oatracing. In it) 12 Uhlan, a gelding, trotted the mile in 1:58 ten years later Peter Manning went against the clock in the time of 1:56 3/4. Greyhound’s 1:55 1/4 in 1938 reduced the mark still further, and this record has never been surpassed.

After World War II the center of harness racing moved to the large tracks—like Roosevelt Raceway in New York—near the great urban centers. The early sixties brought continued growth and crowds of over 50,000, and pari-mutuel takes approached five million dollars for a nine-race card. At Hanover, Pennsylvania, L. B. Sheppard’s Hanover Shoe Farm perpetuates a present-day version of Bonner’s Tarrytown.

At mid-twentieth century much of the romance of the trotting turf was gone, but with each year’s revival of the Hambletonian, the initiated arc reminded of the famous Good Times track at Goshen, of William Rysdyk, and of all the colorful antecedents of the modern American trotting horse. It is a nostalgia readily stimulated by the trotting prints.

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