Aiken soon became The Winter Home of Harness Racing as many World Champions such as Greyhound, Adios, and Bret Hanover trained here. Great trainers such as Sep Palin, Fred Egan, and Frank Ervin have wintered in Aiken. These past few years there has been a decline in the number of Standardbreds in town but the sound of the trotting and pacing gaits once more reverberates off the track.
All aspects of American horse racing entered a troubled era in 1908 when the Hart-Agnew Act barred wagering at racetracks. Coming to the horse’s rescue was the Steeplechase, which never has been dependent upon wagering.
It was during the following years that the Winter Colony was truly the center of the horse world and as the Sport emerged again during the Roaring Twenties all eyes focused on Aiken.
Trotting man William H. Vanderbilt's 2nd son William Kissam Vanderbilt [1849-1920] bred and raced Thoroughbreds and wintered in Aiken. William H.'s grandson Harry Payne Whitney [1872-1930] had gotten his love of polo from his father William C. Whitney [1841-1904] and was a major factor in the sport.
The steeplechase originated in County Cork Ireland in the 18th century as between cross-country thoroughbred horse races which went from church steeple to church steeple…hence a "steeplechase." The first steeplechase is said to have been the result of a wager in 1752 between two Irishmen. Rumor has it that the four-mile race took over two hours as there were numerous "puhbs" along the way.
The first recorded steeplechase over a prepared track with fences was run at Bedford in 1810, with five-foot jumps every quarter mile.
Thomas Hichcock Sr. was born in 1860 in Westbury on Long Island New York - a hotbed of equestrian activities - and trained Thoroughbred horses. His father had been involved in the newspaper business with Charles Anderson Dana, the publisher The New York Tribune. The Tribune was ironically the archrival of Bennet’s New York Herald.
In 1891 he married fellow horse lover Louise Mary Eustis of Washington, D.C. Hitchcock and his wife spent virtually every winter at their 3,000-acre estate in Aiken where the Hitchcocks were key figures in developing the sport of polo in the United States.
Their Son, Tommy Hitchcock Jr., would become a 10-goal polo player considered by many expert observers as the greatest to have ever played the game.
In the late 1800’s the Hitchcocks also built a steeplechase track on their Aiken property and trained young thoroughbred horses imported from England.
The first Steeplechase Meet in Aiken was held March 14, 1930 in Hitchcock Woods.
While the equestrian world's eyes were on Steeplechase, Polo, and Thoroughbreds when the immortal Dan Patch paced a mile free-legged [without hobbles] in 1:55 the whole country went wild. They danced The Dan Patch Two Step, washed their clothes in a Dan Patch washing machine, chewed Dan Patch gum, smoked his cigarettes. Crowds of 100,000 would show up and pay a dollar just to see him walk onto the track.
Dan was foaled in 1896 back home in Indiana it was as though all the planets had aligned as Dan Patch was truly an anomaly and many generations ahead of the rest. Ironically he traces his lineage back to Hambletonian, the Morgans, the Clays, Thoroughbreds, the Hackneys, the Narragansett Pacer and even a Saddlebred. He just was “meant to be.”
He was the true package but, like so many great horses, he never “threw” any offspring that even came close to his talents.
Pete Bostwick [1909-1982] and his brother Dunbar[1898-2006] were also great-grandsons of William H. Vanderbilt. They were not only both outstanding Polo players but Dunbar was a great trotting man too.
Dunbar constructed the one-mile Aiken Training Mile for his champion trotters in 1936. The following year he added a 7/8ths track for Steeplechase and Thoroughbreds on the inside of the hub rail.
In 1941 he was part of the founding fathers of Saratoga Harness in upstate New York.
Hambletonian's son Dexter was born in 1858 and “as wild as a hawk and always coming to grief.” He was gelded and eventually landed in the hands of Hiram Woodruff in 1863.
In 1865 Dexter lost only once. In 1866, he won 25 of 26 starts and was known as “The King of the Turf,” In 1867 he set the world record of 2:19 and later lowered the mark to 2:171/4 for the mile.
In 1849 a great-grandson of Messenger was foaled in Orange County New York. His name was Rysdick’s Hambletonian 10 and from 1851 until 1876 he sired 1,335 sons and daughters who would dominate trotting. The lineage of virtually every North American Standardbred horse can be traced to him through four of his sons.
During those years the trotters were called a "Thoroughbred Trotting Horse" and were either of the "Morgans," "Hambletonians," or "Clays."
Up in Vermont music teacher Justin Morgan owned a horse (from 1792-1795) named "Figure" that was foaled in 1789 at West Springfield, Massachusetts. His pedigree shows that he was a mixture of Thoroughbred and Arabian stock yet he was so unique an individual he became a breed apart called "Morgans." He was a remarkable animal as he could do just about everything right up to his passing in 1821.
Many of them were toasted on Long Island in 1845 when Messenger's great-granddaughter Lady Suffolk became the first horse to trot a mile in less than two minutes and thirty seconds (2:30) while hooked to a wagon. She had trotted a mile under saddle in 2:26 and competed into her twenties. She won only one out of 12 races in 1852 at the age of 19 and choruses of "the Old Gray Mare she ain't what she used to be" echoed throughout the land.
The Norfolk Trotter is another extinct horse breed that was native to England from the 1500's. The most influential sire in its history the half-bred stallion Old Shales (foaled 1755) whose Thoroughbred sire, Blaze (foaled 1733) was a son of Flying Childers (a descendant of the Darley Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred).
George Washington owned and even raced a Narragansett Pacer. The breeding stock was severely diminished due mainly to the horses being sold in such large numbers to sugarcane planters in the West Indies. Those that were left were crossbred to create and improve other breeds and the pure strain of the Narragansett soon became extinct and the last known one died around 1880.
England brought in the Hobbie Horse, a popular riding horse from the Late Middle Ages. They were sometimes hobbled to control their pacing gait, which is what may have given rise to the name.
Hobbles have been around for millennium as they have been used on captives and slaves since the Ancient Egyptians to prevent them from running. There even was a hieroglyphic for them.
The Hobbie Horse was used for patrols on the borders, but as the pacing gait under saddle is a very comfortable ride, it then became popular for recreational riding. That, in turn, became known as a hobby which in turn became the name of any type of recreation.
Arabians are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world. They originated in the Middle East and spread westward across North Africa. The first purebred was imported into England in 1683.
They were cross-bred with numerous other breeds such as the Galloway a small, compact horse that originally came from Scotland. They were gentle, easy to ride, never tired, and were known for being good pacers that were often used for racing. The Galloway is the ancestor of the American Saddlebred horse
Thoroughbreds were a superior breed of racehorses that developed around 1700 in England from imported Arabian stallions and English mares. Thoroughbred racing in North America began with an "English style race" held at Annapolis, Maryland in 1745.
The Hackney is a dynamic, high-stepper with two branches - the horse and the pony - both bred specifically for their brilliant performance in harness.
It was developed in Great Britain in the early 18th Century from the Darley Arabian through his son, Flying Childerns foaled in 1715.
Aiken Americana 2015
Thomas Hitchcock Sr., Oliver W. Bird, August Belmont Jr, Benjamin Nicoll, and their associates were participants in that first polo match.
H.L. Herbert, James Gordon Bennett and August Belmont then financed the original New York Polo Grounds built in 1876. It was located just north of Central park and used exclusively for Polo. In 1880 Baseball moved in but the original structure was demolished in 1889.
The Polo Grounds would host baseball until 1963 when Shea Stadium would be built for those "Amazin' Mets."
James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (1841 –1918) was publisher of the New York Herald and, like many of his social class, indulged in the "good life": yachts, opulent private railroad cars, and lavish mansions.
Among his many sports-related accomplishments he brought in Texas cow ponies to New York the winter of 1876 indoor at Dickel's Riding Academy in New York City where several people learned to hit and ride for polo. He then established the Westchester Polo Club on 6 May 1876 and the following week at Jerome Park Racetrack in Westchester County held the "first" American outdoor polo match.
The first recorded polo tournament was in 600 BC when the Turkomans beat the Persians in a public match. The modern version of “Pulu” - from Tibetan meaning “ball” - was imported from India by British officers to England in 1833 and arrived in the States via Texas in the early 1870’s.
His record of 2:17 1/4 for the mile would not last a decade though as a granddaughter of Hambletonian - foaled in 1857 - would become known as "Queen of the Trotters."
Goldsmith Maid won over 350 heats and won 92 out of 121 races. She earned a total of $364,200 in her career that spanned 10 years from 1867-1877 while taking a mark of 2:14 hitched to a high-wheeled sulky. That earnings record that was not broken until the 1950s. In 2015 monies it would be equal to over $8.5 million!
Most of the rich industrialists of the time had their stables of fast Standardbreds such as William H. Vanderbilt [1821-1885] who was another devotee of Trotting Horses.
His father Commodore Cornelius [1794-1877] before him was as well.
General Ulysses S. Grant was a devotee of the "Trotting Horse" his entire life and a great admirer of Dexter. Upon his election to the Presidency in 1868 Grant suggested to Robert Bonner that Dexter would make a fine Inauguration Gift. Though not confirmed Bonner supposedly looked at the President-Elect and uttered the now-famous term: "Ri-i-i-i-ight!"
Trotting under saddle gave way to horses being raced in a lighter version of a two-wheeled wagon, stripped down to just the bare frame. Since there was room for only one person (the driver) people said that they could "go off and sulk by themselves" ...hence the vehicle became known as a sulky.
Old Henry Clay, often called the "Father of American Trotting Horses", was foaled on Long Island in 1837 and died in 1867. The Clays were trotters that had speed but were noted as being “quitters” ...stopping at the end of a race. In the writer's opinion they look a little too thin-necked and dish-faced to be able to carry enough air. By the end of the 1800’s it had almost become extinct.
One of Figure's great-great-granddaughters (on both sides of her pedigree) foaled in 1845 by the name of Flora Temple, and she became the 1st trotter to best two minutes and 20 seconds to a wagon. She was immortalized in Stephen Foster's minstrel song "Camptown Races."
Now everyone could lounge around "all day long" and bet their money "on the bob-tailed nag." Do dah, do dah. Of course one wouldn't want to hit the booze too much which comes from the Dutch buizen"to drink to excess.”
Since most of these horses just ended up pulling a work wagon their tails would be "docked" or “bobbed” - cut off to make it easier to clean - and the horse gentry politely anglicized the term to "cocktailed" and referred them as "mixed breeding."
When an enterprising barkeep along the Hudson, possibly up by Tarrytown - a hotbed of horse breeders and home to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - added juices to plain liquor, a new drink of "mixed breeding" was created and thus named "the cocktail."
One of the new breeds that came from the Dutch was the Narragansett Pacer - with its side-wheeling gait which was more of an amble – and that was the choice of long-distance riding which Paul Revere reveled in as he carried important news between Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
He rode one during his 1775 ride to call the alarm that “The Regulars are coming!” …we were all British back then.
There were many breeds they brought such as the Gelderlander, a warm blood horse which originated in the mid-eastern province of the same name in the Netherlands and the Holsteiner who was the result product of systematic breeding dating back to the thirteenth century. It comes from the Schleswig-Holstein province of Germany and was valued by German farmers for its strength, steadiness and reliability.
The Dutch settlements, known as New Netherland, grew slowly at first and was prosperous as it tolerated different religions. In the 1640's the 450 inhabitants of New Amsterdam spoke 18 different languages. By 1664 it had a population of 6,000 when it was taken over by England.
Eighty-five-year-old Jimmy Larente was a leading driver who competed in NY, PA, MD, as well as The Grand Circuit. An Aiken resident since 1962 and still sharp as a tack, he watches over the horses in training in the morning.
"That one stretches out pretty good," he'll offer as a group goes by.
Talent doesn't grow old.
Although there are fewer colts and fillies going through their exercises the horsemen at Aiken are still as determined to develop "the Good One."
Billy Haughton (who had wintered in Aiken) and Stanley Dancer were Harness Racings' "Gold Dust Twins" of the 1950's & `60's. They were perennial one-two, two-one in the driver/trainer standings as both Hall of Famers had developed uncounted champion horses out of thousands of animals.
Stanley, the only trainer to drive and train threeTriple Crown winners always said with a smile that "It only takes the one."
So pacer or trotter, Hunter or Jumper, Steeplechase, Polo, or Thoroughbred... will "the one" that becomes this year’s Champion be a "cousin" that trained in Aiken?
Another new breed arrived in the States in the 1870's as well: the Polo Pony. The Polo Pony is a cross breed of Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and the Argentinian Criollo line. The term "pony" is used not for their size but for their agility.
Thomas Hitchcock Sr. became known as the father of American steeplechasing. No less important are the contributions by fellow Aiken seasonal resident F. Ambrose Clark, the uncle of "Pete" and Dunbar Bostwick who held many important chases on his Brookville (Long Island) estate, Broad Hollow, in the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1879 the National Trotting Horse Breeders established guidelines... being that they were being bred to beat a standard of time for a mile (2:30) . Any horse that took a mark better than 2:30 was now known as the American Standardbred.
Any horse whose sire or dam was a Standardbred was also classified as one and a new breed had arrived.
Dexter became a household name and he was the horse depicted on most weathervanes around the country.
Owned by numerous people over the years, at the end of his stellar career he was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt who sold to him to newspaper magnate Robert Bonner for $35,000 as Vanderbilt knew Bonner would do the right thing by him.
Dexter was seen in many prints and pictures of the time and his picture would also be used in advertising everything from cigars to insurance to snake oil. Dexter would remain on the farm at Tarrytown until his death at age 30 in 1888. His passing made front page news on The New York Times.
His foals were making headlines as they would stay trotting longer and go faster before "breaking" into a run. And that became the biggest challenge of the day: keep them trotting "on gait."
Everyone tried every "cross" possible in hopes of finding a champion. Some were good, some not so good. The Dutch looked at these lesser animals and used the term "kakteelt" to describe them: "kak" (as in "ka ka"… slang for crap) and "teelt" the breeding of livestock.
In 1788 Messenger, an eight-year-old English Thoroughbred stallion, arrived in Philadelphia to begin his new career throughout the East and sired a great many successful runners.
Over in England Messenger had competed in 16 flat races - usually less than two and half miles - and won ten of them.
In 1793 he was sold to Henry Astor [1754-1833] of the Bowery, the eldest brother of fur trader John Jacob Astor, and one of the founding New York Dutch families.
Messenger was a great sire of Thoroughbreds as his daughter Miller's Damsel was the dam of American Eclipse. He was also the founding father of the Standardbred and became the leading sire of British Coach horses as well as the American Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horses.
Everyday folk have always wanted their racing and their story began on the back roads of a young rural America as families headed off to their Sunday meetings. If the old horse showed just a little inclination to trot an impromptu match race would ensue and the wagonloads of white-knuckled passengers would arrive in a cloud of dust.
In fact one preacher once stated that the better a match race, the better the attendance at church.
As the only mode of transportation by land in those days was by either horse or walking the desire to find one that could go faster than the others became a favorite pastime.
The Dutch imported their 1st horse to the New World in 1625, for work, for play, and for racing and we have constantly strove to go faster