Considering the recent scholarship of Maryjean Wall and now Steven Riess, I have begun in earnest researching a book on horse racing in western Pennsylvania and, frankly, I’m stunned at how rich and deep the history is in these backwoods during the 19th century. Just about every community of any reasonable size had a half-mile or mile track with organized racing offered, whether flat or harness racing (not to mention steeplechase). Hunting down pictures and details of these tracks will happily consume my summer, as will discovering little tidbits like a newspaper advertising the imported stallion Honest John (son of 1787 Epsom Derby winner Sir Peter Teazle) being offered for stud at John Morgan’s Morganza farm in Washington County in 1811.
Quite interesting too are the historical attitudes, both positive and negative, expressed towards the sport of horse racing—mostly based on the alleged degenerate aspect of wagering, how it can ruin a man or woman, causing immeasurable harm to the very fabric of society (!). In the Conclusion of his 1885 autobiography (p. 642), Pittsburgh banking scion Thomas Mellon wrote with righteous pride, “Though fully enjoying most kinds of pleasure and amusements, I had no inclination to others. I have never seen a horse race or boat race, or played a game of cards in my life, or incurred any extra hazardous risks—never speculating in property of any kind without I saw a sure thing in it.” How ironic considering the prominent role his descendents have played in the sport.
The complex societal stigma of horse racing, particularly the gambling aspect, appears again and again in newspapers of the era. In the June 8, 1818, issue of the Washington (PA) Review and Examiner, one finds this idyllic commentary entitled “The Picture of a Happy Society”:
Were I to form the picture of a happy society, it would be a town consisting of a due mixture of hills, vallies [sic], and streams of water; the land well fenced and cultivated; and the roads and bridges in good repair; a decent inn for the refreshment of travellers, and for public entertainments. The inhabitants mostly husbandmen, their wives and daughters domestic manufacturers; a suitable proportion of handicraft workmen, and two or three traders; a physician and a lawyer, each of whom shall have a farm for his support; a clergyman of any denomination, which should be agreeable to the majority, a man of good understanding, of candid disposition and exemplary morals, not a metaphysical, nor polemic, but a schoolmaster who should understand his business to teach his pupils to govern themselves; a social library, annually increasing, and under good regulations; a club of sensible men, seeking mutual improvements; a decent mutual society. No intriguing politician, horse-jockey, gambler or sot; but all such characters treated with contempt. Such a situation may be considered as most favorable to social happiness of any which the world can afford.
Ah, what a blissful society indeed! I also ran across this article in the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot from June 13, 1892, about Pittsburgh's Rev. T. J. Leak’s sermon called “The Devil in Horse Racing” where he claims to have no real objection to the actual idea of running horses against one another. Racing was widely believed (and written elsewhere) to help improve the breed and, since horses played such an integral role in American society, what objection could there be? Yet, his attack is multi-targeted:
I speak to-night not only about the horse race, but against it. First, because of the extreme excitement attending these affairs. We have no right, for physical, mental and moral reasons to expose ourselves to exciting influences that are likely to lead us to say or do things that our cooler and more sober judgments would condemn. What yells and cries are sometimes heard, what profanity, what excessive action as excited people try to express themselves. I have known even in otherwise tame and dull country fairs, of staid matrons standing in their carriages with five or ten dollar bills in their hands, offering in shrieking voices to bet upon their favorite horses. Ladies who, upon returning to their homes, and reviewing their conduct in soberness, blushed with shame as they recalled it. Such excitement is not seemly or healthful.
Okay, so it’s not healthy to get excited? Rev. T.J. must have been a blast at dinner parties and square dances. He continues:
I object to the ‘horse race’ because it affords opportunity for great rascality. In country fairs farmers’ boys are often present with their bright young horses, taken there for honest competition. After their entries are made some stranger appears with a horse never heard of in that region before; he plays upon the ignorance of the boys; his horse does not appear to be capable of much speed; he has confederates in the crowd who work up bets against his horse, and when all is complete, and the race begins, away he goes, outdistancing all others and winning the money. So races are sometimes sold by owners or drivers. This is not merely gambling, which in itself is immoral, it is robbery, and I judge that there are but few races were this element of robbery is not introduced in some way. Anything that affords such opportunity for rascality is not healthful, and should be frowned upon.
Ah, yes, cheating! Funny how perhaps the means have changed, but not the issue itself. However, it is the act of gambling, particularly professional gambling, that irks Leak most:
Again, I protest against the ‘horse race’ because its main support is in the gambling operations connected with it. It makes professional gamblers by affording the opportunity for continual gambling. As you know, there are circuits of horse races, commencing early in the season and continuing through, horses and men going from one city at another. Following these races the professional gambler will be numerously found.
Leak mentions have met such a young gambler and asks the man why he doesn’t quit to pursue more legitimate work; his reply: “I have wasted the years in which I ought to have been preparing for business, and now I am not qualified for any useful occupation, besides who would employ me, however skillful I might be, if he knew the life I have been leading?” From this example Leak gleans:
Thus men build barriers between themselves and a true life by yielding to the temptations afforded by the horse race. That is one of the legitimate fruits of the horse race in this country. It wins some men from honorable business pursuits to disgraceful and illegal methods of obtaining money.
Count him among those who believe that the sport solely exists because of wagering—I bet some of those fanatic horse players who believe the same find it hard to reconcile their shared ideological views with men such as Leak:
The inspiration of the race is gambling. I do not believe that as an institution it could be maintained without it, and this vice cultivates others, hence the drunkard, the thief, the harlot and all of their kind may be found there, for where carcass is there the eagles (vultures) will be gathered together. If the gambling of the horse race was confined to the grounds around the course there might not be so much cause for public complaint, but it forces itself upon attention through the pool rooms on the most public streets of our cities, so that young man in daily walks to and from business are tempted, and many a clerk, salesman, office boy and mechanic or student, allured by these temptations are led to ruin.
The horse race gathers about it the worst characters of the land, the profane, the drunkard, the gambler, the thief, the harlot, and all kindred characters may be found there, and as John drove furiously, so many of these are driving on the course of vice and sin; their speed increasing with every race they attend, until at last they are found on the ‘home stretch’ worn, bruised, broken and ruined.