Researching history is addictive. Ask any historian, regardless of their area of specialty. The detective work involved, pieces of a puzzle coming together, and sometimes just the unexpected tidbits that you run across, make it all worthwhile. This summer I’ve got two projects on tap: finishing that Pittsburgh skyscraper book that I’ve put on the backburner far too long (seriously, only one chapter needs written at this point), and starting a new one of the history of horse racing in Western Pennsylvania. Guess which one is more interesting to me right now?
Accessibility via the Internet to a host of scanned materials makes my job so much easier these days especially with keyword searchable .pdf files. Ah, long gone are card catalogs and laboriously flipping through countless books! GoogleBooks is helpful, but personally, I love Internet Archive. Of particular interest to those interested in horse racing (in all its manifestations) is the online collection of the Webster Family Library of Veterinary Medicine Collection—with over 1,600 books on horses. It includes manuscripts on racing and breeding in the U.S., Europe, Australia, India and, well, just about everywhere. Nineteenth and early twentieth century stud books for August Belmont’s Nursery Stud and Whitney Stud are available, as well as books on racing silks and a whole host of topics.
In the process of browsing the collection, I ran across an 1887 book by Jay Ford Laning called The Fairs’ Racing Rules, whose preface states:
"The object of compiling this book is to furnish the rules that are to be administered in the conduct of speed engagements upon the courses of Agricultural Fairs, both trotting and pacing, and running also, all in a handy volume, so that the law concerning any point can be readily referred to by those who desire to know it."
Since much flat running in Western Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century occurred at county fairs—and still does—I thought this would be an interesting read. For the most part, it is, but a couple rules struck me as a bit quirky, particularly the clear forbiddance of sprints shorter than six furlongs for older horses:
17. ONE DECLARED ALL DECLARED“When a party having more than one horse entered in a purse, shall declare one out, he thereby declares all out.”
“There shall be no race given for horses three years old and upward, after the first of July, less than six furlongs.”
41. HORSE BOLTING
“If a horse leaves the course, he must turn back and run the course from the point at which he left it.”
42. RIDER FALLING
“If a rider falls, and another person of sufficient weight rides the horse in from the spot where the rider fell, the horse shall not be disqualified for overweight.”
That last one cracks me up. Can you imagine some person in the crowd simply jumping aboard and riding the winner home?