The First Modern Sport in America: Harness Racing in New York City, 1825-1870
Historians have assigned the rise of sport in America to the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Although they found antecedants to this development in the antebellum period, especially during the 1850s) they presented the era as one of limited sporting activity.
New York City between 1820 and 1870 revealed, however, a much more active sporting life than heretofore thought to have existed at that time. Far from mere prefigurings, the framework of modern sport was established during this half century.
The modernization of harness racing between 1825 and 1870 exemplifies the growth and transformation of sport during this period. An examination of the modernization of trotting4 can proceed by employing two ideal sporting types: one premodern and the other modern. These ideal sporting types need not be perfect representations of actual historical stages. The modernization of sport entails the movement of the activity in the direction of the modern ideal type. This movement is generally, although not always, accompanied by a shift in the playing arena from an open to a close one, the increasing presence of spectators and the commercialization of the sport. Prior to 1825, harness racing was a premodern sport. Trotting consisted primarily of informal road contests which took place mainly in the northeastern section of the country. The sport was unorganized, lacked standardized rules, attracted limited public attention and possessed no permanent records. By 1870, harness racing had become a modern sport. The creation of the National Trotting Association in that year indicates the development of harness racing into a highly organized sport, with fairly uniform rules and with contests taking place throughout the country. The modernization of trotting is further illustrated by the coverage harness racing received in the daily and sporting press, the emergence of statistics and records and the appearance in 1871 of the first stud book devoted exclusively to trotting. Finally, harness racing emerged as the first sport to be successfully commercialized. By the mid-nineteenth century, trotting replaced thoroughbred racing as this country’s number one spectator sport. Not until after the Civil War did baseball challenge the supreme position of trotting; but by 1870, if not for awhile longer, harness racing remained the nation’s leading spectator sport.
The contention that harness racing was the first modern sport in America does not mean that it was the initial sport to assume modern characteristics. Thoroughbred racing began to modernize during the eighteenth century when permanent jockey clubs were established. The modernization of this sport reached its pre- Civil War peak during the 1830s when the sport enjoyed a period of unprecedent growth and prosperity. By the mid-1840s however, the process grounded to a halt when the sport collapsed throughout the North. With horse racing confined mainly to the South during the subsequent two decades, the modernization of the sport remained dormant until the revival of thoroughbred racing in the North in the years immediately following the Civil War. By 1870, nevertheless, the gestalt of horse racing was not as yet modern despite the significant steps in this direction during the antebellum period. Conversely, the claims that harness racing had become a modern sport by 1870 does not mean to suggest that the modernization of trotting was complete by this date. Rather a key point of this article is that a certain stage is reached as a sport moves along the continuum from the premodern to the modern ideal form in which modern characteristics are sufficiently present to shape the structure and direction of the sport. At this juncture, the sport presents a modern configuration, one which shares more in common with its future than its premodern past. It is in this sense that harness racing had become America’s first modern sport by 1870.
Harness racing conjures up a rural image, the sport of the county fair. Trotting was, however, an urban product. The sport first emerged on urban roads and developed its most salient modern characteristics in the city. New York played a more critical role in the development of harness racing than any other city. As early as 1832, the Spirit of the Times recognized that New York was the premier city in the breeding and training of trotting horses. Nearly a quarter of a century later, one frequent correspondent to this sporting journal maintained that trotting was indigenous to the Empire City and that there were “more fine horses here than can be found any where else in the world.” The importance of New York to the growth of the sport did not derive solely from the concentration of the best stock in the metropolitan region. New York was the hub of harness racing throughout the period 1825 to 1870. In the nation’s most populated city, there were more trotting tracks, more races, including a disproportionate number of the leading contests, and more prize money offered than in any other place in the country. Equally significant, the characteristics of modern harness racing initially appeared in New York. Here the sport was first organized and commercialized. As a result, New York set the pattern that was to be followed on a national scale.
Harness racing emerged as a popular pastime in New York and in other parts of the northeast in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Sport historians have maintained that the growth of trotting was directly related to the antiracing legislation passed by several northern states, including New York State, during this era. Denied the race course, lovers of fast horses took to the “natural track”—the highway. While the road was ill suited for the feet of the running horse, it was the natural home of the trotter. “It is no accident,” a leading historian of the sport contended, “that the racing of trotters began in regions where horses could be ‘raced’ only in defiance of law.’’ New York State’s anti-racing law, passed in 1802, neither directly nor indirectly influenced the growth of trotting in the Empire City. As enforcement had been lax, horsemen did not have to take to the road as a substitute for the prohibited race course. Rather, trotting emerged at this time because improvements in the roads now made the sport possible. One historian noted that “it was only natural that the speed of the harness horse found its first testing ground upon the smooth hard roads whose networks radiated from the northeastern cities . . . especially those of the Boston-New York-Philadelphia regions.”
Sportsmen began racing their “roadsters” (as street trotters came to be called) because it provided them with an amusement which was convenient, participatory and relatively inexpensive. Third Avenue quickly emerged as New York’s major trotting area. Beginning outside the residential portion of the city at that time, the approximately five mile road was perfectly suited for these informal trials of speed. In close proximity to the homes of the horsemen, it was a convenient location for these contests which started upon the completion of the day’s work and which usually lasted until dark. Moreover, numerous taverns dotted the highway where reinsmen could stop, arrange contests and discuss the latest sporting developments. These impromptu contests appealed to the city’s horsemen because they allowed personal participation. Unlike thoroughbred racing, where the owner and the rider of the horse had long been separated, trotting permitted the sportsman to demonstrate the prowess of his horse, as well as his own skill as a reinsman. Finally, the pastime did not require the capital outlay of thoroughbred racing. The trotter was not a “pure breed,” but rather a horse drawn from the common stock that had the ability to trot. The plebian horses that engaged in these road races, moreover, were almost always used by their owners in their day-to-day activities.
Although early nineteenth century trotting consisted almost exclusively of these impromptu contests, permanent structures began to emerge. The first trotting tracks in the New York metropolitan region were mere extensions of the courses used for thoroughbred racing. The most significant of these tracks was located in Harlem and the first recorded performance by an American trotter took place there in 1806. Several years later, the first track constructed exclusively for trotting was built in Harlem next to the Red House Tavern. The course was the major resort for the Third Avenue road racing crowd and the track was probably constructed for their benefit. While racing took place on both courses, these tracks remained essentially training grounds for the city’s roadsters. More formalized matches, either on the city’s roads or tracks, were a natural outgrowth of the impromptu races, or “brushes” as they were called, which took place on Gotham’s streets. Since the press paid scant attention to these matches information exists on only a few of them. Probably the most important took place in 1818 when William Jones of Long Island, a prominent horseman, wagered Colonel Bond of Maryland a thousand dollars that he could produce a horse that would trot a mile in less than three minutes. The race caused great excitement among the city’s sporting crowd. With odds against success, a horse named Boston Pony accomplished the feat in just less than the required time.
The formation of the New York Trotting Club (NYTC) in the Winter of 1824- 1825 marks the first critical step in the modernization of harness racing. The first organized trotting club in America, there is no information on its members, although most were probably drawn from the men who raced their roadsters on Third Avenue and other roads in the New York metropolitan region. The creation of the NYTC was inspired by the success thoroughbred racing had enjoyed in New York after the State revoked its anti-racing legislation in 1821. The NYTC drew its objectives and methods heavily from the experience of horse racing. Similar to the racing organization of its sister sport, the NYTC justified its association on utilitarian grounds (the sport’s contribution to the improvement of the breed); instituted regular meetings twice yearly; and, constructed a race course (in Centerville, Long Island) to facilitate the growth of the sport. Trotting in New York made significant advances as both a participatory and spectator sport in the two decades following the formation of the NYTC. In 1835, the Spirit noted that the “number of fast horses for which our city is so celebrated is steadily accumulating.’’ With some exaggeration, one contemporary observer claimed that “there was scarcely a gentleman in New York who did not own one or two fast (trotting) horses.”19 The rising cost of good roadsters further indicated the increasingly appeal of the sport. During the 1830s the price of the best trotting horses doubled. In addition, trotting races on the city’s tracks, especially the major ones, generated considerable excitement among New York’s sporting crowd. In 1838, the New York Herald reported that the contest between Dutchman and Ratner created “as much interest in our city and neighborhood” as the intersectional horse race between John Bascombe and Post Boy held in New York two years earlier.
Points of Interest