The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle

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9780618556120: The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle

History meets horse racing in this grand, galloping story about what happened when the greatest horse from the North met the greatest horse from the South.

In the early 1800s, the notion of sport was still quite new to America, unless you counted cockfighting, chasing foxes, or hunting stags. But on a bright afternoon in May 1823 a horse race held at the Union Course on Long Island changed everything. Astonishingly, sixty thousand people attended -- a number equal to roughly half the population of New York City at the time. Two horses -- the best from the North and the best from the South -- battled it out in three grueling heats, the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbys, in only a couple of hours. And the whole thing was based on an outrageous dare.

In a fast-paced narrative -- colorful, rich, and full of record-setting performances and towering personalities -- John Eisenberg chronicles the story of the year in which two horses were seen as embodying a nation racing inevitably toward civil war. Eclipse was the majestic champion representing the North’s evolving industrial machine, and Henry was an equine arriviste embodying southern perceptions of superiority. Their thrilling match race would come to represent a watershed moment in American history, crystallizing the differences that so fundamentally divided North and South. Along the way, we come to know millionaire industrialists, broken-down jockeys, tobacco planters, politicians, and slaves -- not to mention two amazing horses.

A unique blend of horse racing, history, and good old-fashioned storytelling, The Great Match Race provides a telling glimpse of a nation dividing, some forty years before the Civil War; a fascinating look at the early heritage of the American thoroughbred; and the first example of the sports spectacle as we know it.

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About the Author:

JOHN EISENBERG was an award-winning sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun for two decades and is the author of Ten-Gallon War, That First Season, My Guy Barbaro (co-written with jockey Edgar Prado), and The Great Match Race. He has written for Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, and Details, among other publications.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue It was a new sound for American ears: the lusty, clattering, sports-stadium roar sixty thousand people shouting, whistling, stomping, and rattling cowbells, raising a din so forceful it shook the wooden beams supporting the grandstands. The noise was audible for miles, rolling across the countryside like booming thunderclaps in a boot-soaking rainstorm. It would become a familiar sound in the distant future, an archetype of autumn football weekends and summer baseball nights. But in 1823 it was a new phenomenon, a startling sensory assault never heard before.
A horse race, of all things, was the occasion, luring a tumultuous horde of sports fanatics that was almost larger than the combined populations of Illinois and Delaware. Before this time, political rallies, prayer revivals, and holiday parades had brought together the largest crowds of Americans, but a ballyhooed duel between the fastest thoroughbred in the North and the fastest in the South had improbably attracted a mob that dwarfed all earlier crowds. Suddenly, on a sunny spring afternoon, a racetrack on Long Island was the nation’s fourth-largest city.
The country came to a standstill, sweating the outcome of the race between Eclipse, the North’s dark, snorting, undefeated champion, and Henry, the South’s precocious, brilliantly fast darling. Congress shut down because so many politicians had tickets to see them run. The New York Stock Exchange was closed. Andrew Jackson interrupted his presidential campaign to attend.
Public support was evenly divided, and as the animals circled the all-dirt track at the Union Course in Jamaica that day, little business was conducted anywhere else in the twenty-four states. People from Maine to Alabama found their minds drifting to a race that had been anticipated for months and exhaustively analyzed and debated. Many fans had invested more than just their emotions. They had bet hundreds, even thousands, of dollars or, in a few cases, everything they owned.
In hindsight this outbreak of raw, irrational passion, a premature burst of American sports mania, was almost an apparition, appearing out of nowhere and vanishing just as quickly. Hoarse, purple-veined sports fanaticism was a concept whose time had not come. Baseball, football, and basketball would not even be discovered for decades, much less organized into popular cultural institutions. Stadiums packed with tens of thousands of noisy fans would not become commonplace until the 1900s. In 1823 the idea of sixty thousand people coming together to watch a sports event was only slightly more fathomable than the idea of a man flying to the moon and walking across a crater.
But a boiling brew of intense, hardheaded loyalties had turned the race into more than just a sporting event, setting the stage for this circus to unfurl. The race had become a national referendum on what was right and just, a symbol of the developing dispute between northerners and southerners that would eventually tear the country apart.
It would be many years before North and South shed blood, but the joy of their celebrated union was already flickering, as evidenced by their increasingly shrill and incessant arguments about slavery, politics, business, morals any issue that could be dredged up, really. Southerners were smugly accustomed to the upper hand; they had controlled the presidency for almost a quarter-century, easily protected their right to own slaves, and farmed the crops that were helping the fledgling nation rise to its feet. But northerners were rising up against slavery now, fighting back politically, and shrewdly betting their future on industry, not agriculture.
America’s political, social, and economic winds were slowly shifting. The race between Eclipse and Henry was like a leaf picked up and carried in those breezes, a palpable metaphor of coming change. Southerners, steeped in horse-racing expertise, nuance, and history, saw themselves as the rightful bearers of America’s equine legacy, superior in every way to the northerners, whom they saw as clueless dabblers. Yet several of the South’s finest horsemen had recently taken on the North’s indomitable Eclipse and failed to win, delighting northerners and making southerners increasingly unhappy.
After the last southern defeat, William Ransom Johnson decided he had to step in. A charismatic forty-one-year-old Virginia plantation owner, politician, and gambler, Johnson was most of all a cunning and dominant racehorse trainer. He arranged a new challenge to Eclipse and spent months preparing for it, drawing the entire South into his thrall. Because of his uncanny instincts and unmatched record in one two-year span, horses wearing his sky blue ccolors had won sixty-one of sixty-three races southerners thought Johnson’s horse surely would crush Eclipse and deliver a triumph reasssssserting their superiority.
Northerners, meanwhile, never thought Eclipse could lose. Yes, the nine-year-old horse was near the end of his racing days, but he was still strong and fearsome. His fans had faith in him and in his human support team; his chief financial backer, John Cox Stevens, was a millionaire sportsman. Cornelius Van Ranst, the self-doubting old horseman who owned and trained Eclipse, was the only one worried that the horse might in fact be too old and that this match against Henry would push him beyond his limits.
With both sides viewing the race as a chance to have their region’s superiority affirmed, a spectacle ensued. For days ahead of time, steamships and stagecoaches brought thousands of southern race fans to the streets of New York. Hotels, bars, and taverns filled. Northerners and southerners, jammed shoulder to shoulder, exchanged taunts and punches, certain their side would win the race.
Hanging in the air, almost tangible enough to grasp, was the combination of energies that would later serve as the foundation of the modern sports experience: the power of regional pride, the thrill of shared passions, the ability to see a contest as an allegory. And the intense desire to win.
On race day, as tens of thousands of people crossed the East River on dangerously overloaded ferries from New York City and journeyed to Jamaica along dusty dirt roads, it was as if all the armies in the world had gone on maneuvers together. In the end, everyone somehow fit inside the Union Course’s rickety fences, a sweltering rabble with eyes fixed on the oval dirt track in front of them.
Then the nation stopped to pray, the horses started to run, and the roars of the great crowd began to thunder. Goodness, who had ever heard such noise?

Copyright © 2006 by John Eisenberg. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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