The Trotter


In the veins of the trotting horse so essential to this scene mingled the blood of English thoroughbreds and of sturdy American mares. The quality of the stock was improved by the sound crossbreeding of proven track performers. The stallion Messenger arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1788 and was a fountainhead of American trotters. The turf favorites of a century—Lady Suffolk, Dexter, Goldsmith Maid, Flora Temple—all had a trace of Messenger blood, as did William Rysdyk’s prodigious stallion, Hambletonian. The famous New England breed of Morgan horses was founded at the end of the eighteenth century with a stallion owned by one Justin Morgan, a schoolteacher from Randolph Center, Vermont. By mid-nineteenth century no breed of horse was more popular or sought after, and such Morgan stalwarts as Ethan Alien and Black Hawk added to the luster of the tribe. Bellfounder (imported by James Root of Boston in 1823), the Canadians (derived from French stock), and the Copper Bottoms of Kentucky and the Middle West were but a few of the individual horses and strains which strengthened American trotting.

At first trotters raced “under saddle,” but were later harnessed to a high four-wheeled wagon or a two-wheeled sulky, and, at last, exclusively, “to the bike sulky.” The best horses were, as a rule, six seconds slower for the mile when hitched to wagons than a trotter under saddle, and three seconds slower for that distance when harnessed to a sulky. Owners and breeders struggled to trot the mile in two minutes or under, and prized the stamina that permitted a horse to go the distance through several heats.

In the 1850’s, trotting matches dominated agricultural fairs, and racing meetings provided a lively interest for all levels of society from April through November. From the sixties onward, to the end of the century, the mania magnified, and a series of prints—both portraits and action scenes—documented a successive wave of champions: Flora Temple, Dexter, Goldsmith Maid, Rarus, St. Julien, Cresceus.

When Yankee trotted the mile in 1806 in two minutes and fifty-nine seconds, the lithograph had not been adapted to the demands of a popular art form. In 1818, the year of the first public, on-track trotting match in America, Bass Otis, a Philadelphia artist, had just made the first lithograph in this country by following a technique perfected in Bavaria by Alois Senefelder. When, however, the assault upon the two-minute mile began in earnest, between 1840 and 1860. Lady Suffolk’s 2:29 1/4 in 1845, Tacony’s 2:27 in 1853, and Flora Temple’s 2:19 3/4 in 1859 were top subjects for this relatively new mode of communication. In the sixties, Dexter, who starred in a series of spectacular trots and finally achieved 2:17 1/4, was most frequently illustrated matched against his arch rival Ethan Alien. Between 1871 and 1878 Goldsmith Maid came to the fore. Her best efforts eventually lowered the mile mark to 2:14; and then, as the decade closed, Rarus, trotting at Cleveland in August of 1878, reduced it to 2:13 1/4. In the 1880’s, St. Julien made it in 2:11 1/4, and Maud S. did it in a little over 2:10. The printmakers, never missing a bet, published colorful views documenting these achievements. Many of these marks were made on tracks of the Grand Circuit—the major league of harness racing—which became an institution after the Civil War. In the seventies, eighties, and nineties, trotting matches attracted large midweek crowds, and tracks ottered big purses to assure topflight competition. At the same time, the rise of “driving parks” at Point Bree/.e, Cambridge, Mystic, Hartford, Rochester, Cleveland, Saginaw, Chicago, and, in the Far West, at San Francisco and Oakland, was documented by the printmakers.

The thrill and enjoyment of a good heat was not all that was imbibed by the racing crowds. By the 1850’s the concomitant gambling and drinking—had become alarming problems. Moralists feared that the agricultural fairs, conceived to demonstrate improvements in agricultural techniques and animal husbandry, were being corrupted “by the exciting scenes upon the circular track.” Horsemen and sportsmen entrenched on the other side of this question thought that the moralists were “fanatical,” “foolish,” and “prick-eared.”

In spite of the critics, fine trotters drew splendid crowds, and when horses of the caliber of Goldsmith Maid and Judge Fullertoii met, the stands were always full. At East Saginaw, Michigan, in July of 1874, amidst what the press called “hushed voices” and “breathless silence,” the Maid moved through three heats in 2:19 3/4, 2:16 1/9, and 2:16 Hat—the fastest average yet recorded—in what was considered one of the best-laid trotting courses. At the end of the last heat there was pandemonium. The press reported a lady waving furiously and ignoring, in the excitement of the moment, her crying baby, which lay unceremoniously on the floor of the stands. When a bystander remonstrated, “Madam, your childl” the young matron replied, “Oh, I forgot all about Baby; but it makes no difference; I expect to have several babies, but I never expect to see another Goldsmith Maid!”

The aura of a trotting park late in the century is suggested by a four-day meet at Hartford’s Charter Oak Park held in August, 1889 (page 33). But things had already changed. Not carriages but trains on both the Central New England and Consolidated roads brought the crowds to Hartford. It was no longer the artist’s sketchbook that recorded the panorama of the park, but the photographer’s camera. As always on the Grand Circuit, patronage continued high and the grandstand was packed.