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Anne Arundel County’s Roots of American Horse Racing

May 06, 2016 12:03PM ● By Cate Reynolds

And it all Began Here

The roots of American horse racing can be traced to several Colonial-era estates in Anne Arundel County

By Ellen Moyer

In 2003, the Thoroughbred Horse joined the Calico Cat, The Baltimore Oriole, and a lexicon of others as symbols of the great State of Maryland. Pursuing how a bill becomes a law, students at St. Pius X Regional School chose the horse to learn the legislative process. Bill 43, introduced by Senator Green on the student’s behalf, cemented a long history of support for horse racing by the Catholic Church. As early as 1744, the Catholic Churchman news proclaimed that among the legitimate pastimes of the population that met with approval of the Church itself “is the new one of racing horses, which had grown to be highly popular among the gentry of the country.” In the early days of the colonies, horse racing was a popular pastime and a reason for socializing after church on Sundays when “owners of the horses that bore them to church talked and compared horse.”

Indeed, according to Dr. Ed Papenfuse, then [2003] head of the Maryland Archives testifying on behalf of Senate Bill 43, “Maryland is credited with the formal introduction of organized thoroughbred racing into the colonies…it is appropriate that we recognize the horse’s contribution to the history of our State, paying tribute in particular to the noble horse of Thoroughbreds that began here over two and a half centuries ago.”

Horse racing, a sport of the gentry, has a long and storied history in and around Annapolis. A center of Colonial culture, the City was the Queen of Maryland’s turf for events. While aspects of England’s passion for horse racing—revived by King Charles II and Queen Anne—were combined in the sport all over the Maryland colony, Annapolis holds a special place in the history of American horse racing. It holds the earliest recorded history of a municipal government sponsoring a horse race and paying for it with tax dollars. As early as 1720, the minutes of the town council led by Mayor Benjamin Tasker record the first political discussion of horse racing. Dates were set; Caesar Ghislein, a silver maker, was commissioned to make 12 spoons, the first in the colonies, to be awarded to the winner.
Whitehall Farm
The keeper of the City Gate, Richard Young, was directed to clear a track. A quarter-mile match race was held on September 29th, 1720. About nine months later, on the May Day Fair held May 1st, 1721, pubs and booth holders were taxed to pay for the silver plate award and the preparation of the track. Thus, Annapolis held the first municipally-funded race in the Colonies.

Thoroughbred racing transitioned into multiple horse contests and became recognized as a profession on which bets were placed under the English Queen Anne, the city’s namesake, who also created new race tracks in the towns of England. The leaders in Annapolis followed her lead and aristocratic traditions.

Horse racing was a gentlemen’s sport and only gentlemen members of the club could vie for the purses offered in races between their horses. The estates of the gentlemen surrounding the Colonial Capital of Maryland became magnets for top horse breeding and racing competition. Maryland’s Governor, Sam Ogle, brought two top quality thoroughbreds, Spark and Queen Mab, from the Kings stables to Maryland in 1747. His administrator, Ben Tasker, imported Selima who after walking more than 100 miles to Gloucester, Virginia, defeated the best that state had to offer in a seven-horse race in 1752, igniting a rivalry between the racing powers of the two states.

Selima, a daughter of the Godolphin Barb Arabian and whose lineage continued to Man o’ War, would produce top rate horses, including the undefeated Selim, sired by Othello owned by the bachelor Governor Horatio Sharpe of Whitehall. The great manor house built in the 1760s still stands about seven miles northeast of Annapolis. Renovated and restored throughout the 20th century by Charles Scarlett, the home was designated a National Historic Property in October 1966.

In the English tradition, aristocrats have always owned horses. Following Sharpe, Governor Eden retired to Whitehall to enjoy the gardens, his race horses, and to host great parties for people coming by boat from the Capital city. Eventually Whitehall was acquired by the Ridout family who lived in it for 116 years. Today it is opened on occasion to the public and is dedicated in partnership with Historic Annapolis for restoration education programs.

Selim, bred in Whitehall in 1759, was sold to Samuel Galloway, owner of Tulip Hill near Galesville. This power horse remained undefeated until he was nine years old and holds an unchallenged feat of carrying 140 pounds over a four-mile heat in eight minutes and two seconds in 1767. He is buried at Tulip Hill. The Georgian Plantation house of bricks made on site was built in 1755 for Galloway’s bride Ann Chew on land originally patented to Richard Talbot in 1659. Talbot called it Poplar Knowle; Galloway renamed it Tulip Hill after a grove of tulip poplar trees. The property remained with the Galloway family until 1866. George Washington dined here. Legend has it that the young children rode their pony up the grand oak central staircase in the home. Tulip Hill has been restored and is a reminder of the great homes built by and lived in by the new aristocracy of the new America. It was designated on the National Register of Historic Places on April 15th, 1970.
West of Tulip Hill in Harwood, Larkin Hill, a one and half story gambrel roof home has stood since 1753 and is another designated National Historic Place. Built along a ridge that was an old Indian Trail, today known as Solomons Island Road, Larkin Hill was originally built in 1663 as a tavern then was home for a brief time to the colony’s Capital and a meeting site for the legislative assembly that designated 31 towns and ports of entry for the new colony. In 1943, the farm was purchased by Fendall Clagett, regarded as one of Maryland’s most formidable horse racing figures. Larkin’s Hill Farm in the 20th century became known as one of Maryland’s best thoroughbred racing and breeding farms. Fendall Clagett died in 1989. His daughters Christine and Fendi carry on the racing and training tradition of their father.

The Georgian mansion of Dodon Plantation in Davidsonville was destroyed by fire in 1790. Owned by the Scottish Steuart family of tobacco farmers on land patented in 1669, the property is still owned by Steuart descendants. A gentleman farmer, Dr. George H. Steuart raised and raced thoroughbreds. In May, 1743 George challenged the rival stable of Charles Carroll to a race against his imported stallion, Dungannon, at the track near Annapolis. This is the first recorded formal race noted in the Maryland Gazette. It is also the date given to the start of the Maryland Jockey Club, the oldest sporting association in the country (although there are indications it existed at an earlier date). A silver bowl, the Annapolis Subscription Plate, was offered as the prize. This bowl, now in the silver collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is the second oldest horse racing trophy in America. A replica of the bowl was revived by the Mayor of Annapolis for the races at Roedown before that event ceased. By the way, Dungannon won the race.

Dodon, from a French word meaning “Gift of God” is still farmed and home to thoroughbreds. Steuart Pittman, Jr. leads the nation’s Retired Racehorse Re-Training Program. His sister, Polly, is involved with the estate’s new vineyards. This spring, the match race with Pittman aboard “Dungannon” and Christy Clagett on the challenger will be re-enacted as the new wine, named Dungannon, is launched at Dodon vineyards.

While the horse was important to the advancement of human civilization over thousands of years, Anne Arundel County and Annapolis in particular, more than anywhere else in the New World, were from the earliest times engaged in racing and breeding thoroughbreds. In the City’s golden years before the Revolution, Race Week was the social event of the colonies. So important was the horse to the area’s culture and social life, that Annapolis was the first to resume races in 1781 as the War for Independence was drawing to a close. The railroad, the “iron horse,” would eventually change circumstances for the work horse, but that is another story.