A Kingdom For a Horse: The Thoroughbred Horse in Colonial and Revolutionary Virgina

Project Details


A Kingdom for a Horse is a study of thoroughbred horse-racing in the United States from the Revolution through the end of the nineteenth century.

Studying the changes which American racing underwent in this period illuminates ongoing processes of national identification, regional affiliation, and class formation.

The first half of this project analyses how, between the 1780s and the 1850s, Americans used horse-racing as an element of local and regional community formation and the articulation and contestation of a variety of self-consciously American identities. The second half illuminates how after the Civil War a new, finance-based elite legitimized itself by transforming the nation’s most popular sport into a venue for replication of aristocratic English practices which underpinned their sense of social dominance.

This study builds upon the recent work of, amongst others, Laurent Dubois, Rachel Miyung Joo, Barbara Keys, and Jose Alamillo in exploring the mutually constitutive relationships between popular sport and national and transnational identity, an approach particularly relevant to horse-racing, the first global sport.
It illuminates how a disparate set of elites used the breeding, ownership, and racing of blooded horses to create and maintain social, cultural, and political hegemony.

I begin by depicting how American horse-racing evolved before the Revolution from British sporting antecedents, but between the 1780s and 1850s took on a specifically American, and Southern, cast: leading planters competed against one another to stage the most popular and prestigious contests, and between the 1820s and 1840s battled Northern turfmen in a series of “Great Match Races” between equine champions of the two regions.

By the 1850s, sectional hostilities were too bitter for these sporting competitions to remain a friendly rivalry, so American turfmen transferred their competitive urges across the Atlantic, entering American-bred and –trained horses in England’s major racing contests.

This contact with English racing practices strongly influenced racing’s post-Civil War revival at the hands of a rising new Manhattan-based elite, while the racing heartland of the American South lay in ruins. Insecure about the newness of their vast fortunes, financiers and entrepreneurs such as August Belmont and Leonard Jerome hoped that their commitment to thoroughbred racing would fashion them into an American aristocracy, one modelled on the English gentry, not the economically and socially marginalised Southern planters.

As the new leaders of American racing, they opted not to revive antebellum practices but to emulate those of the English turf, transforming thoroughbred horse-racing the United States from a vernacular, regional sport into the industry it remains today. Simultaneously, the replacement of African-American jockeys by white riders ended more than a century which had seen considerable interracial interaction among both participants and spectators of the sport.
Short titleR:HAH A Kingdom For a Horse
Effective start/end date15/10/0715/12/07


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