What was the cultural significance of horse racing in colonial Virginia?

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geosc's profile pic

geosc | College Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Breen says that betting on horse races enhanced one's position as a member of the gentry. Victory over one's peers bestowed honor upon the winner. Formalized gambling and horse racing permitted competition without undue violence.

T. H. Breen, "Horses and Gentlemen: The Cultural Significance of Gambling among the Gentry of Virginia," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 34, no. 2 (April 1977): 239-257.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Horseracing has long been a gentleman's sport.  Much like someone's car is nowadays, the horse a man rode was indicative of his economic status, his taste, and his personality.  Horse breeding was the pastime of the country gentleman, and Virginia led in this avocation. These breeders bred horses that could sprint over the quarter mile distance in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.  They raced their horses wherever they could find a fair path:  through forests or over roads of settlements.  Each owner put up a stake and this constituted the winner's purse.  Spectators participated in auction pools, in which contestants were auctioned off, and the purchaser of the winner collected the pool minus a commission.  The prestige of the win was more important than the purse, however. 

In 1660 racing found itself in New York where the governor held races at Hempstead on Long Island; there the winners were awarded the first know trophies for horse racing.  Thoroughbred racing was introduced by the governor of Maryland and first staged at Annapolis in 1745 fifteen years after the first thoroughbred was imported from England

During the civil war, many of these high-bred horses were used by the officers; consequently, horse breeding was devastated after the war, and Kentucky took the figurative reins of horse breeding.  Virginia lost much in horse racing; today the three most prestigious races in thoroughbred racing are the three jewels of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness held in Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes in New York.

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