Purebred Breeding and Racing Horses

Since early statehood, Tennessee has maintained a reputation for producing esteemed purebred horses of various breeds and racing traditions. During the nineteenth century, Tennessee dominated thoroughbred racing in the United States. The pedigreed thoroughbred stallions were crossed on local pacing mares to produce trotting horses used for transportation and harness racing after the Civil War. When anti-gambling law curtailed thoroughbred racing endeavors in 1906, Tennessee’s passion for equestrian sports continued through steeplechase events. In the twentieth century, Tennessee horse breeders directly influenced purebred Arabian horse racing in the United States.

Thoroughbred racing and breeding spread from East Tennessee to Memphis, with the Middle Basin becoming a nucleus within the first decade of the nineteenth century. Influential foundation sires of the time included Citizen and Glencoe. Between 1800 and 1810, stud fees generally did not exceed thirty dollars. Owner-breeder rivalries encouraged development of local tracks, and Andrew Jackson often receives credit for promoting the sport of horseracing via exuberant campaigning of his thoroughbreds Greyhound, Truxton, and Pacolet, the last a prominent sire through the 1820s. Famous are the tales of Jackson’s match races, one ending in a fatal duel with a challenger.

Regional rivalry between East and West developed, as well. In 1836, the owners of eastern racer Luzborough and Tennessee-based Leviathan devised a futurity contest between offspring of the two stallions. Middle Tennesseans fixed their business and social schedules around the match race scheduled for May 1, 1838.

James Jackson (no relation to Andrew) entered the Leviathan daughter Sarah Bladen, the local favorite on race day in Nashville, yet opponent Picton was perhaps the stronger competitor. However, this Luzborough son had come up lame with a bowed tendon days before, requiring a substitution of a daughter, Leila. New wagers were made, and Sarah Bladen soundly defeated Leila. The win incited another owner of Luzborough progeny, Thomas Barry of Gallatin, to issue a new challenge to the Leviathan bloodline. James Jackson’s Leviathan daughter Exotic, a three-to-one favorite, rose to defend her sire’s name, beating her challenger.

The victories helped clinch 1838 as Leviathan’s best year as a sire, with more winners than any other stallion in the United States. James Jackson had great success crossing his stallion on Glencoe daughters, and Leviathan’s public stud fee increased from 100 dollars in 1837 to 150 dollars in 1839.

Evidence of Tennessee’s racing preeminence continued to amass. Half-brothers Lysander and David T. McGavock established rival racetracks, the Nashville Race Course, in 1828, and the Walnut Course, in the 1840s, respectively. Belle Meade, in the hands of W. G. Harding, ascended to “Queen” of plantations, renowned throughout the turf world for her fine Thoroughbred stock. In 1839, 160 stallions were advertised at stud across the country, with top ranked Tennessee boasting 37 of those.

On October 10, 1843, the Nashville Race Course hosted the richest event up to that time, the Peyton Stake. The futurity program began with thirty horses nominated at five thousand dollars each; ultimately, a field of only four started the grueling test of four heats of four miles. The mare Glumdalditch won the thirty-five-thousand-dollar purse and earned the new, sleeker name “Peytona,” in honor of her victory at the event. Peytona’s pedigree honored Tennessee horse breeding, as her sire was Glencoe, and her dam was a Leviathan daughter.

Tennessee’s tradition of selective breeding of fine horses proved disadvantageous during the Civil War, as private stock was commandeered for service, devastating whole stud farms. Irony played its hand against the plantation economy that had helped populate the South with good-to-superior saddle horses, in contrast to the bulkier draft-type horses in the north. For four years, horseracing ceased to exist in Tennessee, allowing Kentucky’s efforts to advance.

After the war, Tennessee’s horse-breeding activities rebounded. Improvement in roads, urban and rural, and increasing middle-class aspirations effected a growing demand for fashionable trotting horses. In the late nineteenth century, Belle Meade and Fairview Farm thoroughbreds as well as Hermitage Stud and Ewell Farm standardbred trotters carried clout throughout the country.

In 1882, New York gaming man Charles Reed bought Fairview Farm and established a thoroughbred breeding stud, bringing to the state famed racer St. Blaise, purchased for a hundred thousand dollars. At its peak in 1897, Fairview boasted 150 broodmares and shipped racers north to run at Reed’s hometown, Saratoga. In 1891, Belle Meade, under General W. H. Jackson (no relation to Andrew or James), continued to exert her influence, bringing famed English Derby winner Iroquois to Tennessee.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Tennessee experienced a shift in sporting interests, with trotters edging out thoroughbreds. While Tennessee’s harness horses competed successfully on interstate circuits from Alabama to Pennsylvania, the state’s thoroughbred racehorse reputation was giving way to Kentucky’s. West Side track, which had replaced the old Nashville course, closed to become the site of the 1897 state Centennial Exposition. Iroquois’s death in 1899 closed the chapter on Belle Meade’s long history of thoroughbred breeding. By 1902, Charles Reed’s Fairview Farm also dispersed its stock, with former six-figure St. Blaise selling for fifty-five hundred dollars. The final blow to thoroughbred racing in Tennessee came in 1906 when gambling was outlawed.

Harness racing, however, continued to enjoy support in rural communities. Popular features of state fairs, harness races did not rely on wagering and survived well into the twentieth century. Top breeding counties were Maury, Giles, Rutherford, and Marshall. Another amateur equestrian event remained popularity following anti-gambling legislation, steeplechase jumping. The Fairview estate became the property of the Sumner County Land Company, which proposed in 1929 to develop the grounds as a steeplechase, polo, and horse-breeding complex. The Grasslands Hunt and Racing Foundation would locate a clubhouse in the former mansion and cater to the millionaire set on the proposed equestrian playground. The stock market crash, however, altered plans abruptly, and although Vogue magazine and the New York Sun publicized a successful inaugural steeplechase event in 1930, the Sumner County Land Company was bankrupt by 1932.

Still, steeplechasing appears to have continued sporadically at various locations for several years, becoming part of Harpeth Hills Hunt Club’s fall shows from 1926 to 1932. In 1933, General Jacob McGavock Dickinson’s Travelers Rest Farm on Franklin Road hosted a one-day event, the Tennessee Tree Topper’s Gold Trophy. The winning jockey of the race was Webb School student Calvin Houghland. In 1941, Nashville hosted a steeplechase at its permanent, WPA-constructed course. The Iroquois Steeplechase, honoring Nashville’s equine hero, annually attracts international riders, horses, and society.

General Dickinson in 1930 introduced purebred Arabian horse breeding at the historic Travelers Rest Stud, after studying the breed’s extensive use as a racehorse and improver of native stock throughout Europe. Dickinson broke from the “collector” mentality of the few Arabian horse breeders in the United States at the time, most of whom were on either coast. In true Tennessee spirit, he studied bloodlines and selected the best available, becoming this country’s first importer of Arabian horses from Poland, where all Arabians are tested at the track. Sales to fifty states and internationally exemplified Dickinson’s goal of dispersing quality bloodlines to middle-class owners. His stallion Czubuthan, a stakes winner in his native Poland, is found in 25 percent of American Arabian horse pedigrees today. Another of his stallions, Antez, tied a world record for Arabian horses at the half-mile at a Nashville track.

Though Dickinson devised several independent racing trials to test his stock, there was no organized Arabian horse racing in the United States, as in Europe, at that time. Dickinson’s influence became evident in 1959, the inaugural year of U.S. Arabian horse racing, and after. Travelers Rest Arabians can be found in the pedigrees of several early racing competitors. Dr. Sam Harrison of Loudon, Tennessee, became a leading promoter of the fledgling sport beginning in the 1960s. Harrison, too, recognized the proven racing prowess of the Polish Arabians and brought to Tennessee a yearling Polish colt, Samtyr, who became a National Champion race horse and the world’s leading sire of Arabian racers from 1980 through 1987. Harrison created the U.S. Arabian Jockey Club and the Arabian Racing Cup, Inc., a Tennessee non-profit corporation. Samtyr offspring are still sought for breeding Arabian racehorses. Grassroots promotion such as Harrison’s helped grow Arabian racing into an official sport. Dickinson’s Czubuthan has become a household name in today’s Arabian turf world through his great-grandson, KA Czubuthan, leading racer and sire.

Evidence of Tennessee’s history of horse breeding and racing can be found throughout the nation and internationally. Specific breeds have advanced, and the general light horse population of the United States has benefited from Tennessee’s nurturing attention to its horse breeding ambitions. Within the state, purebreds have contributed to the development of other equine breeds and hybrids, namely the Tennessee Walking Horse and the Tennessee mule. Tennessee’s devotion to the breeding of top equine athletes has engendered a continual agrarian tradition that still garners respect today. Since 2000, Tennessee’s horse population has been ranked third nationally.

Suggested Reading

James Douglas Anderson, The Making of the American Thoroughbred Especially in Tennessee, 1800-1845 (1916); J. M. Dickinson, Catalog of Travelers Rest Arabian Horses (1947); Nat Gorham, “An Interview with Dr. Sam Harrison,” Arabian Horse World (April 1989); Margaret Lindsley Warden Equestrian Collection, Albert Gore Sr. Research Center, Middle Tennessee State University

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Purebred Breeding and Racing Horses
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018