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Story Archives: Hardheart, Truxton & horse racing in antebellum Natchez
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|Hardheart, Truxton & horse racing in antebellum Natchez|
On the outskirts of Natchez in 1835, world famous stage actor Tyrone Power watched four horses being exercised at a plantation race track. Among the animals working out that cold February day was Hardheart whose "time for a mile, they declare here, has never been matched," Power wrote in his journal.
In Adams County and throughout Natchez country, Power found a love for horse racing unmatched anywhere: "The passion for the turf is, I find, yet stronger here, if that be possible, than in the North. One or two persons are this very year going to Europe for the sole purpose of importing horses of high reputation..."
Horse racing had been a sport in this region since the arrival of the white men. During the days of Spanish rule in the late 18th century, there was a quarter-horse track under-the-hill, which stretched from the bluff to the river. The white men raced their horses from the bluff to the river, but the Choctaw raced the opposite direction, showing no desire to chance plunging into the Mighty Mississippi.
Around the same time, according to W.H. Sparks' 19th century book about Natchez, future general and president Andrew Jackson, had "a small store, or trading establishment, at Bruinsburgh, near the mouth of Bayou Pierre in Claiborne County…which stood immediately upon the bank of the Mississippi…" At this site, said Sparks, "there was a race-track, for quarter-horses, and many an anecdote was rife… in the neighborhood, of the skill of the old hero in pitting the cock or turning a quarter-horse."
The Rev. John G. Jones in a book on Protestantism recalled horse racing in early Natchez and didn't have a high opinion of it or other forms of gambling: "…Another fruitful source of dissipation and irreligion was the celebrated (St.) Catherine race course, now known as Pharsalia Course (the most famous in Mississippi), in the immediate vicinity of Natchez. When, or by whom, this course was originally planned and constructed, we cannot tell. It is known to have been in existence…as early as 1790, if not earlier – and has been kept in operation ever since…"
By the early 1800s there were jockey clubs in Adams, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties. In fact, when a group of worshippers in Rodney in Jefferson County wanted to erect a church, the plan drew opposition because it was feared that such a religious pursuit might "break up the races down at Greenville and spoil their Sunday sports," according to John R. Hutchison in an 1874 reminiscence on his 45 years in the ministry. Greenville, a small settlement located six miles west of Fayette and the first capital of Jefferson County no long exists.
The emergence of jockey clubs signaled an organized effort to promote horse racing, which fueled a small industry in Natchez. Historian Laura D.S. Harrell wrote about the clubs in a July 1951 article in the Journal of Mississippi History: "The Jockey Clubs of that day were formed by the gentlemen owners of the horses, and were usually financed by the membership dues, which, with the entrance fees, were used to make up the Jockey Club purses. The horses were ridden by slave jockeys, some of whom became very well known."
In 1817 in Wilkinson County the spring races started the second Thursday in March and continued for three days. Governed by the regulations of the county jockey club, the Washington Republican and Natchez Intelligencer reported that the "turf is now in handsome order, and will be kept so. Every accommodation for horses, grooms and boys" were available. Stalls in the stable were large enough for two horses at a cost of $4 per week, stable care and forage cost $1 every 24 hours, and a keeper or groomsman could be housed and provided meals for $1 per day.
Entrance fees for spectators were 50 cents for those arriving in their four-wheeled carriage, 25 cents for a two-wheeled carriage, and 25 cents for persons attending either or horseback on foot.
This same racing season, Wilkinson County was abuzz with the news that Gen. Andrew Jackson's great stallion, Truxton, arrived aboard a flatboat at Fort Adams. Truxton had a slight cough, wrote Col. Robert Butler, who was taking care of the horse for Jackson. In a letter to the general, Butler gushed that Truxton was the "horse of horses," and promised to "cherish him and pet him as a great favourite…"
But Truxton was in Wilkinson County not to race, but to sire. Butler wrote that the stallion "arrives in good time for my mares…they just commenced to drop their foals. I will use my best endeavors to raise you a couple of war Horses…"
In 1827, purses at Girault's course near Natchez, one of many to spring up throughout the region, totaled $250 for a $50 entrance fee, $350 for a $50 fee and $600 for a $100 fee. There were three main races of the day and distances in some races were as great as four miles.
Historian William C. Davis explained in his book, "A Way Through the Wilderness," that race day "originally consisted of two 'heats,' the same horses running in both and only racing again in case of a tie. Then they went to three heats. The running spread over successive days, with three-mile heats on the first, two-mile runs on the second, and one-mile sprints on the third, and all or most of the horses running in every race. Speed certainly counted, but endurance mattered most by the end of the series."
In another book, "Antebellum Natchez," historian D. Clayton James wrote that William Minor and Adam Bingaman "took the lead in the 1820's not only in heading the Mississippi Association for Improving the Breed of Horses but also in sponsoring some of the finest race horses in the South. For over two decades the Minor and Bingaman stables, stocked with expensive thoroughbreds, dominated the tracks at Natchez, St. Francisville and Metairie."
Bingaman's champion racing horses included Henry Clay, Madge Wildfire and the famous Hardheart, who actor Tyrone Power watched work out in the cold February of 1835. Just six years earlier, the young newcomer Hardheart, according to the Southern Galaxy newspaper in Natchez, was a "noble animal – great points – blood and bottom – a four mile horse to a certainty."
Before Power left Natchez he rode out to a local track and watched the up-and-comer Pelham train for a race against Hardheart, the undisputed champion in the mile heat. Power saw promise in the new contender: "Pelham is a handsome little chestnut, with a perfectly thorough-bred air, and gallops like a witch."
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