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A Brief History of Thoroughbred Racing in Tennessee by Leigh Ballard
Although Kentucky is world famous for Thoroughbred racing now, at one time Tennessee was considered to be the home of the best racehorses. In the late 1700’s a number of Thoroughbred stallions were advertised in the newspapers in what is now east Tennessee. During the 1800’s Tennessee was acknowledged as the center of horse racing and breeding. In 1800, a stallion named Grey Medley stood at the farm of Rachel Jackson’s brother, William Donelson. General Andrew Jackson was a leading breeder and racer in top races for the country. In 1804 he and Rachel attended the first official horse race in Gallatin as owners. In 1805 he purchased an interest in Clover Bottom, an important racetrack for the time. He bred and owned some of the best horses of the day. Truxton, Pacolet, and Greyhound were some of his most famous Thoroughbreds. Jackson’s dealings at the racetrack are said to have partially led to the fatal duel with Charles Dickinson in which he was involved in 1806. By 1816 Jackson had sold most of his horses as he was busy fighting Indian wars and was heavily involved in politics. He went on to become President of the United States in 1929, but even then kept a hand in racing, taking some horses to race in Washington D.C.
By 1839 in Tennessee there were at least 10 race tracks and 20 organized Jockey Clubs throughout the the state, mostly in the middle and western sections. In 1843 in Nashville, a race named the Peyton Stakes was run. The purse was $35,000 and was the richest race run in the world to that point, awarding a prize even more rich than England’s Epsom Derby. William G. Harding developed Belle Meade into a famous stud farm which held its place as such for several decades. Bonnie Scotland, Enquirer, and Iroquois were some of the well-known sires at Belle Meade. Bramble was a notable son of the Belle Meade sire Bonnie Scotland. Other top stud farms producing champions in middle Tennessee were Kennesaw and Fairview.
By the 1850’s Louisiana and Kentucky were beginning to surpass Tennessee in breeding and racing. However, in 1851 land was purchased out of the 5000 acre Deaderick Plantation and developed as a horse-racing track by the Memphis Jockey Club. The track was reorganized in 1882 and named Montgomery Park . During the late 1800’s there was good attendance and lively betting at the Memphis track, with regular articles in the New York Times reporting the goings-on there. The Tennessee Derby was run there in 1884-1886 and again from 1890-1906, and rivaled the Kentucky Derby for gambling and excitement.
The Tennessee Legislature passed an anti-betting law in 1906. The ban on pari-mutuel betting effectively shut down the racehorse industry in Tennessee. In 1912, the city of Memphis bought Montgomery Park from the Jockey Club and eventually the property was turned into what became the Memphis Fairgrounds. While there are still a few Thoroughbred farms in the state, the incentive to breed racing Thoroughbreds was largely gone from Tennessee, and Kentucky continued to grow and thrive as the leader in the racehorse industry.
For more information about Tennessee’s place in racing history, read articles by Ridley Wills II at www.tennesseeencyclopedia.net
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