Posted on January 6, 2012 - by Annie Johnson
Antebellum Turf Times begins the new year with the following homage to the races; we wish we could take credit for this piece, but nonetheless we are pleased to be able to share it with our readers.
This excerpt is from The South Carolina Jockey Club, published in 1857, and written by John B. Irving, the Club’s secretary. We disagree, however, with Irving’s humble assessment that no writer can adequately capture the thrill of the races, when he himself has so eloquently done so here.
From The South Carolina Jockey Club
We cannot catch a wave, nor Daguerreotype its grace and rocket-like velocity. To do this perfectly is beyond the power of man.
So, like-wise, they who essay to convey, by description, the various features: the scenes, the moments of eager and tumultuous joy; the moving figures; the phantasmagoria of life, such as are continually presented and occurring on a Race Ground, will, also, fail in conveying aught but a cold, inanimate picture to the mind of the reader!
It is a subject that cannot well be pictured by words – though many attempt it, none can throw in, truthfully, all its shifting shapes and hues, for they are as varied and dazzling as are the changes in a kaleidoscope.
A Race Course is, in many particulars, the same sort of thing all over the world – the same striking features present themselves – a long line of vehicles of all sorts and conditions,
“Buggy, gig or dog-cart, curricle or tandem,”
setting like a stream in one direction, with here and there a counteracting eddy, interrupting its progress for a while, but soon recovering itself, moving on steadily and unitedly as before. The road becomes more thronged, and thicker crowds, stirred by one interest, animated by one absorbing passion, press more eagerly forward as they approach the gates.
Race horses, shrouded in all the covering of hood and body-clothes, are led on the ground by their faithful grooms, and followed by their riders.
Jockey stands, filled to overflowing with spectators, in their holiday finery, gazing on the passing scene, with eager, happy, and expectant faces; whilst on both sides of the roped arena, in the vicinity of the starting post, are huddled together carriages, in tiers, three or four deep, with the horses taken off, in the best positions to see the race, packed as closely together, as Sam Slick would say, as pins in a paper.
The horses, which have been entered for the coming event, paraded in the enclosure by the starting post, display, in their elastic step, the attributes of racers. Then follows the usual preparations:
Weighing the riders;
The unbuckling of straps and surcingles;
Blankets scientifically, with a sort of sleight of hand, turned over the loins and croup of the animals, so as not to disarrange a hair of their glossy coat, exhibiting them in the pride of the highest condition;
Rubbing down and saddling the horses;
The expression of opinion in favor of one horse, and of doubts on the others;
The mounting of the jockies;
The anxiety on the part of the grooms to get a favorable start;
The hum of anxiety as the word is given “to go” – and they are off;
The diversified colors of the riders – purple, pink, green, scarlet – resembling mosaic work, as they unfold their hues, and blazon, rainbow-like, in the sun;
The excitement of the populace as the courses change places in the race, the interest increasing with every fresh struggle, till towards the close of the contest, the straining steeds enter the last quarter stretch, urged to their utmost speed and exertion, whips and spurs doing their work, and they near the distance post;
The ground resounds beneath their rapid strides,
“Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum;”
[And with the thunder of their hooves shake the broken ground];
The noise of their hoofs increases;
The breathless moment of suspense is at hand;
They are all together;
It is any one’s race;
The earth trembles;
They fly by;
They pass the post;
The welkin [heaven] rings with the delighted sounds of thousands, and all is over!
Instantly, on all sides, “all around and about,” there is a sea of human beings moving to and fro: some on horseback, or in vehicles, hurrying from point to point; some on foot, vociferous, swaying hither and thither; all animation and anxiety for a while before the race, then breathless, motionless, as long as the issue is in doubt; but no sooner is the contest over than the close lines of people on either side of the roped arena, suddenly breaking up and pouring into it, impart a new liveliness to the scene, which is again all busy movement.
Some rush eagerly in, to catch a glimpse of the winning horse, as he returns to the scale house; others, to rejoin friends they had separated from, as the horses started, to procure better situations to see the race; others, with brightened eyes, again to flirt with the “dark eyed one,” to whom a pair of gloves had been lost.
Irving, John Beaufain, The South Carolina Jockey Club (Charleston: Russell & Jones, 1857), 11-12.
The line, “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum,” from Virgil’s Aeneid, viii. 596. Various translations range from “And with the thunder of their hooves shake the broken ground,” (John Dryden), to “Horses’ hooves with four-fold beat did shake the crumbling plain.”
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