“The way in which either party managed to improve their horses was kept as much a secret as the mysteries of Isis.” — Niles’ Weekly Register
The Year: 1823. The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine called it the “annus marabilis in racing annals” – the “year of wonders.”
The Challenge: To produce the fleetest thoroughbred to compete in the race for the ages over the Union Course on Long Island – one with such exceptional fortitude to match the prowess and mettle of nine-year-old American Eclipse, lauded as “the greatest horse for bottom and speed in America” by the New York Post.
An unusual turn of events would later be blamed for the outcome of this highly anticipated sectional contest, which drew 60,000 spectators from across the county to witness the grueling four-mile test of endurance. So how in the world did a pre-race dinner spell ruin for a crack nag in the Great Match Race between the North and South?
There was a matter of regaining Southern pride at stake for this race of 27 May 1823, pride that had been lost the previous fall through a match race over the Washington Course between the two champions of the North and South, then eight-year-old Eclipse and the six-year-old Sir Charles, the “lion of the Virginia turf.” Forfeit had been paid on behalf of the injured Sir Charles for the four-mile match, “without any loss of reputation,” reported the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.
But a single heat was still run in substitution, just to appease the masses. Eclipse won easily, for Sir Charles “proved that he was completely broken down,” wrote the Turf Register, “as he was not able to round the ground four times, before his leg gave entirely away, his sinew broke, and his ankle came to the ground.” Sir Charles retired to stud as one of the best sons of Sir Archy, standing for 10 years until his death in 1833 and topping the American Sires list a record five times with such distinguished winners as Wagner (12 wins in 18 starts, including two speed duels against Grey Eagle at Louisville’s Oakland Course), and the petite mare Trifle (19 wins and 5 seconds in 25 starts).
Immediately following Sir Charles’ loss at Washington, a Southern syndicate proposed a match for $20,000 a side between Eclipse and any formidable opponent to be named on the day of the race at the Union Course. Leading this challenge was the sovereign of the Old Dominion, otherwise known as the “Napoleon of the Turf,” Colonel William Ransom Johnson, who had rightfully earned his moniker by winning 61 of 63 races during 1807-1808.
The Union was the North’s new jewel. Anti-racing legislation in New York was modified in the spring of 1821, and the track was built by that fall. It stood just west of Jamaica, where nearly two centuries earlier the American Newmarket, the country’s first race track, had been established in present day Nassau County by English Governor Richard Nicolls. With New York’s revival of racing, the then-retired stallion American Eclipse – sired by Duroc, by imported Diomed; his grandam, an English mare by Pot-8-Os, son of his namesake, English Eclipse – had been put back in training as a seven-year-old, continuing his undefeated career and fostering renewed enthusiasm for the sport and the Union Course. [Read more here about how Pot-8-Os got his name — ATT Ed.]
The year 1823 predated the birth of organized sport. Nothing ever before had generated the same fervor among the American people as this new sectional challenge over the Union track, which quickly became the most celebrated event to date of any national recreational pastime. Niles’ Weekly Register likened the country’s race mania to the anticipation of the deadlocked presidential election of 1800:
The interest in the contest increased, like a snow ball, as the period of it approached, and the feelings of many were as much excited as when the eyes of the nation were fixed on Washington, during the balloting in the house of representatives for Jefferson and Burr!
The undefeated Eclipse, meanwhile, was “in every mouth and hopes and fears hang upon the issue, such as in this country at least never waited upon brute beast (we mean no disrespect to the noble champion) before,” announced the New York American.
Yet great angst pervaded the race’s anticipatory enthusiasm. Such a sectional contest “may do no harm, if it do not recur oftener than once a century,” expressed The Statesman, “but an annual excitement of the same description is certainly to be deprecated, since its inevitable tendency would be to arraign the north against the south, and produce a deep-rooted hostility.”
The indomitable Eclipse notwithstanding, many worried if the match would even occur, in light of Sir Charles’ forfeit the previous year. The identity of the Southern challenger to face Eclipse also remained a secret until race time, and “the way in which either party managed to improve their horses was kept as much a secret as the mysteries of Isis,” remarked Niles’ Weekly Register.
New York itself was aroused into a frenzy of unprecedented proportions as tens of thousands streamed into the city, overloading its hotels and boarding houses, its taverns and theatres and every last mode of transport.
“New York never saw such a pressure before,” stated the New York Evening Post on Monday, the day prior to the match. “Should not the principle race take place, great indeed will be the disappointment.”