“A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
--King Richard, in Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”
When most people think of horses, images of sprinting stallions and the wild west come to mind. The scenic rolling hills of Chester County have been home to many horse breeders, trainers and riding enthusiasts for decades. Made popular in films like “Stagecoach” with cowboys galloping into the sunset, the song “Chestnut Mare” by The Byrds and more recently the movie “Seabiscuit”, horses have become symbols of beauty and freedom ingrained within the American spirit.
Seeing these muscular, yet graceful creatures, racetracks emerge in our consciousness as their major pursuit. There are three types of horse racing: flat racing, harness and steeplechase. Horse racing occurred in ancient Babylon. Equestrian events were part of the Olympics in 648 B.C. and later throughout the extent of the Roman Empire. Racing contests- once called “the sport of kings”- were popular for centuries throughout Great Britain. The term stallion originated with King Henry VII, who passed laws related to the breeding of horses, mandating that un-castrated males be "kept within bounds and tied in stalls”. Although the word thoroughbred is sometimes used to refer to any type of purebred horse, it technically refers only to a specific breed known for their agility, speed and spirit.
The thoroughbred was developed in 17th century England, when native mares were crossbred with imported stallions of Arabian and Turkoman lineage. Modern descendants trace their pedigrees to horses originally imported into Britain and to a number of foundation mares of mostly English breeding. During the 18th and 19th centuries, thoroughbreds spread throughout the world; they came to North America starting around 1730. Maryland and Virginia were the first American breeding centers, but the pursuit shifted after the Revolutionary War toward Kentucky and Tennessee. Andrew Jackson was a horse breeder and racer before he became President. Today the designation of a true thoroughbred in North America is determined by The Jockey Club, which over the decades has made horse racing one of the most recognized sports.
The breeding of thoroughbreds is big business. Roughly 37,000 foals are registered each year in North America, predominantly in Kentucky, Florida and California. According to the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA), the Keystone state ranked fifth in recent statistics. The PHBA actively supports local breeders. Owners of registered Pennsylvania bred horses receive an award whenever they finish in the top three in any Commonwealth pari-mutuel race. The industry generates over $34 billion in annual revenue in the United States, providing about 470,000 jobs through a network of farms, training centers and race tracks. Thoroughbreds may also be trained for other disciplines such as show jumping, polo and even fox hunting.
When you consider horse racing, one event is preeminent- the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Yet, there are dozens of high profile tracks around the country, including Penn National, Philadelphia Park and Presque Isle in Pennsylvania. The wide expanses in Chester County allow racehorses to be a popular pursuit, with access to riding trails and expert veterinary support. One risk of thoroughbred breeding is its optimization of the equine anatomy for speed, rather than durability. Beloved Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro (bred at the Lael Stables in West Grove) spent time at the renowned New Bolton Center, his struggle touching the hearts of millions.
PHBA Executive Secretary Jeb Hannum is a cordial man whose family has a long association with horses. His grandmother Nancy was involved in riding and fox hunting for 60 years. Russell Jones is a former steeplechase rider and current Master at Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds. He met with this author, discussing the “crossover” of horses from racing to fox hunting- something only a few have done successfully. George Strawbridge, Jr. is a Chester County legend, well known in both the thoroughbred racing and steeplechase segments. Owner of Augustin Stables, his horses have won several victories, including the Breeder’s Cup Filly and Mare Turf. He’s the only American to win the prestigious St. Leger Stakes in England- one of the British “Triple Crown”. Strawbridge’s numerous achievements at the track are matched by his humanitarian contributions around the country.
In horse racing, one can sense elements of both art and science. Sometimes the two come together. Renowned artist Jamie Wyeth and his wife Phyllis own Union Rags, who won the Belmont Stakes in 2012. Horse enthusiasts share Wyeth’s passion for beautiful scenery and are often strong proponents of land preservation. Nancy Hannum and George A. “Frolic” Weymouth helped set aside portions of the former King Ranch decades ago to protect it from development. So when you spot these lovely four-legged animals grazing in a picturesque meadow, think about their long heritage as they join the roster of Chester County icons.
Gene Pisasale is an author based in Kennett Square whose books and lecture series focus on topics of local interest. “The Forgotten Star” is his latest historical novel, which delves into the War of 1812 and true-life mysteries surrounding an American icon- the Star-Spangled Banner. His website is www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.