He possessed a round face, soft eyes, immaculate public manners and a new toy—a horse named Tryal he had just imported from England. Byrd was also an insatiable gambler captivated by dice, cards, horse racing, billiards, backgammon, lotteries—anything an American colonist could bet on in The young aristocrat wanted nothing more than to show off his new horse and, at the same time, make a gambling score, the bigger the better.
It also foretold the fortunes of two of its principals—Byrd himself and a remarkable Thoroughbred named Selima. He relished displaying his wealth, the more ostentatious the better. While commanding a military unit at a remote outpost several years later, he received a wagonload of wine, coffee, brandy, soap and chocolate, enabling him to maintain his abundant lifestyle in difficult circumstances.
Running a horse in an important race was, Byrd believed, yet another way to emphasize his prominence. But what he found more enticing was a chance to win money. He had taken up gambling when his parents sent him to London to study law at age Sheltered as a boy in Virginia— his schooling took place at home because his parents feared exposing him to smallpox—he cut loose mightily once he was on his own. There was a story that he had lost thousands of pounds to the Royal Duke of Cumberland in a single sitting at a West End club. When he returned to Virginia, he married the daughter of another wealthy tobacco planter, built a mansion on a hill near Richmond and started a family.
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When the mansion at Westover, where his mother still resided, was damaged in a fire, he rebuilt it with the finest materials and objects, including the most expensive billiards table in Virginia. But while he seemed the very embodiment of colonial gentry, sinister influences lurked inside.
Dices in hand. There was not a lot that went right. After importing Tryal around , Byrd issued a challenge that was audacious even by his standards: he would put up Spanish pistoles, an outrageous amount, for any horse in the land to race against Tryal, with the winner taking the entire purse. He used Spanish currency, the backbone of the shipping trade, but the gamble was colossal in any coin.
One pistole was the cost of a cow. Five hundred could furnish a mansion or buy a dozen slaves. More than a million people resided in what was still, in some ways, a brutal frontier, with disease claiming many children, Indians attacking the fringes, and pickpockets and horse thieves being put to death.
But a sophisticated society was rapidly evolving as every year ships delivered more people and culture from England. There was theater to enjoy, newspapers to read and postal routes for the mail.
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The population was still too far-flung and disparate to agree on much, especially independence, an idea just beginning to percolate. But colonists from Rhode Island to the Carolinas could all agree that nothing was more heavenly than a fast horse. Until the s, a typical race was a quarter-mile sprint between two horses, usually resulting from an argument between wealthy country gentlemen convinced they owned the faster horse.
The men frequently rode their own horses, often grabbing and punching each other as they hurtled down narrow racing lanes surrounded by fans hurling bets back and forth. These bawdy affairs known as path races took place in front of taverns, on city squares or at country fairs.
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They were particularly popular in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas. A more sophisticated sport known as course racing had already sprouted in England by the early s. Queen Anne opened the royal track at Ascot, and other racecourses followed. The typical race became a longer contest—four miles was the classic distance—between groups of horses competing for money and trophies. In the colonies, the sport soon took a similar evolutionary turn. In wealthy Annapolis, whose inhabitants, it was said, were more British than the British, the highlight of the social season was a week of parties and plays organized around a racing meeting.
The prestige and money associated with racing success inspired breeders to try to produce speedier horses. At first known simply as blooded horses, these leaner, faster equines soon arrived in the colonies, attracting gawkers and vastly increasing interest in the sport. New oval tracks that gave spectators a better view further increased its appeal. Only the wealthy could pay for a horse to take a threemonth boat trip across the rough Atlantic, of course.
Samuel Gist of Hanover County, Virginia, was the first on record to do it, bringing over Bulle Rock, a year-old, in Bulle Rock was much too old to race, but Gist wanted him to sire a new generation of faster horses. The chestnut horse was also, at 10 years old, long past whatever prime he may have once enjoyed. Tayloe offered to put up a thousand pistoles and run two imported Thoroughbreds against Tryal.
Another Virginian, Francis Thornton, entered a fast gray mare that had not been imported. Colonel Tasker sent word from Maryland that he would bring a mare named Selima. The race was thus worth 2, pistoles, an astonishing sum at a time when a racewinning horse typically earned about 30 pistoles. His father was the mayor of Annapolis. His sister was married to Maryland governor Ogle. If contemporary paintings are a guide, Tasker was distinctively handsome with high cheekbones, a sharp nose and trim build.
He would later represent Maryland at the Albany Congress, where the idea of colonial unity was first broached. But he was different from Byrd in that, as the grandson of a self-made man who came to America as an indentured servant, he did not take his wealth and comfort for granted. He had endured terrible despair—the deaths of five brothers before adulthood—and even his last name intimated a sense of purpose. When Ogle died in , leaving a 3-year-old son as his primary heir, Tasker and his father assumed responsibility for the boy.
At age 7, Selima was at the peak of her racing prowess.
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Abay mare with a faint white star on her forehead and a splash of white on her left hind ankle, she was the first preternatural talent to cross the Atlantic and race in the colonies. After Coke died, the horse was passed on to Francis Godolphin, son of the lord treasurer to Queen Anne. Known as the Earl of Godolphin, Francis had a stud farm near the racing town of Newmarket.
Tasker, in England on an extended visit, bought her for an amount lost to history. There is no record of her racing in England before being shipped to Maryland in September Prior, an English pedigree expert, Selima was supposedly in foal—pregnant—when she was shipped across the Atlantic.
Selima was trained to race at Belair in and Her racing debut was in Annapolis in May There, she defeated another English mare, Creeping Kate, winning 40 pounds, or about 50 pistoles. Her speed and heart were apparent. Her trip to the race was painstaking. Belair was almost miles from Gloucester, and she likely walked the entire distance, led by a succession of stablehands.
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The horses belonging to Byrd, Tayloe and Thornton also were walked, but their trips were shorter; they were stabled just a few miles from the course. Few details of the race survive. For instance, although the jockeys went unnamed, many in the era were young male slaves, Gilcoyne says. Atrumpeter probably started the race. Western Riding. Autographed Books. Shipping Information. Out of Print Books.
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