George Washington lost four pounds playing the ponies as a 27-year old freshman legislator in Williamsburg in 1759. He wasn’t alone. Horse racing and gambling were favorite pastimes in colonial Virginia.
Large crowds turned out from Virginia’s earliest years to find out who had the fastest horse—and to bet on the outcome.
In 18th-century Williamsburg races typically took place on a mile-long oval track a short distance from the Capitol where Washington and other members of the House of Burgesses held their legislative sessions.
The “race ground,” as it was commonly called, was located south of today’s Route 60 and east of Quarterpath Road, likely occupying some of the same land where the Battle of Williamsburg was fought in 1862.
The track was a “very excellent course,” according to a 1780s visitor named Smyth. The familiar sound of a gunshot sometimes marked the start of the race. At other times it might be a trumpet or a drum.
The races were an even greater test of speed and endurance than today’s Triple Crown events. They consisted of a series of four-mile heats, with stragglers who lost by an eighth of a mile falling out of the next round of competition.
Sometimes there were summer races, but the big events coincided with fairs in April and December, as well as with sessions of the General Court in April and October. Visitors packed Williamsburg during those events, swelling the town’s population by thousands.
The “blue ribbon” race in Virginia was the Subscription Plate, which was run from 1760-70 in Williamsburg and attracted the fastest horses in the region. As one of the subscribers, George Washington regularly contributed one pound toward the purse.
In 1768 the Virginia Gazette announced a new “sweepstakes race” of a similar distance to the Beacon Course at Newmarket in Suffolk, England (pictured above). It would follow the “King’s Plate Rules of Racing at Newmarket.”
The winnings listed for a 1739 fair race were a 40 shilling saddle to the winner, a “handsome bridle” for second place, and a “good whip” for third. By the 1760s one hundred pounds was the top purse.
The purse, of course, was just a fraction of the money at stake. Races that began in the 1600s as simple “my horse is faster than your horse” challenges grew into public spectacles with substantial side bets at stake. Betting was more than a matter of honor; local courts enforced wagers as contracts.
Horse racing may be called “the sport of kings,” but in Virginia it was the province of what passed for a local aristocracy, the wealthy planters. It was the Chesapeake gentry of colonial Virginia and Maryland who brought thoroughbred horses to America in the first place.
“Very capital horses are started here, such as would make no despicable figure at Newmarket. The gentlemen of Virginia [are] sparing no pains, trouble or expense in importing the best stock, and improving the excellence of the breed by proper and judicious crossing.”
Thomas Jefferson was one Virginian who paid close attention to horses. He was “a master horse breeder,” says Bill Barker, who interprets Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg. “Horses were his favorite animal, and he had some of the finest thoroughbreds.”
And when he was younger Jefferson was among those likely to place a bet on the local race. Gambling “was a gentleman’s occupation” in those days, says Barker, “but he stayed away from it when he got older.”
Horse names are one of the most intriguing parts of the Triple Crown season. Jefferson often named his after figures from ancient history and mythology. Among his stable of horses were Tarquin, Caractacus, Cucullin, Remus, and Romulus.
Mark Anthony was one repeat champion from the era. Among the other racehorse names were: Deer Legs, Broomtail, Chickey Moggy, Old Bacchus, Jupiter, Twickham, Fearnought, Trick’em, and Mud Colt.
Occasional efforts were made to discourage racing and the “large sums of money” being wagered.
In 1754 the College of William & Mary ordered that “no scholar [be involved with] making races, or in backing, or abetting, those made by others, and that all race horses, kept in the neighborhood of the college & belonging to any of the scholars, be immediately dispatched and set off, & never again brought back, and all this under pain of the severest animadversion and punishment.”
Apparently students, then as now, were vulnerable to distraction from their studies.
In 1774, as tensions grew between the colonies and the Crown, Article 8 of the Continental Association sought to “discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting… and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
So did Virginians set aside their penchant for wagers on sports?
Don’t bet on it.