Each Wednesday, Bourbon and Barns will catch up with one of the finalists for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, the top award in thoroughbred literature. This week, we chat with Mark Shrager, author of The Great Sweepstakes of 1877: A Story of True Grit, Gilded Age Tycoons and a Race that Galvanized the Nation. The book examines a race between three future Hall of Famers in a race that was so big even Congress adjourned for the day to watch it. The book is published by Lyons Press and is available at https://www.amazon.com/Great-Sweepstakes-1877-Southern-Galvanized/dp/1493018884.
Bourbon and Barns: Congratulations on being named a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. That's really a testament to great research and hard work you put into this book. How did you become interested in this race from 1877?
Mark Shrager: I’d been writing articles for horse racing magazines as a hobby since 1972, while earning my living in the field of school finance. After I retired as the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Deputy Budget Director in 2008, I self-published several handicapping books, then decided I’d like to write a book that could be formally published. I remembered this race, which I’d read about in a footnote in a long-ago Pimlico Racetrack Press Guide, and the more I researched it, the more I realized what a great story it was.
BB: The book is about a race between three horses at Pimlico Race Course in 1877, nine years after the end of the Civil War. At the time, tensions were still high in a divided country. With the race featuring two horses from the North and a horse from the South, how did the divisiveness from the war play into the narrative of the race?
MS: Many families in post-Civil War America had lost fathers, brothers, and sons in the war, and identification with the Union and Confederate causes was still a very real, very compelling factor, even 12 years after the war had ended. The North-vs.-South element therefore added immensely to the nation's interest in the race. There’d been other important races since the Civil War, but this one drew front-page headlines throughout the nation. I think it was the confrontation of North and South that drew so much interest in Congress.
BB: Horse racing was incredibly popular in 1877 and Congress even postponed all business for the day so they could attend the race. How would you describe the popularity of the sport at that time?
MS: It was one of the two or three most popular sports of the era, along with boxing and the increasingly popular baseball. There were entire publications (Spirit of the Times; Turf, Field and Farm; The Kentucky Live Stock Record) devoted primarily to horse racing. The New York Times covered Ten Broeck's funeral.
BB: The characters in this story are quite rich. Parole, a horse from New Jersey, was owned by Pierre Lorillard and Tom Ochiltree, a horse from New York, was owned by Pierre’s brother, George. Pierre and George were very wealthy from his business interests in the tobacco industry. How would you describe them?
MS: Pierre, one of the era’s wealthiest men, loved nothing better than to showcase his wealth. He bought the costliest horses, owned the most magnificent breeding farm, built (or bought) the most ostentatious mansions, publically (very publically) financed archaeological missions, built the world’s costliest houseboat, etc. George, his younger brother, was a renaissance man – a scholar, a businessman, a sportsman. He’d graduated from Yale with a medical degree, was a champion athlete in a variety of sports, managed many of his brother’s diverse business and sports interests, and was so popular a figure in his own right that one newspaper said he could have been elected President. The brothers were fiercely competitive, each dedicated to outdoing the other whenever they competed. But they closed ranks when challenged by an outsider like Frank Harper.
BB: Ten Broeck was the horse who represented the South. He was owned by a teetotaling Frank Harper and ridden by William Walker, a former slave. How would you describe Ten Broeck's connections and their stark contrast from Parole's connections?
MS: Everything about the Lorillards and the Harpers was different. The Lorillards were one of America’s wealthiest families; Frank Harper wasn’t poverty-stricken, having inherited money from his mother and the Nantura Farm from his Uncle John, but he spent his days getting his hands dirty working with his beloved horses. Pierre and George spent freely for the most lavish clothing; they celebrated their racetrack victories with fine foods and hard liquor in the most exclusive section of the clubhouse. Plain-living Frank Harper attended the races in overalls, work boots and a straw hat. He hung out between races in the stable area with his trainer and his horses, and celebrated wins with his pipe and a tin cup of coffee (never anything stronger!). Pierre was a notorious high-roller who might bet $20,000 on a race; Harper often stated that he’d promised his mother that he’d never gamble, and had always been faithful to his promise. Pierre and George paid top salaries to retain the best-known trainers and jockeys; Harper’s trainer, Harry Colston, and his jockey, 16- or 17-year-old William Walker, were former slaves who’d grown up nearby and worked cheap.
BB: All three of the horses in this race would eventually be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. How well accomplished were these horses leading up to this race?
MS: Ten Broeck was already a living legend. He was the first horse to run a mile faster than 100 seconds and held the records for 1 5/8 miles, 2 miles, 2 5/8 miles, 3 miles and 4 miles. At the time of the Great Sweepstakes he’d won 15 consecutive races. Tom Ochiltree was the best horse in the North and was considered a serious challenger to Ten Broeck. Parole, a year younger than the others, had been the best 2-year-old of 1875, but had been less successful the following year. He was still considered a top thoroughbred, but some believed he was outclassed by the other two starters, and in the race only because of Pierre’s influence.
BB: The setting for the big race was Pimlico Race Course, which readers will recognize at the annual site of the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. Where did Pimlico rank at the time among the biggest and best race tracks in the country?
MS: Pimlico was one of the most upscale racetracks in the country, along with New York’s Jerome Park and Saratoga. It was certainly a fitting place for a race as important as this one.
BB: I understand you spent a lot of time at the Keeneland Library and the Library of Congress while researching this book. What was your research process and what did it entail?
MS: My wife and I (she has a ph.D. in social research), spent two days at the Library of Congress looking at old newspapers with stories about the race and its participants. The Keeneland Library had an amazing collection of old racing newspapers and books, which helped us follow the progress of the race from when it was first proposed in 1876 through the unsuccessful efforts in 1877 and 1878 to schedule a rematch. Also of great help was the Lexington Public Library, which had numerous Kentucky newspapers on microfiche. And I certainly must mention the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association (CTBA) Library in Arcadia, California, whose treasure trove of racing history books, magazines and newspapers helped me immeasurably. It became my day-to-day base for researching the race.
BB: Please add anything else you would like to add.
MS: If there’s one more thing I’d add it’s that I finished writing this book when I was 67 years old. It had always been my dream to be an author, even when I was crunching budget numbers as a school finance specialist, and with The Great Sweepstakes of 1877, I’ve fulfilled that lifelong goal. If nothing else, I’m proof that it’s never too late to follow a dream.