Historic equine contest still sets hearts racing

Review Horse-Racing

May 07, 2006|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Great Match Race

John Eisenberg

Houghton Mifflin / 272 pages / $25

Let's get right to the point: This is a lead-pipe cinch, mortal lock, lay-your-money-down sure thing of a book.

John Eisenberg, The Sun's long-time sports columnist, has rescued a tale from America's equine past that belongs on the same shelf with William Nack's Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, Jane Schwartz's Ruffian: Burning From the Start, and Laura Hillenbrand's enormously successful best-seller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

The Great Match Race is even more compelling, simply because the stakes were so enormous. It was, as Eisenberg argues convincingly, the first true American sports spectacle, the Super Bowl of its time. This match race - one horse vs. another, winner take all - occurred in 1823, at a Long Island track. Eclipse, the aging, undefeated hero of the industrial North, would take on Henry, a precocious youngster that was hand-picked to reclaim the agrarian South's dominance in horse racing.

The Civil War was still 40 years away, but regional tensions already were simmering. Around the time of the race, there were 1.5 million slaves in America, and lawmakers in the North were ready to free them.

Eisenberg explains the historical context without overplaying it. A horse race is not a Civil War, but it's not hyperbole to suggest that the two horses came to symbolize, just as sports teams do now, the pride and self-regard of each region. Partisans wagered an estimated $200,000 in side bets on the outcome.

The build-up to the race mesmerized the young country. This was long before professional baseball and football, long before radio and television. In the early 19th century, horse racing was the country's most popular sporting pastime (rivaled only by cockfighting and bullbaiting). Few people had the time or money for leisurely pursuits.

The South considered itself far superior in breeding, training and racing horses, with good reason. Puritans in the North had practically outlawed the sport on moral grounds. So the idea that the North's Eclipse had won four straight races against the South's equine stars sat with that region about as well as losing the 1980 Olympic gold medal in hockey to the United States sat with the Soviet Union.

To the South's rescue came William Ransom Johnson, the South's greatest trainer, nicknamed "Napoleon of the Turf," who somehow convinced Eclipse's handlers that he should be allowed to scour the entire country for a worthy challenger. Johnson is the most engaging character in a book filled with them.

In the end, Johnson selected five finalists, all from the South. The horse he eventually picked for the race - Henry - was found in North Carolina. The colt was owned by a friend of Johnson's father.

On race day, Congress shut down, and the rest of the country followed. An estimated 60,000 people swamped the track that day, an astounding-sized crowd in 1823, "only slightly more fathomable than the idea of a man flying to the moon and walking across a crater."

Interest in the outcome was so great that another thoroughbred was engaged to race back to New York so its rider could announce the winner.

The first horse to capture two of three heats would win. Each heat was a preposterous four miles long, which meant that Eclipse and Henry might run as much as 12 miles in one afternoon. Today's fragile thoroughbred stars rarely run a total of 12 miles in their entire career; the Kentucky Derby, for example, is 1 1/4 -miles long.

By the start of the first heat, I was flipping pages faster than the two great horses were putting down hooves. There are so many wonderful twists, it would be unfair to reveal them, but here's a tease: What prevented Johnson from seeing the race? Why were both jockeys eventually replaced before the third heat? And is it possible the two exhausted horses had to weave through fans on the race track during the final race?

I was wrong earlier. This book doesn't belong on the equine literary shelf; it belongs on the same ledge with the best non-fiction tales in American history. Drape a blanket of roses across Eisenberg's shoulders. He has brought home a winner.

Ken Fuson, an award-winning feature writer and columnist at The Des Moines Register, was a reporter for The Sun from 1996 to 1999.

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