By The Greater Astoria Historical Society
It was May 27, 1822, the last Tuesday of the month, and the eyes of the country were on Woodhaven, home of the Union Course racetrack. A contest between American Eclipse, champion race horse of the North, and Sir Henry, the fastest thoroughbred of the South, was about to begin.
It was the first “Intersectional Match,” a series that would continue right up to the Civil War that pitted horses from the North against the South to settle the gnawing question of the time: Which section of the country owned the best horses?
In a time when New York — at that time only Manhattan — had only 90,000 people, two-thirds of that number showed up at the gate. The betting pool, $200,000, would be about $4.6 million in today’s economy. These numbers are nothing short of astonishing. This was the legendary golden age of horse racing.
Famed racehorse owner William Ransom Johnson of North Carolina started the challenge when, upon hearing that American Eclipse was being called by Northerners as “the fastest horse in America,” dared his owner, Cornelius Van Ranst, to a heat. American Eclipse, then 9, was the object of Southern resentment since he once had beaten Sir Charles, “the lion of the Virginia turf.”
Van Ranst accepted the challenge with the financial backing of his friends, most notably John Stevens, whose family owned a fleet of steamboats and railroads and are remembered today for founding Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J. Each side wagered $20,000. A figure of $3,000 was agreed to as a penalty in case of a forfeit.
If the pageantry of all Triple Crown events were held at the same time in one location, it would pale in comparison to that day. Andrew Jackson, then governor of Florida, was present as was Daniel Tompkins, the U.S. vice president. Somewhere in the crowd was the infamous Aaron Burr. Twenty thousand fans traveled from the South just to be there to cheer their horse.
Johnson surveyed the South for the best horse it could offer and did well in choosing a 5-year-old named Sir Henry, which quickly became the favorite. Not only had he won more races than American Eclipse, but he had raced more recently. Moreover, Sir Henry carried 108 pounds compared to American Eclipse’s 126 pounds.
As was the custom of the time, the race was actually followed by an observer, himself saddled on a fast horse. His duty was to report back later on everything he saw. In this case, it was the famed turf historian Cadwallader R. Colden, who wrote under the name “An Old Turfman.” The race was to be decided by the best of two out of three heats.
In the first 4-mile heat, Sir Henry broke from the pole and set “a killing pace” running away from Eclipse, whose jockey began to beat him so badly that “blood flowed profusely.” Sir Henry won the first heat. Was the Southern strategy to sacrifice Henry, tire Eclipse and then open the door so another horse entered at the last minute might beat the Northern champion? Another wave of wagers swept the crowd.
Multiple storylines emerged, but all agreed on one point: Noted jockey Samuel Purdy, who had retired but had once ridden Eclipse to victory years before, took to the saddle. Eclipse outran Henry in both the second and third heats to win the match. The older horse, being more seasoned, won down the stretch.
After this match, American Eclipse was retired to stud and traded to owners in the North and South. He sired many stakes winners before dieing in 1833 in Kentucky.
For decades the old hands around the stables who were but slips of lads that fateful day told people what they saw: “Eclipse first — the rest nowhere.” He ran in eight races and came in first every time.
For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.