The first large-scale U.S. horse race between the rivaling North and South, promoted as a contest of speed versus stamina (or “bottom,” in turf parlance).
In the 1800s, spectator sports weren’t popular. The slowness and difficulty of travel kept people from journeying far from home; baseball, football and basketball were nonexistent; and exercise itself was viewed as “dangerously arousing.” The only sport that could consistently draw a crowd was horse racing, and such events were staged only a few times a year. In 1822, William Ransom Johnson, determined to prove the superiority of Southern horses, concocted a challenge to unseat Eclipse, the unbeaten Northern champion. Johnson approached Cornelius Van Ranst and John Stevens, the men in charge of the eight-year-old stallion, proposing a match race at New York’s Union Course. Johnson pledged to bring a horse “from anywhere in the land beyond the confines of the North” to be named on race day. The stakes—$20,000—were significant. The match race would consist of two four-mile heats, and in the event of a tie, the horses would run a brutal extra heat, bringing the race’s grueling total to 12 miles. Despite Eclipse’s age and the unknown caliber of his opponent, the offer was quickly accepted. As 60,000 fans gathered, Johnson—a horseman so renowned he was known as the Napoleon of the Turf—decided to run a fleet youngster named Sir Henry. A nervous Van Ranst deemed Eclipse’s usual jockey, 49-year-old Samuel Purdy, too old for the race, replacing him with a younger, inexperienced rider. After Sir Henry easily won the first heat, Purdy was pulled from the stands, and guided Eclipse to victory in the second heat. Sides heaving, legs trembling, the exhausted horses rallied for their third and final match. Spectators held their breath: Would the North or the South prevail?
Eisenberg’s melding of history and sports journalism is altogether superb.