Early Horse Racing Tracks

Long before Tennessee became famous for the Tennessee Walking Horse in the mid-1900s, the state was known throughout the country as the center for thoroughbred horses. For most of the nineteenth century, Tennessee, not Kentucky, was acknowledged as the center of horse breeding and horse racing in the United States, with Sumner County supplying the majority of southern race horses.

In 1804 the first official horse race in Tennessee was held in Gallatin. Andrew and Rachel Jackson attended the race, in which Jackson ran his horse Indian Queen against Dr. R. D. Barry's horse Polly Medley. Although Jackson's horse lost the race, he became known as the leading breeder and racer in the state. He soon purchased a famous Virginia thoroughbred, Truxton, and Greyhound, a horse which had previously beaten both Indian Queen and Truxton.

Jackson purchased an interest in one of Tennessee's most important racetracks in 1805 at Clover Bottom. By 1807 Clover Bottom, Gallatin, and Nashville each had a Jockey Club. Jackson's horses ran several races at Clover Bottom before he sold most of his horses in 1816. After becoming president, Jackson took three horses to Washington to race them there. He was the last president to race horses in the nation's capital.

By 1839 there were at least ten established race tracks in Tennessee and over twenty organized Jockey Clubs, including clubs at Beans Station, Clarksville, McMinnville, Winchester, Murfreesboro, Franklin, Mount Pleasant, Shelbyville, Nashville, Paris, Jackson, Bolivar, and Memphis. Besides Jackson, horse racing attracted many famous Tennesseans including Felix Zollicoffer, Reverend Hardy Cryer, William Carroll, Frank McGavock, Andrew Jackson Donelson, Stockly Donelson, Montgomery Bell, and Balie Peyton, who owned one of the premier horse farms in Sumner County. In 1839 William Giles Harding placed Belle Meade at the center of the horse racing region and noted the necessity of investing in blood stock in order to remain fashionable. Belle Meade remained a famous stud farm from the 1830s to the turn of the century, and Harding became president of the Nashville Jockey Club in 1856.

From 1828 to 1886 the Nashville racetrack, known as the Burns Island track, was located near Second Avenue North and Van Buren along the Cumberland River. On October 16, 1843, the Peyton Stakes, sponsored by Balie Peyton, was run at this track. With a purse of thirty-five thousand dollars, the Peyton Stakes was the richest race run anywhere in the world to that point. The winner, Peytona, was owned by Thomas Kirkman of Nashville. The Burns Island track and horse racing survived the Civil War, but since the track flooded periodically, it was replaced by West Side Park in 1887.

In 1906 the Tennessee General Assembly passed an anti-betting law, bringing an end to horse racing in Tennessee for many years. Breeding of horses continued, however, and in 1940 the Milky Way Farm near Pulaski produced the Kentucky Derby winner Hallahadion. In 1938 Nashville began construction on a forty-five-thousand-dollar steeplechase course in conjunction with the Works Progress Administration-funded Percy Warner Park. The first Iroquois Steeplechase ran there in 1940.

Suggested Reading

James D. Anderson, Making the American Thoroughbred Especially in Tennessee, 1800-1845 (1916)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Early Horse Racing Tracks
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018