In 1823, four decades before the Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., a conflict between the North and South erupted on Long Island, N.Y.
As battlefields go, the site was small. Also, oval. And nobody carried a musket.
The combatants were horses.
Their names: Eclipse and Henry.
The race between these horses — Eclipse, raised in the North; Henry, raised in the South — is a consequential but almost totally forgotten spectacle in sports history. It occurred almost two centuries before Justify’s chase for the Triple Crown, which will command the country’s attention Saturday at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.
It was the first time a young nation came together with a shared interest in the outcome of a sporting event — the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby before the Kentucky Derby.
People raced to get their hands on newspapers with the results. Many had bet on the race, marking the beginning of nationwide sports gambling. Those nearby traveled to see the race with their own eyes.
“Before this time, political rallies, prayer revivals, and holiday parades had brought together the largest crowds of Americans,” sportswriter John Eisenberg wrote in “The Great Match Race.” “But a ballyhooed duel between the fastest thoroughbred in the North and the fastest in the South had improbably attracted a mob that dwarfed all earlier crowds.”
It was an extraordinary moment for the country, Eisenberg wrote:
Suddenly, on a sunny spring afternoon, a racetrack on Long Island was the nation’s fourth-largest city. The country came to a standstill, sweating the outcome of the race between Eclipse, the North’s dark, snorting, undefeated champion, and Henry, the South’s precocious, brilliantly fast darling. Congress shut down because so many politicians had tickets to see them run. The New Stock Exchange was closed. Andrew Jackson interrupted his presidential campaign to attend.
The roots of the race were not political. Rather, it was all about gentlemanly bragging rights. The South thought it was horse country, and thus superior to whatever the North could put up. The North thought otherwise. (Things would, of course, get more complicated between the regions.)
The rivalry actually began a year earlier in Washington, D.C., when James J. Harrison, a breeder from Virginia, challenged Charles Van Ranst, a breeder from New York, to a race at National Course. Harrison put up a horse named Sir Charles. Van Ranst ran Eclipse.
The race was a bust.
“On the eve of the race,” according to a 1981 article in the Journal of Sport History, “Sir Charles injured a tendon, and Harrison forfeited the match.”
Still, Harrison agreed to one heat. Sir Charles was badly beaten and forced into retirement, which involved lots of breeding. Eclipse returned to New York, “where he became the central figure in the renaissance of northern racing fortunes,” according to the journal article.
But could Eclipse beat a healthy Southern horse?
The country would find out that spring.
It was on: Henry vs. Eclipse.
The crowd, Eisenberg wrote, was nearly delirious:
It was a new sound for American ears: the lusty, clattering, sports-stadium roar—sixty thousand people shouting, whistling, stomping, and rattling cowbells, raising a din so forceful it shook the wooden beams supporting the grandstands. The noise was audible for miles, rolling across the countryside like booming thunderclaps in a boot-soaking rainstorm. It would become a familiar sound in the distant future, an archetype of autumn football weekends and summer baseball nights.
Something important to understand: These were not the horse races of the today, which are generally quick 2 to 3 minute sprints. Back then, it was all about distance — four miles, best out of three heats, a half-hour rest in between. Neither horse had ever run all three heats in a race. They were top dogs.
Henry won the first heat. Eclipse won the second.
“Unlike the break between the first and second heats, when they seemed eager to run again, now they were plainly exhausted,” Eisenberg wrote. “Even the fans were exhausted, both sides having experienced wild emotional swings, joy and despair, success and failure, within the space of an hour. But they continued to shout, argue, bet, and, in a few instances, pray.”
And then, for the final time, they were off.
Eclipse, the pride of the North, took an early lead. Then faded. “Then Henry faltered,” Eisenberg wrote, describing a harrowing ending:
Fifty yards from the finish, running almost in tandem with Eclipse, the southern horse reached his breaking point. His fans were bellowing, calling his name, pleading for him to catch Eclipse, finish the rally, and win the stakes. But Henry took a hitched step, awkwardly kicked the dirt, and started to fall back. Eclipse pushed ahead with thirty yards to go, then twenty. It was all over suddenly Daylight opened between the horses. The urgency drained from Henry. He had nothing left. His final steps were heavy-legged, as if the weight on him had suddenly been doubled.
Eclipse was the victor.
The South took the loss well, historians note. There was no whining, no protesting. There was no effort to rewrite, or whitewash, what happened.
Not like the next great battle the South lost.
Read more Retropolis: