NOTHING would start against the Old Mare ; and after more formal preparation in making weight and posting judges than is customary when there is a contest, “ the satefull old kritter” went off crippling as if she was not fit to run for sour cider, and anything could take the shine out of her that had the audacity to try it. The muster at the stand was slim, it having been understood up-town, that as to sport to-day the races would prove a nater haul. I missed all that class of old and young gentlemen who annoy owners, trainers and riders, particularly if they observe they are much engaged with questions that should not be asked, and either can’t or should not be answered. The business folks and men of gumption were generally on the grit, and much of the chaff certainly had been blown off.

A walk or gallop is a slow affair ; and without being able in any way to account for it, it seemed to be an extremely dry affair ; for while the four miles was being done, (as the priggs have it), I noticed many a centaur of a fellow force his skeary nag up to the opening in the little clapboard shanty, and shout out impatiently--“ Colonel, let us have some of your byled corn--pour me out a buck load--here--never mind about the water, I drank a heap of it yesterday,” and then wheel off to the crowd as if intent on something.

The race, like all things, had an end ; and I had some idea in imitation of Sardanapalus, “ all in one day to see the race, then go home, eat, drink, and be merry, for all the rest was not worth a fillip,” when I met Dan. He knows a little, finds out a little, and guesses the rest, and, of course, is prime authority.--I inquired if the hunt was up. “ Oh, no, just hold on a while, and there will be as bursting a quarter-race as ever was read of, and I will give you it’em so you can make expenses.” I always make a hand when about, and thinking I might get a wrinkle by prying into the mystery of quarter-racing, I accordingly rode to the thickest of the crowd. A rough hewn fellow, who either was, or pretended to be, drunk, was bantering to run his mare against any horse that had ploughed as much that season, his mare having, as he assured us, tended twenty-five acres in corn. Another chap sidled up to him, and offered to plough against him for as much liquor as the company could drink, or for who should have both nags--his horse had never run as he did not follow it. Sorrel got mad, and offered to beat him in the cart, wagon, or plough, or he could beat him running one hundred miles his weight on each, for $500. Bay still disdained racing, but would run the quarter stretch for $100 to amuse the company. Sorrel took him up, provided Bay carried his present rider and he would get somebody : Bay agreed, provided he could not get a lighter rider. It was closed at that, and two of Senator Benton’s abominations, $100 U. States Bills were planked up. Bay inquired if they could stand another $50 ;—agreed by Sorrel, who observing Bay shell out a $100 note, said there was no use of making change, as his note was the same amount, they might as well go the $100. Promptly agreed to, and another $100 offered and immediately covered, there now being $300 aside. Now came a proposal to increase it $300 more ; Bay said--“ You oversize my pile, but if I can borrow the money I’ll accommodate you,” and immediately slipped off to consult his backer : Dan now whispered, “spread yourself on the Bay.” Thinking I should run in while I was hot, I observed aloud--I should admire to bet some gentleman $10 on the Bay. A Mr. Wash, or as he was familiarly called, Big Wash, snapped me up like a duck does a June bug, by taking the bill out of my hand, and observing, that either of us could hold the stakes, put it in his pocket. Finding this so easily done, I pushed off to consult my friend Crump, the most knowing man about Short Races I ever knew, and one who can see as far into a millstone as the man that pecks it. I met him with the man that made the race on Bay coming to get a peep at Sorrel. As soon as he laid eyes on her, he exclaimed--“ Why, Dave, you made a pretty pick up of it ; I’m afraid our cake is all dough--that’s old Grapevine, and I told you point blank to walk around her, but you’re like a member of the Kentucky Legislature, who admitted, if he had a failing, it was being a leetle too brave. Dave replied doggedly, “ How could I know Grapevine, and you told me you could beat her any how ;” “ Yes,” says Crump, “ I think I can ; but I did’nt come 150 miles to run them kind of races--Old Tompkins has brought her here, and I like him for a sucker.” “ Well,” says Dave, “ I may be can get off with the race if you think you’ll be licked :” “ No,” said Crump, “ when I go a catting, I go a catting ; its mightily mixed up, and there is no telling who’s constable until the election is over : it will be like the old bitch and the rabbit, nip and tack every jump, and sometimes the bitch a leetle ahead.”

Old Tompkins, who had not appeared during the making of the race, now came round, and seeing the Bay, said--“ Popcorn, by G--d.” He now came forward and addressed the other party : “ Boys, it’s no use to run the thing into the ground. If a man goes in for betting, I say let him go his load, but we have no ambition against you, so draw the bet to $100, that is enough for a little tacky race like this, just made for amusement.”--Carried by acclamation.

Now the Judges were selected ; a good judge does not mean exactly the same thing here as on the bench, though some of the same kind may be found there--it means one who is obstinate in going for his own friends. It did not seem to be considered courteous to object to the selections on either side, perhaps from a mutual consciousness of invulnerability. But one of the nominees for the ermine was a hickory over anybody’s percimmon in the way of ugliness. He was said to be the undisputed possessor of the celebrated Jack Knife ; his likeness had been moulded on dog-irons to frighten the children from going too near the fire, and his face ached perpetually, but his eyes ! his eyes ! ! He was said to have caught a turkey buzzard by the neck, the bird being deceived and thinking he was looking another way, and several of the crowd said he was so cross-eyed he could look his own head. It was objected to him that he could not keep his eye, on the score, as he did not see straight, and it was leaving the race to the accident of which of his optics obtained the true bearing when the horses were coming out. The objections were finally overruled, the crooked party contending nature designed him for a quarter judge, as he could station one eye to watch when the foremost horse’s toe struck the score, and could note the track of the horse that followed at the same moment with his other eye.

The riders now attracted my attention. It is customary, I believe, to call such “a feather,” but they seemed to me about the size of a big Christmas turkey gobbler, without feathers ; and I was highly delighted with the precocity of the youths--they could swear with as much energy as men of six foot, and they used fourth-proof oaths with a volubility that would bother a congressional reporter.

There now arose a dispute, as to whether they should run to or from the stand, it being a part of the mile track, and there being some supposed advantage to one of the horses, or the other, according as this might be arranged. It was determined by a toss-up at last, to run to the stand. After another toss for choice of tracks, and another for the word, the horses walked off towards the head of the stretch. Now it was “ hurra my Popcorn--I believe in you--come it strong--lumber--go it with a looseness--root little pig or die.” And, “ Oh ! my Grapevine, tear the hind sites off him, you’ll lay him cold at a waggontire--roll your bones--go it you cripples, &c., &c., &c." [1]

Beginning to doubt, from all I heard, whether my friend Dave had been regularly appointed almanac-maker for this year, I hedged a $5, and staked it with a young man that was next me, riding a remarkable wall-eyed horse, and sometime after staked another $5 with a person I had noticed assisting about the bar, and would be able to recognize again. I now flattered myself on my situation--I had all the pleasurable excitement of wagering, and nothing at risque.

Each side of the track was lined with eager faces, necks elongated, and chins projected, a posture very conducive to health in a bilious climate, as it facilitates the operation of emetics. I was deafened with loud cries of “ clear the track”--“ stand back”--“ get off the fence”--“ the riders are mounted”--“ they are comming”--“ now they are off!” but still they came not. Without intending it, I found myself, and indeed most of the crowd, moving up towards the start, and after every failure or false alarm I would move a few yards. I overheard a fellow telling with great glee--“ Well, I guess I warmed the wax in the ears of that fellow with the narrow brimmed white hat ; he had an elegant watch that he offered to bet against a good riding horse. You know my seventeen year old horse, that I always call the bay colt, I proposed to stake him against the watch, and the fellow agreed to it without ever looking in his mouth ; if he had, he would have seen teeth as long as tenpenny nails. It is easy fooling any of them New-York collectors--they ain’t ‘cute : the watch is a bang-up lever, and he says if he was GOING TO TRAVEL he would not be without it for any consideration. He made me promise if I won it to let him have it back at $100 in case he went into Georgia this fall. It is staked in the hands of the Squire there ;----Squire, show it to this here entire stranger.” The Squire produced a splendid specimen of the tin manufacture ; I pronounced it valuable, but thought it most prudent not to mention for what purpose.

Alarms that the horses were coming continued, and I gradually reached the starting place ; I then found that Crump, who was to turn Popcorn, had won the word--that is, he was to ask “ are you ready ?” and if answered “ yes !” it was to be a race. Popcorn jumped about like a pea on a griddle and fretted greatly, he was all over in a lather of sweat. He was managed very judiciously, and every attempt was made to sooth him and keep him cool, though he evidently was somewhat exhausted. All this time Grapevine was led about as cool as a cucumber, an awkward looking striker of old Thompson’s holding her by the cheek of the bridle, with instructions, I presume, not to let loose in any case, as he managed adroitly to be turning round whenever Popcorn put the question.

Old Tompkins had been sitting, doubled up sideways, on his sleepy-looking old horse--it now being near dark--rode slowly off a short distance and hitched his horse : he deliberately took off his coat, folded it carefully, and laid it on a stump ; his neckcloth was with equal care deposited on it, and then his weather-beaten-hat ; he stroked down the few remaining hairs on his caput, and came and took the mare from his striker. Crump was anxious for a start as his horse was worsted by delay ; and as soon as he saw Grapevine in motion, to please her turner, Old Tompkins swung her off ahead, shouting triumphantly, “ Go ! d--n you,” and away she went with an ungovernable. Crump wheeled his horse round before reaching the poles, and opened on Old Tompkins--“ that’s no way ; if you mean to run, let us run, and quit fooling ; you should say yes ! if you mean it to be a race, and then I would have turned loose, had my nag been tail forward : it was no use for me to let go as it would have been no race any how until you give the word.” [1]

Old Tompkins looked as if the boat had left him, or like the fellow that was fighting, and discovered that he had been biting his own thumb. He paused a moment, and without trying to raise a squabble, (an unusual thing), he broke down the track to his mare, slacked her girths, and led her back, soothing and trying to quiet her. She was somewhat blown by the run, as the little imp on her was not strong enough to take her up soon. They were now so good and so good, and he proposed they should lead up and take a fair start. “ Oh !” said Crump, “ I thought that would bring you to your milk, so lead up.” By this time you could see a horse twenty yards off, but you could not be positive as to his color. It was proposed to call in candles. The horses were led up and got off the first trial. “ Ready ?” “ Yes !” and a fairer start was never made. Away they went in a hurry

“ Glimmering through the gloom.”

All hands made for the winning post. Here I heard--“ mare’s race”--“ no, she crossed over the horse’s path”--“ the boy with the shirt rode foul”--“ the horse was ahead when he passed me.” After much squabbling, it was admitted by both parties, that the nag that came out on the left side of the track was ahead ; but they were about equally divided as to whether the horse or the mare came through on the left hand side. The Judges of the start agreed to give it in as even. When they came down, it appeared that one of the outcome judges got angry and had gone home an hour ago. My friend that looked so many ways for Sunday, after a very ominous silence and waiting until frequently appealed to, gave the race to the horse by ten inches. This brought a yell from the crowd, winners and losers, that beat any thing yet : a dozen of men were produced ready to swear that the gimblet-eye was 100 yards off drinking a stiff cocktail at the booth, and that he was at the far side of it when the horses came out, and consequently much have judged the result through two pine planks inch thick. ; others swore he did not know when the race was run, and was not at the post for five minutes after. Babel was a quiet retired place compared with the little assemblage at this time : some bets were given up, occasional symptoms of fight appeared, a general examination was going on to be assured the knife was in the pocket ; those hard to open were opened and slipped up the sleeve ; the crowd clustered together like a bee swarm. This continued until about 9 o’clock, when Crump finding he could not get the stakes, compromised the matter, and announced that by agreement it was a drawn race. It was received with a yell louder if possible than any former one ; every one seemed glad of it, and there was a unanimous adjournment at the bar. Though tired and weary, I confess I for no earthly reason I can give, but the force of example, was inclined to join them, when I was accosted by the person with whom I had bet and staked in the hands of the young man riding the wall-eyed horse : “ well,” said he, “ shell out my $5 that I put up with that friend of yours, as I cant find him.” I protested that I did not know the young man at all, and stated that he had my stake also. He replied that I need not try to feed him on saft corn that way, and called on several persons to prove that I was the selected stakeholder and we were seen together, and we must be acquainted as we were both furreigners from the cut of our coats. He began to talk hostile, and was, as they brag in the timber districts, 20 foot in the clear without limb, knot, windshake or woodpecker hole. To appease him, I agreed, if the stakeholder could not be found, to be responsible for his stake : he very industriously made proclamation for the young man with the wall-eyed horse, and being informed that he had done gone three hours ago, he claimed of me, and I had to shell out.

Feeling somewhat worsted by this transaction, I concluded I would look up my other bets. Mr. Wash I did not see, and concluded that he had retired ; I found the stakeholder that assisted about the bar, and claimed my $5 on the draw race : to my surprise I learned he had given up the stakes. Having been previously irritated, I made some severe remarks, to all of which he replied in perfect good temper, and assured me he was the most punctilious person in the world about such matters, and that it was his invariable rule never to give up stakes except by the direction of some of the judges, and called up proof of his having declined delivering the stake until he and the claimant went to old screw-eye ; and he decided I had lost. This seemed to put the matter out of dispute as far as he was concerned, but thinking I would make an appeal to my opponent, I inquired if he knew him. He satisfied me, by assuring me he did not know him from a side of sole leather.

I left the Course, and on returning next morning, I looked out for Mr. Wash ; I discovered him drinking and offering large bets : he saw me plainly, but affected a perfect forgetfulness, and did not recognise me. After waiting some time, and finding he would not address me, I approached him, and requested an opportunity of speaking to him apart. Mr. Wash instantly accompanied me, and began telling me he had got in a scrape, and had never in his life been in such a fix.--Perceiving what he was at, I concluded to take the whip-hand of him, and observed--“ Mr. Wash, if you design to intimate by your preliminary remarks that you cannot return to me my own money, staked in your hands, I must say I consider such conduct extremely ungentlemanly.” Upon this he whipped out a spring-back dirk knife, nine inches in the blade, and whetted to cut a hair, and stepped off, picked up a piece of cedar and commenced whittling. “ Now, stranger,” says he, “ I would not advise any man to try to run over me, for I ask no man any odds further than civility ; I consider myself as honest a man as any in Harris County, Kentucky ; but I’ll tell you, stranger, exactly how it happened : you see, when you offered to bet on the sorrel, I was out of soap, but it was too good a chance to let slip, as I was dead sure Popcorn would win, and if he had won, you know, of course, it made no difference to you whether I had a stake or not. Well, it was none of my business to hunt you up, so I went to town last night to the confectionary,” (a whiskey shop in a log pen 14 foot square), “ and I thought I’d make a rise on chuck-a-luck, but you prehaps never saw such a run of luck ; everywhere I touched was piezen, so I came out of the leetle end of the horn ; but I’ll tell you what, I’m a man that always stands up to my fodder, rack or no rack, so as you don’t want the money : I’ll negotiate just to suit you exactly ; I’ll give you my dubisary : I don’t know whether I can pay it this year unless the crap of hemp turns out well ; but if I can’t this year, I will next year probably, and I’ll tell you exactly my principle :--if a man waits with me like a gentleman, I’m sure to pay him when I’m ready ; but if a man tries to bear down on me and make me pay whether or no, you see it is his own look out, and he’ll see sights before he gets his money.” My respect for Mr. Wash’s dirk-knife, together with my perceiving that nothing else was to be had, induced me to express my entire satisfaction with Mr. Wash’s dubisary, hopeing at the same time that at least enough of hemp would grow that year. He proposed that I should let him have $5 more for a stake, but on my declining, he said--“ well, there is no harm in mentioning it.” He went to the bar, borrowed pen and ink, and presently returned with a splendid specimen of colligraphy to the following affect :----

State of Kentucky,}
Jessamine County. }

Due Dempsey, the just and lawful sum of Ten Dollars, for value received, payable on the 25th Day of December, 1836 or 1837, or any time after that I am able to discharge the same. As witness my hand and seal, this 30th day of May, 1836.


I wish you could try Wall-street with this paper, as I wish to cash it ; but I’ll run a mile before I wait for a quarter-race again.


Source: New York Spirit of the Times 6.21 (9 July 1836): 162. University of Virginia Alderman Library.

Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.

[1] Original text omits final quotation mark.

We would like to thank the staff of the Library of Virginia Archives and Special Collections, Alderman Library, and Barrett Collection for their assistance. This page contains material in the public domain and it may be reproduced in its entirety or cited for courses, scholarship, or other non-commercial uses. We ask that users cite the source and support the archives that have provided materials to the Spirit site.