Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Thoroughbred racing doesn’t normally look to Pennsylvania for its next champion, but a small colt may have changed all that. In November 2003, Smarty Jones, foaled in Chester County two years earlier, ran his first competitive race at Philadelphia Park, one of the state’s four licensed horse race tracks. Six months later, on Saturday, May 1, 2004, the plucky little horse became the first Triple Crown contender since Seattle Slew to enter the Kentucky Derby undefeated. Smarty Jones won handily, and a few weeks later matched his Derby performance with an equally convincing victory at the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. And on Saturday, June 5, at Belmont Park in New York, he came within a length of becoming the first horse in nearly thirty years to sweep one of sport’s most coveted prizes.

Pennsylvania’s racing industry basked in the reflected glory, and for good reason. From his first canter on a small farm in southeastern Pennsylvania to his maiden race at Philadelphia Park, Smarty Jones testified to the vitality and competitive potential of thoroughbred racing in the Keystone State. What makes the Smarty Jones story all the more remarkable is the historical backdrop from which he emerged. Compared to Ken­tucky and states with a time-honored history of thoroughbred racing, Pennsylvania horse racing has followed a much different – and often more dramatic – path, in both its particulars and its connections to the broader sweep of state history. Much like Smarty Jones’s career, the course of horse racing in Pennsylvania has been unpredictable and, at times, downright remarkable.

Pennsylvanians have been racing horses for as long as they have been riding them. For the earliest colonists, horse racing was more than just a diversion; it was also the most reliable means of gauging a horse’s strength and vitality. While Quakers and other religious groups objected to the wagering that frequently accompanied such contests, most remained morally neutral on the subject. Racing was not among the list of prohibited activities enumerated in Pennsylvania’s first Great Law in 1682.

William Penn reportedly raced his English thoroughbreds on Philadelphia’s Sassafras Street – appropriately renamed Race Street in the late eighteenth century.

Horse racing in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania was very much a public affair. Pittsburgh’s annual races were conducted on “the plain below Grant’s hill,” near present-day downtown, for three consecutive days following the fall harvest. Judge Hugh Brackenridge, a prominent Pittsburgh resident and newspaper publisher, described a carnival-like atmosphere “filled with booths as at a fair,” where dogs barked and bit, and horses trod on men’s toes, and booths fell down on people’s heads.” Congestion eventually forced the races to the outskirts of town, but the event remained well publicized and well attended, with horsemen competing for purses of several hundred dollars in some cases. Cities and towns across the Commonwealth hosted similarly organized stakes races.

Racing also sprang from informal and spontaneous competitions between and among horse owners. “Gentlemen having fine animals were wont to try their speed on public streets,” observed one Philadelphian matter-of-factly. (Many Race Streets in Pennsylvania cities and towns today derive their names from this practice.) Street racing provided a cheap form of entertainment, but it was not without its perils, particularly for pedestrians who found themselves in the path of galloping stallions. By 1817, the problem had become so acute in Philadelphia that the state legislature banned the practice on public roads within both the city and county limits.

A section of the same law also forbade racing before assemblies of fifteen people or more, a provision dearly intended to discourage wagering. More so than traffic congestion, it was the sport’s association with gambling and disorderly crowds that generated the greatest criticism. Technically, Pennsylvania’s “blue laws” – a set of legal codes aimed at curbing
“frivolous amusements” – had taken care of that. But enforcement was notoriously lax, especially in those areas of the state beyond the practical reach of Quaker and Presbyterian officials. Jacob Rush, a judge who served on Pennsylvania’s circuit court in 1800, observed that the law was so widely disregarded that “one would rather suppose we had a law enjoining sports and diversion on Sunday, under heavy penalty, than one forbidding them.”

In 1820, the circumstance led the state legislature to enact a statewide ban on horse racing. Aptly entitled An Act Against Horse Racing, the law imposed steep fines on individuals convicted of horseracing for purses and prizes, up to and including the confiscation of horses. The new law set the tone for state policy on horse racing for nearly a century and a half, and established what would become a familiar political cycle, as interests seeking to modify or overturn the law – often in the name of “improving the breed”–clashed with moralists seeking more rigorous enforcement. Although the statute likely suppressed conspicuous wagering for a time, popular enthusiasm for watching and racing fast horses remained constant.

Many attributed the public appetite for racing to a basic “delight for speed” stimulated by improved road surfaces and wagon design. “Every tradesman, artisan, businessman, or mechanic whose affairs require the services of a horse,” noted one observer, “keeps a fast and hardy trotter.”

By far the greatest stimulus for racing was the advent of the trotting horse. In contrast to the aristocratic sport of thoroughbred racing – which many considered “anti-republican” – trotters moved in a diagonal gait that made them appear to step rather than run. Trotters escaped the disrepute heaped on galloping thoroughbreds and proved more practical to raise and maintain. Most trotters were standardbreds, a stout American hybrid derived from thoroughbreds and other light riding and driving strains. Standardbred trotters could be used to drive a cart or even haul freight, a characteristic that appealed to practical Northerners.

Although much of the early trotting took place on public roads, the desire for smoother, obstacle-free surfaces drove the pastime off public roads and onto specially designed tracks, often just on the outskirts of a community. With the opening of Hunting Park in the mid-1820s, Philadelphia became the first city in the nation to support a track devoted solely to trotting. In compliance with the 1820 law, the Philadelphia Hunting Park Association limited exhibitions to so-­called “matinee races” with no entrance fees or monetary premiums. Many of the Commonwealth’s larger communities opened similar trotting tracks or “driving parks,” all ostensibly dedicated to the “improvement of the road horse.”

Richard Hillman’s 1831 oil painting of Hunting Park-the earliest known depiction of a trotting match in the United States-captured the pastime’s middle class propriety. But contemporary accounts suggest that trotting had its coarser side. In 1840, Philadelphia resident Sidney Fisher enthusiastically described attending a nearby driving park to see the celebrated Ned Forrest – the fastest trotter in the world,” according to Fisher’s diary account. But Fisher was careful to choose a seat “in the ring,” the area nearest the track reserved for the well-to-do. “Here you can keep in sight of the horses … and escape the vile atmosphere and disgusts of a vile crowd.” Fisher lamented the fact that racing in America lacked the pageantry of the sport in England. “Here it is a vulgar affair,” no doubt made more so by the spectacle of bets being placed and money changing hands.

The emergence of the agricultural fair during the second half of the nineteenth century offered the sport a more legitimate venue. In many ways it was a marriage of convenience. At mid-century, agricultural exhibitions were in search. of a marquee event capable of drawing crowds to their displays of new agricultural products and methods. Racing enthusiasts meanwhile hoped to convince skeptics of the scientific and economic benefits derived from selective breeding for speed. This is what promoters meant when they argued that racing – or in the euphemism of the day, “trials of speed” – contributed to the “improvement of the breed.”

It most certainly improved the gate. When the United States Agricultural Society met in West Philadelphia in 1856, fifty thousand spectators turned out to witness a “trial of single horses, for speed.” Trotting had a similar multiplier effect at local and county displaced fairs, where it soon displaced the venerable plowing match as the feature event. “The clang of the bell in the starter’s tower, the clatter of hoofs, and the excited shouts of the crowd, ‘Here they come,’ stirred the blood of even the most sedate,” one spectator wrote. Many feared that trotting overshadowed more educational aspects of the fair, such as the competitive exhibits of livestock. “There is danger that agricultural fairs may be ruined by transforming them into race courses,” the Philadelphia Public Ledger declared. “Go to any fair..and you will see tens of thousands of people breathlessly watching the struggle between competing horses while only a few hundreds are to be seen in other parts of the ground.”

Despite such concerns, and the continued objection to horse racing as a magnet for gambling, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1879 amended its 1820 law to permit racing purses or prizes at county fairs and incorporated driving parks. The state legislature argued that the new provision would help drive gaming booths from the fair grounds. The law also underscored how state leaders had been forced to recognize the sport’s popular appeal, particularly across the Commonwealth’s vast rural central region. By the 1870s, the Commonwealth was home to between seventy and eighty local and county exhibitions most of which featured “speed trials” as the main event. By the 1880s, the county fair had become a social institution and trotting its greatest attraction, and not just for spectators. Most farmers customarily trained a nag or two in the trotting or pacing gait with the hopes of one day competing at the local fair.

By the close of the nineteenth century, Pennsylvania’s liberalized racing law had ushered in a golden age of trotting. In 1889, Philadelphia’s Point Breeze Park joined Pittsburgh’s Homewood Park as the second driving park in Pennsylvania to be included on the “Grand Central Circuit,” a nationally organized series that featured the country’s best trotters and largest purses, many as high as Twenty thousand dollars. The new law also bolstered attendance at just about any variety of fair that boasted harness racing; in fact, many of the larger venues were forced to acquire new tracts of land to accommodate burgeoning attendance. Tn 1888, both York and Reading opened new fairgrounds with modern, half-mile tracks and commodious grandstands. The Allen­town Fair inaugurated its 1902 season with a completely refurbished wooden grandstand seating twenty-two hundred patrons and boasting a restaurant and dining rooms. It was outgrown less than ten years later and replaced by a concrete and brick structure that tripled capacity.

Competitive, purse-driven harness racing also benefited the state’s nascent horse breeding industry. In the early 1900s, Harper D. Sheppard (1868-1960) and Clinton N. Myers (1876-1954), founders of the Hanover Shoe Company, opened a modest stable with the intention of raising trotters for the state fair circuit. Twenty years later, their Hanover Shoe Farms had become the largest commercial breeder of standardbreds in the world – a position it retains to this day. Curiously, this success did not carry over to thoroughbred racing, which in many Northern states enjoyed a Gilded Age resurgence. Both the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York – future legs on the Triple Crown – hosted their first races in their respective states during the 1870s. Not a single legitimate thoroughbred track operated in Pennsylvania during the same period.

Many blamed the absence of thor­oughbred racing on the Commonwealth’s entrenched conservatism, but state officials had reason for concern. Although racing meccas such as New York’s Saratoga Springs attracted an upper class following, states with legalized racing were forced to contend with a rash of disreputable, so­-called “proprietary” tracks. At New Jersey’s Gloucester Racetrack, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, race meets took place in every type of weather and over every holiday, even Christmas. Seasoned trackmen grew repulsed by the cavalier exploitation of both horses and patrons. At Guttenberg, a northern New Jersey track that opened in 1885, horse­men recall seeing “‘sure thing’ boys from the underworld” running “faro banks, roulette wheels and other games of chance” in plain view. The situation was not much better in New York, where corrupt political machines controlled both track licenses and off-track betting par­lors. Political scandals eventually forced both New York and New Jersey to rescind legalized horse racing, a circumstance that Pennsylvania lawmakers did not wish to repeat.

The lack of legitimate in-state racing venues did not deter wealthy Pennsylvanians from dabbling in the pastime. Horses had always occupied a special place in genteel society. The late nineteenth-century resurgence of the clubs for the upper class helped to fund and encourage the interest in fast horses. Private associations such as the Rose Tree Hunt Club and the Rad.nor Hunt Club (see “Lost & Found,” Fall 2004), near Philadelphia, and the Rolling Rock Club, near Ligonier, Westmoreland County, filled their calendars with horse shows, dressage competitions, fox hunts, and steeplechases. It did not take long for thoroughbreds and flat racing to follow.

One of the most well-known Pennsylvanians to emerge from this tradition was Samuel D. Riddle (1861-1951), a prominent Philadelphia businessman and member of the exclusive Rose Tree Hunt Club and the Valley Forge Park Commission under Governor George H. Earle. Much of Riddle’s fame in the equine industry began with an opportune purchase he made at the 1918 Saratoga (New York) Horse Sales, where he paid a modest five thousand dollars for a chestnut colt owned by August Belmont. Riddle immediately shipped the young thoroughbred to his horse farm in Maryland and the following year introduced him to the racing world as Man O’War. Over the next two years, Man O’War, nicknamed Big Red, went on to win every race he entered, a feat that no previous thoroughbred had ever come close to matching. Sportswriters acknowledged Man O’War for single-handedly reviving national interest in the turf; Riddle credited him with returning the best investment in thoroughbred history. (Among Man O’ War’s progeny was War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner, and Seabiscuit, the quirky little horse that captured the hearts of a nation in the late 1930s and again with the release of Universal Studios’ enormously popular movie in 2003.)

Another set of movers and shakers, also of Philadelphia, were George and Joseph Widener. Although the nephew-uncle team would claim their share of champion racehorses over the course of their careers, the Wideners made their mark largely behind the scenes. Both were prominent members of the prestigious Jockey Club, the national organizing body for the sport, and heavy backers of new tracks in such far-flung places as southern Florida. The Wideners made their greatest contribution to the world of thoroughbred racing in 1929, when they won a landmark court case that resulted in horse racing and breeding being declared tax write offs. The ruling had far-reaching effects for both the American tax code and racing’s claim to being “the sport of kings.”

Names such as Riddle and Widener lent credibility to a sport that had often been associated with colorful but ignominious characters and may have helped offset long-standing objections to horse racing within their home state. In the nineteenth century, moral opposition to horse racing enjoyed statewide consensus. However, by the twentieth century, many began breaking rank. This was particularly true in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where newly enfranchised Catholics and Jews were beginning to challenge traditional Protestant attitudes on a range of issues, including gambling.

In the 1920s, state legislators in urban areas began offering a succession of pro­-racing bills before the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. However, most rural legislators remained skeptical of racing’s merits and used their considerable political clout to thwart such efforts. Few bills ever made it past committee and those that did faced nearly insurmountable odds of passage. In 1927, a racing bill introduced by Philadelphia Representative Charles C.A. Baldi Jr. actually made it to the House floor, only to be defeated by a resounding two to one margin.

Despite such political drubbings, racing proponents had reason to be optimistic. One factor in their favor was pari-mutuel betting. Throughout much of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, the business side of racing was a haphazard affair. Independent bookmakers, and later pool sellers, determined the odds for a given race, collected the bets and, after taking their customary cut, distributed earnings to the winners. The system generated enormous profits for bookmakers but little, if any, for track operators and horse owners. The income of the former was limited to admission fees, while the latter relied on the relatively small purses generated from entrance fees.

Under the pari-mutuel system, in which the collective wagers of individual bettors determined the odds, track operators effectively took the place of bookmakers. For cash-strapped states, the pari-mutuel presented a golden opportunity for tapping huge, heretofore underground, gambling revenues, either through taxation or, better yet, the direct licensing and administration of racetracks. With government coffers running especially low during the 1930s, a number of states began legalizing pari-­mutuel racing, a circumstance that frequently triggered a domino effect. By the end of the Great Depression, eighteen states legalized racing, and by the close of the 1940s, pari-mutuel racetracks had arrived in every state sharing a border with Pennsylvania. Philadelphia felt the pinch of lost gaming revenue more so than most, as it saw potential profits being siphoned off to nearby tracks across the Delaware.

While the battle over legalized horse racing raged in the state legislature, Pennsylvania’s harness racing industry continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Suburban driving parks had long since fallen by the wayside, but county fairs – ­such as those in Bloomsburg, Allentown, Reading, and York – took up the slack. Even more impressive was the national stature being enjoyed by Pennsylvania’s standardbred industry. Along with Hanover Shoe Farms in Adams County, world-class standardbreds were being turned out by Hempt Farms in Cumber­land County, Lana Lobell Farms in York County, and Meadow Lands Farm in Washington County. Adios, quite possibly the greatest stallion in standardbred history, was jointly owned by the Delvin Miller of Meadow Lands Farm and Max C. Hempt of Hempt Farms. During the 1950s and early 1960s, sales of his progeny generated an average of fifty thousand dollars a year in tax revenues for the Commonwealth.

The vitality of the state’s harness racing tradition may have helped tip the balance in favor of legalization. More than likely, though, it was the pressure of lost revenue; Pennsylvania had been an island of moral rectitude for at least a decade, and its economy was beginning to feel the effects. In September 1959, in an historic vote that culminated decades of debate, a bill to legalize horseracing at Commonwealth licensed tracks passed the state house by a single vote. After its passage in the Senate, Governor David L. Lawrence signed House Bill No. 2108 into law on December 22, effectively ending nearly a century-and-a-hall prohibition against horse racing.

The statute provided for pari-mutuel betting at up to four state-licensed harness tracks throughout the Commonwealth and created a semi-independent harness racing commission in the state Department of Agriculture to oversee their operation. Racing, however, was still by no means a sure thing. A provision of the bill required county voters to approve the measure as a local option before racetracks could be operated within their borders. Although intended as a failsafe, the provision had the unintended effect of re-galvanizing the opposition. Religious groups, such as the Lord’s Day Alliance, organized rallies and letter-writing campaigns and filed a string of lawsuits. Although a handful of eastern counties approved the measure when it first appeared on the ballot in 1961, voters in the western counties soundly rejected it. The Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission became mired in its own set of problems, from internal battles over appointments to public charges of corruption and cronyism. In northeastern Pennsylvania, evidence surfaced that one of the track licenses had inadvertently been awarded to associates of a notorious organized crime family.

It took nearly three and a half years to work out the kinks, but on June 7, 1963, Pennsylvania finally launched its first legally sanctioned pari-mutuel harness racing venture at Liberty Bell Park in Northeast Philadelphia. A few weeks later, racing also got underway at the Meadows Racetrack, northeast of Washington, in Washington County, followed two years later by Pocono Downs near Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County. By the end of the sixties, the Commonwealth added thoroughbreds to the racing card, partly to stem the tide of patrons heading off to flat tracks in New Jersey and Delaware. Between 1972 and 1974, thoroughbred race-tracks opened to serve markets in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Erie.

During the 1970s, Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry enjoyed steady growth, but not without change. Commodore Downs in Erie, unable to sustain itself, folded in the late 1970s. Liberty Bell Racetrack also closed it gates during the same period but was succeeded by Keystone Race Track, since renamed Philadelphia Park and now most notable for being the home track of Smarty Jones. Patronage and profits continued to climb throughout the decade, although by the late 1970s gate receipts had started to level off, particularly at the state’s two harness tracks.

Perhaps fittingly, horse racing continued to serve as a political lightning rod. During the 1980s, Pennsylvania legislators wrestled over whether to approve off-track betting, which had long been opposed on the grounds that it would open the door to other non-racing forms of gambling. It was, once again, pressure from neighboring states that forced opponents to capitulate. The latest debate centered on the issue of slot machines at state racetracks. As with other measures designed to fortify the state’s racetracks, proponents argued that slot machines were necessary to keeping Pennsylvania competitive with other states. By the 1990s, proponents could point to the benefits of horse racing well beyond the track. Horse racing helped to sustain not only jockeys and trainers, but also Pennsylvania agriculture and open land for horse farms and hay production.

On July 5, 2004, Governor Edward G. Rendell signed House Bill No. 2330, the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act and the related Senate Bill 100, Homeowner Tax Relief Act, into law-fittingly at Philadelphia Park, the track where it all began for Smarty Jones. Along with permitting the installation of slot machines at state-owned racetracks the new law provides for the creation of three new racecourses. A boost in attendance and revenue is anticipated at the Commonwealth’s existing tracks. Industry advocates are hopeful that the new law will insure racing’s future in Pennsylvania, but critics remain wary of the social implications of expanded gaming. If the past is prologue, horse racing in the Keystone State will always be more than just about racing horses.


For Further Reading

Bannon, Peter L, ed. Smarty Jones: America’s Horse. Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing, LLC, 2004.

Lander, Theodore A. The Career Guide to the Horse Industry. Albany, N. Y.: Delmar Thomson Learning, 2002.

Longrigg, Roger. The History of Horse Racing. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Sugar, Bert, and Cornell Richardson. Horse Sense: An Inside Look at the Sport of Kings. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2003.

Welsh, Peter C. Track and Road: The American Trotting Horse. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1967.


The author thanks William Nork and Randall Tenor of the State Library of Pennsylvania and Rhonda Newton of The State Museum of Pennsylvania for their assistance while researching this article.


Curtis Miner is the senior curator of popular culture and political history at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Research for this article grew out of the museum’s exhibition “Out in Front: Smarty Jones and Horse Racing in Pennsylvania.”