Preservation Magazine, Fall 2018

Experience Unbridled History at These 9 Stables and Racetracks

Thomas Jefferson gave perhaps the ultimate compliment in Colonial America when he praised George Washington as “the best horseman of his age.” Though today most of us are more familiar with the mechanical sort of horsepower, many Americans still adore their equestrian pastimes, whether they’re participating in a jumping competition, enjoying a trail ride, or donning their best hats for a Kentucky Derby viewing party. We bring you nine historic places across the country where you can still hear (or imagine) the clip-clop of horses.

Horses thunder past the photographer at Santa Anita Park in California.

photo by: Kelly Serfoss

Many of America's horses of legend have trained or raced at Santa Anita Park.

A roaring crowd of ecstatic fans cheered on the comeback win of jockey Red Pollard and his horse Seabiscuit on March 2, 1940, during the Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. The Thoroughbred’s victory that day made him the world’s top money-winning horse at the time. Even before this famous race, Santa Anita was one of the most popular racetracks in the country. Bordered by the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and Pasadena to the west, the picturesque park opened on Christmas Day in 1934 and soon became a place for movie stars to hobnob in the grandstand. The park still maintains its Hollywood ties; moviegoers may recognize its track from the 2003 film Seabiscuit.

Between 1842 and 1853, two companies of the United States Army’s First Regiment of Dragoons spent time at Fort Scott in Kansas, now Fort Scott National Historic Site. These skilled soldiers were charged with enforcing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and were trained to fight both on foot and on horseback. While equine breeds varied, horses for each company had matching coat colors for uniformity. Dragoons took great pride in their horses, grooming them twice a day at stable call in the 210-foot-long, 1845 frame stable. The Army left Fort Scott in 1853, and the stable eventually was replaced with a lumberyard and sheet-metal works. A faithful reconstruction in 1978 revived it to the way it looked in 1848.

Before Woodlands Cemetery opened in 1840 on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, it was the core of the magnificent estate of the 18th-century botanist William Hamilton. The property’s many buildings are considered among the first examples of Federal architecture in North America, but only the mansion and circa-1792 stable survive. They slowly fell into disrepair until the early 2010s, when The Woodlands (the nonprofit organization overseeing the site) received public and private grants that funded major structural repairs. In 2017, the windows and stonework of the graceful stone stable were repaired, and historic photographs guided the reconstruction of the hayloft door. Though the stalls inside are long gone, most of the stable is original, offering visitors a unique understanding of this early American building type.

Early 19th-century planter John Harding took advantage of the South’s fascination with Thoroughbred racing by advertising stud services at his Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. The Harding family also raced their own horses quite successfully: During the 1867–1868 racing season, John’s son, William Giles Harding, won more purses with his own horses than anyone else in the country. The stables have always been a highlight of the property; when President Grover Cleveland visited in 1887, Robert “Bob” Green, who was brought to Belle Meade as an enslaved servant in 1839 and stayed after the Civil War as head hostler, gave Cleveland a tour. Now, visitors to the estate can catch their own glimpse of Belle Meade’s great Thoroughbred empire, which lasted for nearly a century.

Belle Meade Plantation's stable and carriage house is now used for events.

photo by: Belle Meade Plantation

Belle Meade Plantation's circa-1892 carriage house and stable is used as an event space.

By 2002, the Folger Stable at Wunderlich Park in Woodside, California, hardly resembled the elegant structure that Folgers Coffee heir James A. Folger II had built on his estate in 1905. The family’s carriage horses and riding horses lived in the stable until the mid-20th century, when the family sold part of the property to developer Martin Wunderlich. Its location on a fault line hindered development, so Wunderlich donated the land to San Mateo County in the 1970s. The stable deteriorated until local resident Jill Daly became involved in 2002. After years of fundraising and collaboration between the county and Friends of Huddart and Wunderlich Parks (of which Daly serves as board president), the Folger Stable was restored. As many as 14 horses board there now, and its carriage room-turned-museum is open so the public can peek at the stable’s carriages, fire hose reels, watering troughs, and other original features.

The Folger Stable in Woodside California has original giant skylights for the horses.

photo by: Frances Freyberg

Original center-aisle skylights supply plenty of natural light to the horses boarding at Folger Stable.

The Great Depression forced J.O. Keene, a talented Thoroughbred trainer in Lexington, Kentucky, to abandon his dream of owning a grand racetrack. He sold his land to the nonprofit Keeneland Association, which in turn opened Keeneland Racetrack to a crowd of 25,337 people in 1936. The track’s reputation was cemented on October 11, 1984, when Queen Elizabeth II—a well-known horse enthusiast—stopped by for an unofficial visit. Keeneland, which is one of just two racetracks in the country that are National Historic Landmarks, also hosts the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house.

Have you ever wondered where the much-loved Budweiser Clydesdales live when not enjoying the spotlight in Super Bowl commercials? Of the three Clydesdale hitches, or teams, the 17 horses from the St. Louis–based hitch are pampered in the historic St. Louis Budweiser Clydesdale Stables, built in 1885 as the private stables for the Busch family. The brick Romanesque Revival structure also serves as offices for the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale Operations team. The original hitch was given to August A. Busch Sr. by two of his sons in 1933 to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. The gesture reduced all three to tears, reportedly giving rise to the phrase “crying in your beer.”

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The auction barns at Keeneland house hundreds of horses during the auction sales.

photo by: Keeneland Photo

Three times a year, thousands of quality Thoroughbreds filter through 46 barns at Keeneland for its renowned auctions.

In 1901, William duPont purchased James Madison’s Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site. He transformed the former president’s country estate in Orange, Virginia, into a premier horse breeding, training, and racing mecca. His daughter Marion duPont Scott, an avid equestrian in her own right, inherited the property in 1928 and further raised its equine profile, founding the Montpelier Hunt Races a few years later. The popular steeplechase event occurs annually on the first Saturday in November and draws crowds of up to 18,000 people who watch skilled riders guide galloping horses over obstacles such as hedges and jumps.

Starting in the 1870s, upper-crust families fled New York’s frigid winters for the balmy weather in Aiken, South Carolina. The so-called “Winter Colony” brought sports such as polo and steeplechase racing to Aiken. During their stay (and often after they traveled back north), the Winter Colonists stored their carriages and horses at the Gaston Livery Stable. The U-shaped brick stable was built around 1893 and still features an operational carriage lift to raise the vehicles to the second story, which could fit at least 12 carriages. The colony began to decline in the 1920s, and the stable was used intermittently until 1980. In 2011, the Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable purchased the building to save it from demolition by neglect. The group is working to restore the stable, and currently has several historic carriages on display.

Meghan White Headshot

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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