Author James C. Nicholson’s latest book Racing for America (University Press of Kentucky, 2021) immerses a reader in the “roaring twenties,” a tumultuous decade wedged between the devastation of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

The twenties were a time for renewal and high-flying stocks bought with little collateral.  Americans generally rebelled against convention and flouted the Eighteenth Amendment by making bathtub gin and frequenting speakeasies.  Women were exercising their new legal right to vote and many were dancing the Charleston in skimpy flapper outfits that would have been scandalous only a few years before.

Americans were also treated to amazing new technologies like commercial radio.  KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the first radio station, with its historic initial broadcast of the Cox-Harding presidential election of 1920.  As a result, it was soon possible for the masses to hear reports about the three major sports of the era–Major League Baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  The fledgling National Football League had been organized in Canton, Ohio, in 1920, but its immense popularity lay far in the future, and the National Basketball League was not founded until 1946.

In this milieu of hope and technological innovation, a horse race, a match race concocted by August Belmont II and featuring the recent Kentucky Derby and Epsom Derby winners, took place.  The equine dual captivated the peoples of the United States and Great Britain in the weeks and days leading up to the event on October 20, 1923 at New York’s Belmont Park. It was not the American Revolution redux, but it definitely stoked competitive juices in both nations, particularly since British bloodstock breeders widely considered American racehorses to be of uncertain and inferior heritage.

Nicholson, who has written three previous books with a horse racing theme, all with historical overlays, has masterfully chronicled the developments and potpourri of inimitable characters associated with the match race between 1923 Kentucky Derby winner Zev and 1923 Epsom Derby winner Papyrus.  He has done so within the context of the often-corrupt politics of the times, mainly because Harry F. Sinclair, the founder of Sinclair Oil and a key player in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, owned Zev. 

It is difficult today to imagine the fervor that a match race pitting champion 3-year-old colts from the United States and Great Britain would enflame in both countries.  But it did.  Even if a reader knows the race outcome in advance, knowing does not detract because accounts of interactions among trainers, jockeys, owners, the press, and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic keep the story moving along. 

Almost a hundred years later, the Zev-Papyrus race is still a compelling tale that until now was mostly lost in the passage of time.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business


The probable favorite for the 1921 Kentucky Derby is Essential Quality, winner of the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and undefeated in five career starts.  In his last start before the Derby, he won the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, although he was challenged to get by second-placed Highly Motivated.

A win by Essential Quality in the Derby would accomplish three first-time records, for his owner, his trainer, and his sire.

Although Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum—vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai—is one of the two global leaders in breeding and racing horses (John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud is the other), he has never won the Kentucky Derby.  With Essential Quality, the Sheikh’s Godolphin stables has its best chance ever to win the race.

Essential Quality is trained by Brad Cox, who was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Derby since 1875.  To this date, no Louisville-born trainer has been able to win the hometown Derby.  (This is not true of jockeys, as Louisville native Roscoe Goose achieved the feat way back in 1913.  Hall of Fame jockey Charlie Kurtsinger won the Derby, but he was born in nearby Shepherdsville.)

Essential Quality was sired by Tapit, one of the most prolific sires of quality runners in the world.  As accomplished as he is, Tapit has yet to sire a Kentucky Derby winner.  Tapit’s stretch-running son Greatest Honour was also scheduled for the Kentucky Derby, but is now being rested for 60 days owing to a disappointing performance in the Florida Derby.

While Essential Quality’s win in the Bluegrass Stakes was not overly impressive, a case can be made that the race was just what he needed–a tightener one month prior to the Kentucky Derby.  The Bluegrass has a history of prepping colts to peak on the first Saturday in May. 

If Essential Quality remains undefeated and wins the Run for the Roses, Sheikh Mohammed, Brad Cox, and Tapit will all make first-time history.


Kentucky Derby Trivia:

See if you can answer the following Kentucky Derby trivia.  Just leave your answer in the comments section and I’ll let you know if you are correct.

Kentucky Derby winners Omar Khayyam in 1917 and Morvich in 1922 share a historical distinction that is unique only to them in the annals of Kentucky Derby history.  What is it?

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The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an article titled “Betting on Horses’ Lives.”  The piece began “Racehorses Are Dying in Staggering Numbers at Pennsylvania tracks.” 

The author, Sam Wood, cited statistics: “Since 2010, state racing officials have tallied more than 1,400 thoroughbred deaths,” most as the result of catastrophic injuries and some via natural causes.  He quoted testimony from Stephanie Beattie, the former president of the Pennsylvania HBPA, at a 2017 trial in a “sweeping doping case,” that “up to 98% of racehorses–including her own–were illegally drugged to block pain and increase performance.”

The article went on to assert, without citing evidence, that slot revenue diverted to horse racing subsidies encourage “owners to put weak and injured horses onto the track for what turn out to be fatal runs?”  Apparently, horse racing has received more state money in the last decade, $3 billion, than any other industry.  Moreover, Wood says that, predictably, in the opinion of animal-rights activists, horse racing is so inherently hazardous to horses that it is “irredeemable.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf wants to take $199 million a year from racing subsidies to provide scholarships to college and university students.  Agricultural commissioner and Wolf appointee Russell Redding, unsurprisingly, is also opposed to subsidies, even though the racing and breeding businesses in Pennsylvania reportedly account for some 15,000 jobs.

Although the article is highly negative and lacks sufficient balance, it is mostly factual, including its discussion of high-profile criminal convictions of racing insiders.  In addition, Stuart Janney, chairman of the Jockey Club, and prominent owner George Strawbridge are quite candid in their assessment and lament of what has transpired in Keystone state racing. 

The view here is that shameful unethical (and sometimes criminal) actions by many of the players in Pennsylvania horse racing have given racing such a bad public image that it is a steep uphill climb now to mount a winning case as to why slot subsidies should continue.  And the new federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act likely comes too late to make much of a difference.  A “Give us one last chance” plea will ring hollow.  All the public knows is that a massive amount of taxpayer dollars has gone to support what has been a troubled racing enterprise.

Given the choice of subsidizing a gambling activity (most people don’t see the agribusiness side) versus subsidizing higher education students, taxpayers will overwhelmingly opt for the latter.  The best that Pennsylvania horse racing can salvage is for the sport/business to retain some state support and become more able to stand on its own.

Pennsylvania horse farms have bred the third-most Breeders’ Cup winners of all the states. It is sad to see these small agribusinesses and a way of life jeopardized by what has transpired at Pennsylvania racetracks.

Click here to read the Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Copyright 2021 Horse Racing Business