A seemingly insignificant and remote event can change the course of history, in this case horse-racing history.

The Mackinac Island, Michigan Convention and Tourist Bureau, an unlikely source of information on horse racing, explains why Justify would likely not have been around to run in the Belmont Stakes had not a Rebel prisoner, Brigadier General William Giles Harding, during the Civil War been allowed by his Union captors to return home nearly three years before the War’s conclusion to breed racehorses on one of the most prominent Thoroughbred nurseries of the 19th century, Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee.

Following is an excerpt from the Mackinac Island Convention and Tourist Bureau’s vignette:

“…did you know that thoroughbred race horses have ties to Mackinac…?

Many winners of The Kentucky Derby, including this year’s champ, Justify, are linked to a man who once spent a summer at Fort Mackinac as a political prisoner–a wealthy Tennessean who became one of horse racing’s most prized breeders.

William Giles Harding was one of three Confederate sympathizers who were imprisoned on the island back in 1862, according to an account by Mackinac Historic State Parks.  Harding was the owner of Belle Meade, a large plantation near Nashville operated mostly by slave labor.  He was also a prominent supporter of the South and a military donor during the Civil War, and that got him arrested by Union authorities.

Harding, George Washington Barrow, and Josephus Conn Guild were imprisoned way up north at Fort Mackinac, which was empty after the soldiers stationed there left to fight in the war.  An army captain in Detroit pulled together a garrison of nearly 100 men to guard the prisoners, who spent a pleasant and uneventful summer on Mackinac.

Harding was allowed to go home that fall after swearing an oath of loyalty to the Union, and he spent the rest of his days turning Belle Meade into one of the world’s best horse-breeding farms.  Belle Meade studs of the late 19th century included Bonnie Scotland, who is an ancestor of Justify and many other Derby winners, as well as many past Triple Crown horses like Secretariat.”

As far as General Harding and some of his former Union foes were concerned, hard feelings over the Civil War evidently did not carry over in the aftermath of the hostilities.  According to the Belle Meade website:  “The stereotype of the old  Southern plantation made Belle Meade a popular destination for many, including President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Robert Todd Lincoln, General U.S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, General Winfield Scott Hancock, and Adlai E. Stevenson.”

Horse Racing Business 2018


Max Hirsch was the trainer for King Ranch’s Assault, the Triple Crown champion of 1946.  After the colt from Texas won the Preakness Stakes, Hall of Famer Hirsch put him on a conditioning regimen that is vastly more challenging than the routines of today.

May 11            Won 1 3/16 mile Preakness by a neck in 2:01 2/5; fast track

May 12            Shipped to Belmont

May 16            4 furlongs in :52
May 18            3 furlongs in :40
May 20            4 furlongs in :48
May 22            1 mile in 1:43 3/5
May 24            3 furlongs in :35
May 25            1¼ miles in 2:05
May 28            4 furlongs in :50
May 29            1½ miles in 2:32

June 1              Won 1 1/2 mile Belmont by 3 lengths in 2:30 4/5; fast track

The Belmont was Assault’s 15th career start.  Sterile at stud, he ran in 27 more races after the Belmont for a lifetime record of 18 wins, 6 seconds, and seven thirds from 42 career starts.

Horse Racing Business 2018

Assault’s work history for the Belmont was provided by Max Hirsch’s grandson, former trainer Bill Hirsch.


The never-ending quest in horse racing is to make it safer for its human and equine athletes.  Since 2009, the Equine Injury Database shows that significant improvements have been made, with the fatalities-per-1000-starts summary statistic on all kinds of surfaces (dirt, turf, and synthetic) decreasing from 2.0 in 2009 to 1.61 in 2017.

Data reported in The Chronicle of the Horse—in an article (May 21 & 28, 2018) by veterinarian William McCormick tilted “Sport Horse Injury Prevention and the Elephant in the Room”—raise answerable questions about causality of catastrophic injuries in horse racing.

Consider the findings of a 2017 study by Dr. Sue Dyson, who is the head of clinical orthopedics at Britain’s Animal Trust, pertaining to English sport horses: “Of 506 horses in work and thought to be sound, 47 percent were, in fact, lame.”

The Chronicle reported similar results in an unpublished study done at the aforementioned Dr. McCormick’s Middleburg, Virginia equine facility: “…of 563 sport horses presented for pre-purchase examination…at the Middleburg Equine Clinic…44 percent were lame.”

While these findings on sport horses cannot be extrapolated to racehorses, they do suggest potentially valuable research.  A scientific study at a representative cross-section of North American racetracks, conducted by a team of independent equine veterinarians, would provide empirical evidence on (a) the extent to which lame horses are being allowed to run in races and (b) whether fatalities might be curtailed further through more stringent pre-race exams and more scratches by the veterinarians employed by state racing commissions.

Such vets already screen entries, so the incidence of lame horses running races is likely to be nowhere near the 44 percent and the 47 percent found in the sport-horse studies in Great Britain and Virginia.  However, because racetracks are challenged to present bettors with full fields, it may be that track veterinarians generally have a bias toward letting questionable horses run.  If so, racetracks could mitigate the pressure vets feel to clear horses to race by cutting back on the number of live races to fill.

Most racetrack executives and the preponderance of track-employed vets would likely take some convincing that an independently and objectively conducted research study designed to determine the extent to which lame horses are running in races is in their best interests.  But it is certainly in the best interests of the horses and jockeys whose lives are on the line.

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