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No sport created more excitement, enthusiasm and interest in the colonial period and the early republic than horse racing. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson took immense pride in their horses and bred them to improve the bloodlines of saddle, work, carriage and racehorses. Early presidents loved horse racing, the most popular sport in America at that time.

George Washington, considered by his peers as the best horseman of his era, helped organize races in Alexandria, Virginia, and frequently attended race meetings throughout the region. Jefferson rarely missed the meets at the National Race Course in Washington, D.C., which opened just outside the city boundary two miles north of the White House in 1802. The best horses in the country competed there into the 1840s, and the Jockey Club dinner and ball, a highlight of the social season, concluded the meeting.

Andrew Jackson's passion for horse racing and gambling was renowned and he once fought a duel over an argument sparked by a wager. Jackson bred racehorses at the Hermitage and operated a racing stable from the White House during his presidency. It was an open secret that Jackson entered runners in the name of his nephew and private secretary Andrew J. Donelson. Ulysses S. Grant was the last president actively involved in horse racing. He bred Arabians and loved mounting a sulky and driving trotters at high speed down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Jackson’s gray mare, Bolivia, painted by Edward Troye in 1836, was a part of a White House racing stable that also included Lady Nashville, Emilie, and Busiris.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Woodcut scene of a race meeting in 1834. The "carriage folk" paid a toll to look on from covered stands for spectators, especially for the ladies. Standees watched the races for free outside the rails. American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, 1834.

National Sporting Library, Middleburg, Virginia

Andrew Jackson on horseback, engraving by an unidentified artist, c. 1830.

Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson was a fine horseman who rode horses almost daily for exercise while president.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Washington, a skilled rider and an avid sportsman, greatly enjoyed fox hunting and horse racing. Rembrandt Peale, Oil on canvas on panel, c. 1823.

White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

This 1837 map of Washington located the National Race Course. Booths selling wine, whiskey, rum and other refreshments and food insured a festive air on race day with lively betting.

Historical Society of Washington

Dexter, famed for his ideal trotting action called the "Dexter stroke," won 46 of 50 races and trotted the mile in a record 2:17.1/4 during the 1860s. Robert Bonner bought and retired the horse, but allowed presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant the thrill of taking the reins at top speed in this popular 1868 lithograph by Currier & Ives.

Library of Congress

A Day at the Races

One day at the National Race Course in Washington, D.C., President Andrew Jackson took Vice President Martin Van Buren up to the course to watch Busiris train. General Callender Irvine owned and stabled Busiris with Jackson when he raced in Washington. While on the track the horse became unruly and Jackson shouted, "Get behind me, Mr. Van Buren. He will run you over!" For a long time afterwards, newspapers and cartoonists used this incident to ridicule Van Buren's reliance on Jacksons fatherly political support. The faces of William Henry Harrison, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster and Hugh Lawson White have been pasted on the horses in this political cartoon depicting the 1836 presidential race. Van Buren, the Democratic candidate and eventual winner, was ridden by his advocate Andrew Jackson.

Library of Congress