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"The City of Philadelphia is perhaps one of the wonders of the World," wrote Lord Adam Gordon of the metropolis of 24,000, the second-largest English-speaking city in the world. "One will not hesitate to Call it the first Town in America, but one that bids fair to rival almost any in Europe." Quaker boys played marbles, ran footraces, skated, swam, fished, shot rail and reed birds, sailed and had rowing races, but avoided fistfights if possible. There was a running track of sorts around a city square, perhaps three-quarters of a mile in circumference, and it is possible the first interscholastic races in the country were run there. A quiet and thoughtful boy named Samuel Lewis—a youth with "great gentleness of manners"—was sent north to the peaceful city by his Virginia father, and in footraces about the square he beat everybody in the local academy. Then races were held with the best runners of other schools, and Samuel won them all, too.
Before racehorse meetings in Philadelphia the bell ringer went through town asking people to keep their dogs tied. Otherwise they chased the horses on the racecourse, marked off with ropes, that ran around Centre Square. Philadelphia was a latecomer in the Colonial thoroughbred racing boom though there had always been horse racing there despite an ancient decree against "races, either on horseback or on foot...or needless and vain sports and pastimes, for our time passeth swiftly away." William Penn had been an athlete in his youth, and haunted the track at Newmarket before he was converted by the Quakers. In the celebrated treaty with the Indians, in which the land ceded was that which could be covered on foot in a day and a half, a relay of swift runners was organized and they covered far more country than the Indians had expected to sell. They believed the agreement referred to the land one man could cover in a day and a half's walk. The ruse was considered a clever one, though one runner fell in a creek and drowned.
In early Colonial times Philadelphians galloped down Sassafras Street, which gradually became Race Street because so many people broke the law by racing there. Land speculators held races outside the city to attract crowds to their sales and there were races at country fairs, too. A diarist wrote, "The country people were thick along the road.... Young beaus on race horses—the girls putting on all their airs and graces to captivate, so that it was hard to find out which made the deepest impression on the young fellows' minds, horses or women."
Philadelphia did not go in for thoroughbred racing in a big way until after its success in New York and Maryland. Colonel Benjamin Tasker, whose Belair stud in Maryland still exists, stimulated intercolonial rivalry when he imported Selima, a daughter of the Godolphin Arabian. In 1752 Selima defeated four Virginia horses for a purse of 500 Pistoles. Bred to Othello, another import, she produced Selim, who after six unbeaten years "was excluded from the races, as no competitor would start with him." When Sir Robert Eden was governor of Maryland (1769-1776), he owned a fine bay horse, Why Not, a son of John Baylor's Fearnaught, and Eden not only raced in meets in his own province and Virginia but sponsored the series of intercolonial races that began in 1769 and continued until the Revolution.
An assessment of these races was made by William Eddis, who wrote to an English correspondent from Annapolis in the fall of 1771, "In this remote region the phantom pleasure is pursued with as much avidity as on your side of the Atlantic...surprising as it may appear, I assure you that there are few meetings in England better attended, or where more capital horses are exhibited." Eddis continued, "In America, the mild beauties of the autumnal months amply compensate for the fervent heats of summer and the rigid severity of winter. Nothing could exceed the charming serenity of the weather during these races, in consequence of which there was a prodigious concourse of spectators and considerable sums were depending on the contest of each day."
In the spring of 1773, when relations between the colonies and England were becoming critical, Washington and Governor Eden visited Philadelphia for the races, and attended a meeting of the local jockey club. Washington found himself in his element and dined almost nightly with the members during his week-long stay. The most prominent of the Philadelphia horsemen was the financier Robert Morris, whose silks were seen at races in New York as well, but the most interesting was Jacob Hiltzheimer, a stolid breeder and trainer who kept a diary for 30 years. A shrewd judge of men as well as horseflesh, Hiltzheimer decided to align himself with the colonists when the Revolution began. He set up stables for Washington's cavalry, bought horses, doctored sick animals and at night methodically noted racing news in his diary. He kept it from 1768 until 1798, but somebody borrowed the volumes for the years covering the start of the war and they have never been seen again.
Every morning, in the days before the Revolution, the soldiers of Otway's regiment paraded down the streets of Philadelphia, bands playing. Their uniforms were the most colorful male costume seen in the city; the sober Quakers still wore dark, plain clothing. It was a prank of the young British officers to pretend that they were really girls, and on their sprees to invade a coffee house and embrace some solemn, dignified Quaker, whose belief in nonviolence prevented any retaliation. Nonviolence did not prohibit sarcasm, and Philadelphians considered themselves masters of cutting remarks.
The incursion of high-level horse racing into the life of the city of peace had an unsettling effect on some Philadelphians. William Hockley, for instance, was a thoughtful, quiet, inconspicuous member of a well-to-do family, who normally had little interest in the sport. But he was subject to periods of mental derangement during which he had brilliant fantasies about his nonexistent triumphs on the turf. At such times he was transformed from a solitary observer at a tavern to a center of attraction. He imagined himself to be a famous sportsman who had won races on all the tracks between Savannah and New York, and he held his listeners transfixed as he improvised imaginary contests, imaginary horses, winnings and finishes, all with such authority that his audience was compelled to believe him, even while most of its members knew he had never raced a horse in his life.
Of him, Alexander Graydon wrote, "His vivid conceptions supplied him with a stud; and he would run over the names of his horses and their pedigrees, descanting, as he went along, on the respective merits of his riders with astonishing volubility and with a gaiety and sprightliness of manner, that even Garrick, if he could have equalled, could not have excelled." There was something eerie about Hockley's imaginary racehorses; they seemed for the moment more real than those that ran around Centre Square. But then, suddenly, he became himself again, the dream horses and the gallant victories disappearing until, when the next mood struck him, he might come up with an entirely different stable of imaginary progenitors and their even more striking descendants winning still more thrilling races.
English travelers had a hard time understanding Philadelphians. They came to the city knowing only one of its famous citizens—not Benjamin Franklin but Benjamin West, the artist who had become a favorite painter of George III. West was also famous in London because of his skill on the ice. During the London winter he dazzled spectators with intricate figure skating, which, he explained, was known back home as the " Philadelphia Salute." It became so fashionable to watch him that many of his commissions for portraits in London came from admirers of his performances on skates. It was common belief in the city that Philadelphians were the best ice skaters in the world, more elegant than the masters of Amsterdam or Boston. The champions were General John Cadwalader, a member of one of the oldest families, and Charles Massey, a biscuit baker—equals in the bracing winter democracy of the ice. That was the sort of thing visiting Englishmen could not comprehend.