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"You are going to a country where every thing will appear new and wonderful to you; but it will appear so only for a while...let me, therefore, recommend to you that you note in your pocket-book every circumstance, that may make an impression upon you...."
When the British occupied Philadelphia and New York during the Revolution they ran their thoroughbreds over the local tracks. The results of most of these races were not preserved. If the British felt obliged to discard any documents, they should have thrown away their military records. Instead, they carefully saved every incriminating shred of paper, a monument to what one English historian calls the "inept stupidity" and the "coalition of pride, folly and incompetence" that cost Britain her American colonies.
For 200 years before the Revolution, British travelers, explorers and naturalists produced countless books on the wonders and promise of the American wilderness. A diary entry by Captain Harry Gordon expresses the tone of much of these works. On June 29, 1766, upon first beholding the Ohio River Valley, Gordon wrote, "This may be from proper knowledge Affirmed, that it is the healthiest...most pleasant and most Commodious Spot of the Earth known to European People...." But after the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill such glowing accounts ceased, as though a door had been slammed in the face of an astonished admirer. There is the strange case of William Combe. He operated a sort of literary factory in London, polishing the journals of travelers into readable (and extremely popular) books. Combe turned out a number of such works about America. And what happened to the original manuscripts? He burned them! It took him a week, sedulously tearing them apart and igniting each page with a candle.
Also missing are some priceless letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, who had a great deal to say about thoroughbred racing. Her husband was Sir Charles Bunbury, the leading horseman in England, president of the Jockey Club and the owner of Diomed, who won the first Derby at Epsom Downs in 1780. Diomed was a disappointment at stud. Sold to an American, he recovered his potency in Virginia at the age of 21. His descendants include the great horses Boston, Lexington, Sir Archy and many other notable American thoroughbreds, including Man o' War. He was the first and most famous example of a cull from impatient English breeders that mysteriously sired winners in the New World. Lady Sarah's favorite correspondent was a girlhood friend, Lady Susan Fox-Strangeways, who was exiled to New York when she eloped with an impoverished Irish actor. Throughout their lives these two sprightly daughters of the nobility exchanged letters full of cheerful gossip. Lady Sarah, especially, was a prolific letter writer. The historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan said that one of her letters (telling of her courtship by George III before her marriage to Sir Charles) was "the most charming of all documents which bear upon English history." When Lady Sarah went to the races she would confide to Lady Susan such news as, "Magpie ran and was beat.... I lost my money."
Among such chitchat are passages of importance to racing historians. When her husband added a small gray to his stable, Lady Sarah wrote that he was "the sweetest little horse that ever was; his name is Gimcrack, he is delightful." Soon thousands of racegoers were agreeing with her. Gimcrack was perhaps the first thoroughbred to win the affection of the general public. He was very small, only 14 hands, but so spirited and appealing that crowds flocked to the track whenever he ran. He competed often, winning nearly 30 of his 40 races, and helped transform racing from the sport of a few wealthy owners into a mass entertainment.
"I feel quite frightened about these rebellions in New York," Lady Sarah wrote on Jan. 9, 1766, forgetting racing and gossip for the moment to ask about the Stamp Act. Alas, for the crucial period of 1768 to 1775 not a single letter survives.
When General John Burgoyne arrived in Boston in the spring of 1775, shortly after the Battle of Lexington, he brought his fishing tackle with him. He expected to have plenty of time to fish; for years British travelers had been writing books describing the amazing variety of game in American rivers. Burgoyne was 53 years old at the time, a ruddy-cheeked, round-faced, well-preserved individual who was just then enjoying unexpected triumph as a dramatist; his play, The Maid of the Oaks, was a success at London's Drury Lane Theatre.
The annual race for fillies that follows the running of the Derby was named for Burgoyne's former estate, the Oaks, and the many races for fillies called the Oaks throughout the world take their name from that unfortunate general's home near the Epsom racetrack. Burgoyne had fished the Leatherhead River that flows through the Downs, so it was only natural that he wanted to cast his flies in American waters. Even when his army was marching from Canada on its way to defeat at Saratoga, his officers solicitously reported good fishing spots along the way. In June of 1777, only four months before Burgoyne surrendered, one of his officers camped near the outlet of the Bouquet River into Lake Champlain, and wrote, "Two miles up this river there is a saw-mill, and a fall of water, where there is most excellent trout-fishing."
Ever since his defeat Burgoyne has been regarded un-sympathetically as a general, a dramatist and a fisherman. He should at least be given credit for having read the accounts of the travelers who preceded him. They, too, fished and they noted with surprise that in America even young ladies practiced the sport. One exclusive fishing club in Philadelphia was limited to 16 young fishermen and 16 young ladies, and its clubhouse was located in a most romantic spot on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Colonial dress was not designed for sport, so the ladies wore a club uniform, in which they appeared to great advantage. According to one admiring Englishman, the club's members "divert themselves with walking, fishing, going up the water, dancing, singing, conversing, or just as they please." Another club, now called the State in Schuylkill, was organized in 1732, and is the oldest sports club in the world.
About 20 years before the Revolution it became fashionable for well-born English travelers to make a grand tour of the North American colonies. They generally arrived with expectations of wilderness adventures, traveled leisurely and returned home to publish accounts of their journeys. Their view was that the proper way to see the country was to arrive in the South in the spring and work one's way north. The westward sea voyage took about six weeks to two months and cost 10 to 20 guineas plus a few pounds for provisions and a gratuity for the captain. Every voyage seemed to begin with storms, varying in violence according to the descriptive powers of the writers. The lure and promise of America was so great that travelers claimed they could detect its presence when still far at sea. "We had fine weather, with a gentle breeze.... The air was richly scented with the fragrance of the pine-trees." So wrote young Andrew Burnaby in 1759. He was still more than 100 miles from Virginia.