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Book Review

The Great Match Race
When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle
by John Eisenberg
Houghton Milton Company, May 2006, 272 pages hardcover

When someone mentions The Great Match Race, most people immediately think of Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral in 1938, Nashua vs. Swaps in 1955, or Foolish Pleasure vs. Ruffian in 1975. Without question these were races that had national media coverage and had much of the non-racing public's attention. However, it is a lesser-known match race in 1823 that is of even greater historical significance than any of these. In his latest book, The Great Match Race, author and Baltimore Sun columnist John Eisenberg brings the reader back to a very exciting time in not only the sport's, but also the country's history.

Since before the Civil War, there has always been a rivalry between the northern and southern states which continues to this day. This rivalry even extended to horse racing. Southern horsemen felt that their Thoroughbreds were superior in talent and breeding to their Northern counterpart and that their training methods were second to none. However, in New York there was the horse Eclipse, named after the great sire, who was winning races on both sides of the north-south divide, as if to live up to his famous undefeated namesake from England. Southern horseman William Ransom Johnson wanted to be the one to beat the North and regain the South's bragging rights, by beating the North's equine hero on their own turf.

The race took place at the Union Course in New York on May 27, 1823, between the North's Eclipse and Johnson's prized homebred colt Henry. The fact that 60,000 people showed up ushered in a new era in American sports. In a time before professional sports leagues and prizefights, to have so many people travel long distances (many from the deep South) and actually pay for admission to watch a sporting event was unprecedented. The Union Course was also a first for horse racing in that it was the first track to be made of dirt, an innovation that was considered revolutionary. The objective was to create a faster surface than turf that could be used all year. The innovation proved popular as the vast majority of American races today are conducted over such a surface.

Racing was much different then. With no tote system or even bookmakers, all bets were made privately between citizens. Although fields were generally small with 2 and 3 horse races quite common, the contests were decided by heats, usually the best 2 out of 3. Tracks were mostly 1-mile ovals, like modern tracks, but the race distances would shock contemporary race fans. "Sprints" and younger-age events were run at 1 or 2 miles, while important stakes for older horses were contested at 4 miles. The Great Match Race required all three heats to be decided, so the pair battled it out for a total of 12 grueling miles that afternoon. It was as if they raced the Breeders' Cup Classic nine times!

Modern racing fans and officials lamenting the sport's decline in the public consciousness would marvel at the lengths this race's promoters took to ensure a big crowd. They had New York newspaper owners onside, who had the race featured on the front page for days leading up to the event. Local businesses used storefront signage and word-of-mouth advertising with their customers. And with no radio or television, a runner on horseback brought the results back to Manhattan where color-coded flags were raised to announce the winner. Businesses located close to these flags would advertise to visit their shop to be first to hear the result. The race was so well publicized that when Eclipse was walked down the street in mid-day on his way to the track for his final works before the big race, people stopped what they were doing and came out to cheer him on. Word spread quickly and soon there was a crowd of people surrounding him on the street.

Eisenberg's writing style is ideal for a book of this type. His descriptions of the events, culled from very thorough research, paint a very clear picture of what the scene was like that sunny afternoon at the Union Course. Readers can easily imagine themselves being there, watching the 9-year-old Eclipse come out of retirement and stud duty to battle the 4-year-old Henry in a race which foreshadowed the Civil War. This book is strongly recommended to all fans of horse racing history. The Great Match Race was a defining moment in horse racing and in sports. It was, to Americans of the day, the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the world heavyweight boxing title fight, all rolled into one.

The Great Match Race has a list price of $25.00 and is available for $16.50 at Amazon.com.

Rating:     5/5

Also by John Eisenberg: Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost, Hero of a Golden Age

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