Run For the Roses - Horses: Real & Collectible
By: Jan Fiore
Horses have been an integral part of American history and culture since they were introduced to North America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Some horses escaped during the Spanish conquest, and within a few years,wild horses were roaming the Great Plains. Before the horse, Native Americans carried their, goods on their backs or strapped to dogs, however capturing and taming these horses transformed their lives, enabling them to hunt migrating buffalo, trade and barter with other tribes and transport goods over vast distances.
White settlers relied on horses to travel across America, following trails pioneered by fur traders, such as the famed Oregon Trail from Independence, Mo., to the Oregon Territory. Many legendary explorers, such as the prominent team of Lewis and Clark, would not have been able to complete their extensive travels without the speed and strength of horses. Before long, pioneers began to use them for other purposes.
Larger horses became an invaluable resource on ranches, working with livestock or hauling plows and other heavy machinery. They were put to work delivering goods, pulling stagecoaches and fire engines; while smaller horses were used by Pony Express to deliver mail, or worked in the mines, becoming known as “pit ponies.” However life was not all work and no play – horses also provided entertainment; and rodeos, Wild West shows, circuses and horse racing flourished. When the motorcar was introduced in the early twentieth century, few believed it would replace the horse as America’s primary method of transportation, but only a few decades later, automation had decimated the American horse and mule population. At the same time, people began to migrate from family farms in rural areas to cities and urban centers, and our interaction with horses became limited to equestrian pursuits and of course, America’s favorite horse racing event of the year: The Triple Crown. While horse racing memorabilia remains a niche market in America, horse antiques that crossover into other genres continue to generate much interest and are extremely valuable.
The Triple Crown
To win the Triple Crown, a 3-yearold horse must win all three specified races; a feat considered the greatest accomplishment in thoroughbred racing. More than 32 nations each have their own Triple Crown series, making horse racing one of the most popular sports in the world. In the United States, the three races that make up the Triple Crown are the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby. Known as the “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby is the first race, and has continuously produced “the most exciting two minutes in sports” uninterrupted, even when coinciding with profound historical events like the Great Depression and World Wars I & II. It is notoriously difficult for horses to win the Triple Crown, which takes place in May and early June each year. There are many theories on the topic, but the statistics speak for themselves – only 11 horses have won the crown since Sir Barton won the first in 1919, with American Pharoah the most recent winner in 2015. The Kentucky Derby’s long history began in 1872, when Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark – of famed explorers Lewis and Clark - was inspired by horse races he witnessed during his world travels, and he decided to create an equally exciting horse racing event in America. In 1875, he realized his dream when the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby.
Over the years, the Kentucky Derby has made many changes to improve conditions for the horses and entertainment of the spectators. Highlights include shortening the course to avoid unnecessary stress on young horses, simultaneously broadcasting the race at 24 racetracks across the nation, allowing those racetracks to live wager on the race and draping a winning horse in a garland of roses. Roses were first introduced in1896, however the traditional blanket of roses known today began in 1932. African-American horsemen played a vital role in shaping early American turf history and the Kentucky Derby owes a great deal to these men who helped shape America’s greatest race. Thirteen of the 15 riders in the first derby were African-Americans; they also won 15 of the derby’s first 28 runnings.
Bill Rau has worked in M.S. Rau, the family-owned gallery, parttime since the age of 14, and full time since he was 21 years old. His extensive knowledge covers many genres, contributing to his reputation as one of the most respected antique experts and gallery owners today. He acknowledges that horse racing collectibles remains a niche market in North America, but says that horse memorabilia can reach a pretty big market. “If you had a trophy from Churchill Downs, it is really a niche market, but of course there are exceptions,” said Rau. “If you had a Derby trophy from England, it will cross over, especially from the nineteenth century; it’s an enormous piece of silver that attracts silver collectors, trophy collectors or horse collectors.”
A great painting by an equestrian artist is always more valuable than any other type of horse memorabilia. “There is art, and then there is everything else,” said Rau. “We have sold The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur several times, most recently for $9.8 million. This composition was so highly acclaimed that the artist created three versions. One of these hangs today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in my view the best museum in the world, where it is hailed as the most requested and talked about work in the collection.” The second was gifted to Queen Victoria, a great admirer of Bonheur, and now resides in the National Gallery in London. The third painting, the present work, was the last oil Bonheur created and is likely the only one to ever come on the market.
Another illustrious painting is Portrait of a Gentleman upon a Grey Hunter by George Stubbs, one of the most recognizable and highly celebrated names in eighteenth-century art. The subject is believed to be the artist’s own son. Remarkably, Stubbs was largely self-taught as an artist, acquiring his knowledge of composition after extensive travels throughout Italy, where he studied the Renaissance masters. His quest for realism led him to conduct his own anatomical studies of the horse, and his incredible exactitude and understanding of equine anatomy has yet to be equaled. The price for the rare painting is $4.5 million.
Other collectibles fall onto the periphery, such as a statue of a horse, or a walking stick with a horse on it. “We have a horse-racing machine from the 1940s,” said Rau. “You put money in it and horses run down a track and you bet on which one will win. It’s a lot of fun that provides 20 seconds of gambling for your nickel. There are a ton of things on the periphery that are fun and really get people’s attention.”
Rau recalled a jockey scale that reflected the early days of racing when some jockeys weren’t above packing their pockets with rocks to give them an advantage during the race. The jockeys would be weighed before they got on the horse, but would discard rocks over the course of the race. The winning jockey would be weighed again after the race; if they weighed less, they would be disqualified.
Famous Triple Crown Winners
Some of the Triple Crown winners are familiar only to racing enthusiasts, but others captured the imagination of millions. Perhaps the best known winner of all time is Secretariat in 1973, the horse that won the hearts of a generation when he came from behind to win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths: even today, he continues to hold the stakes record for each of the Triple Crown races, claiming his place as one of the finest thoroughbreds of all time.
“Secretariat was the horse that captured everybody’s imagination,” said Rau. “It was huge – a horse winning The Triple Crown in 1973 in such style.” As a young man, Rau watched the race at his grandmother’s house, located conveniently close to his family’s business. “You wouldn’t think such a short race would be so exciting, but it was. Secretariat is just so well known, that it brings up a key point in collecting. There are things that are completely niche, no matter what type of collecting it is, and there are things that cross over. Secretariat crosses over because it’s a very special moment for a lot of people.”
The Triple Crown has become much more than a horse race and it’s not only for gamblers. It has become part of the social fabric of America, including fun and fashion, entrancing families that recognize the significance of its contribution to the development of America and its legacy of entertainment.