The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle [NOOK Book]


The Great Match Race is a captivating account of America's first sports spectacle, a horse race that pitted North against South in three grueling heats. On a bright afternoon in May 1823, an unprecedented sixty thousand people showed up to watch two horses run the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbys in a few hours' time. Eclipse was the majestic champion representing the North, and Henry, an equine arriviste, was the pride of the South. Their match race would come to represent a watershed moment in American ...
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The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle

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The Great Match Race is a captivating account of America's first sports spectacle, a horse race that pitted North against South in three grueling heats. On a bright afternoon in May 1823, an unprecedented sixty thousand people showed up to watch two horses run the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbys in a few hours' time. Eclipse was the majestic champion representing the North, and Henry, an equine arriviste, was the pride of the South. Their match race would come to represent a watershed moment in American history, crystallizing the differences that so fundamentally divided the country. The renowned sportswriter John Eisenberg captures all the pulse-pounding drama and behind-the-scenes tensions in a page-turning mix of history, horse racing, and pure entertainment.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Early in Eisenberg's detailed, entertaining chronicle of the May 1823 race between two Thoroughbreds-one from the South, one from the North-he recounts a scene that captures his tale's central tension. In the grandstand of the National Course in Washington, D.C., slave-owning Virginia aristocrat William Ransom Johnson watches with dismay as Southern upstart Henry loses to Northern champion Eclipse. Defeated, Johnson vows to "formulate a plan for revenge.... It was time for the South to take this challenge more seriously." Baltimore Sun sports columnist Eisenberg deftly extends the metaphor of Johnson's quest for recognition to the larger conflict brewing between the industrializing North and the stubbornly agrarian South. He builds the tension relentlessly, and as race day approaches, he describes a nation on the edge of its seat. "Just as sports spectacles in ancient Greece, Rome, and England served as substitutes for real war..., the Union Course race pitted one American region against another, one way of life against another." Eisenberg succeeds in creating a gripping yarn of sporting contest, portrayal of a historical moment and smart analysis of a country headed eventually for civil war. Author tour. (May 5) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The first large-scale U.S. horse race between the rivaling North and South, promoted as a contest of speed versus stamina (or "bottom," in turf parlance). In the 1800s, spectator sports weren't popular. The slowness and difficulty of travel kept people from journeying far from home; baseball, football and basketball were nonexistent; and exercise itself was viewed as "dangerously arousing." The only sport that could consistently draw a crowd was horse racing, and such events were staged only a few times a year. In 1822, William Ransom Johnson, determined to prove the superiority of Southern horses, concocted a challenge to unseat Eclipse, the unbeaten Northern champion. Johnson approached Cornelius Van Ranst and John Stevens, the men in charge of the eight-year-old stallion, proposing a match race at New York's Union Course. Johnson pledged to bring a horse "from anywhere in the land beyond the confines of the North" to be named on race day. The stakes-$20,000-were significant. The match race would consist of two four-mile heats, and in the event of a tie, the horses would run a brutal extra heat, bringing the race's grueling total to 12 miles. Despite Eclipse's age and the unknown caliber of his opponent, the offer was quickly accepted. As 60,000 fans gathered, Johnson-a horseman so renowned he was known as the Napoleon of the Turf-decided to run a fleet youngster named Sir Henry. A nervous Van Ranst deemed Eclipse's usual jockey, 49-year-old Samuel Purdy, too old for the race, replacing him with a younger, inexperienced rider. After Sir Henry easily won the first heat, Purdy was pulled from the stands, and guided Eclipse to victory in the second heat. Sides heaving, legs trembling, theexhausted horses rallied for their third and final match. Spectators held their breath: Would the North or the South prevail?Eisenberg's melding of history and sports journalism is altogether superb.
From the Publisher
"Eisenberg tells the stories of the two great horses and their human connection with a novelist's dramatic flair..." Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

"Eisenberg succeeds in creating a gripping yarn of sporting contest..." Publishers Weekly

"...surely the most entertaining book of sports history ever written...It's a grand and glorious story..."—Frank Deford

"Now the definitive account of a stupendous event that was a preview of modern American sports..."—Ed Hotaling, author of Wink, The Great Black Jockeys, and They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga

"An extraordinary account of America's first major sports spectacle..."—Joe Hirsch, Daily Racing Form

"Eisenberg's masterfully woven as important today as it was two centuries ago." Mim Eichler-Rivas, author of Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World

Eisenberg’s melding of history and sports journalism is altogether superb.
Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"Let's get right to the point: This is a lead-pipe cinch, mortal lock, lay-your money-down sure thing of a book." The Baltimore Sun

"Eisenberg expertly captures the passions in his telling of the contest. . .the pages flip by faster than jockey colors." The Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547347585
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/5/2007
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 53,966
  • File size: 758 KB

Meet the Author

JOHN EISENBERG was an award-winning sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun for two decades and is the author of seven books, most recently My Guy Barbaro, cowritten with jockey Edgar Prado, and The Great Match Race. He has written for Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, and Details, among other publications.
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Read an Excerpt

The Great Match Race

By John Eisenberg

Houghton Mifflin

Copyright © 2006 John Eisenberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0618556125

It was a new sound for American ears: the lusty, clattering, sports-stadium
roar—sixty thousand people shouting, whistling, stomping, and rattling
cowbells, raising a din so forceful it shook the wooden beams supporting the
grandstands. The noise was audible for miles, rolling across the countryside
like booming thunderclaps in a boot-soaking rainstorm. It would become a
familiar sound in the distant future, an archetype of autumn football weekends
and summer baseball nights. But in 1823 it was a new phenomenon, a
startling sensory assault never heard before.
A horse race, of all things, was the occasion, luring a tumultuous
horde of sports fanatics that was almost larger than the combined
populations of Illinois and Delaware. Before this time, political rallies, prayer
revivals, and holiday parades had brought together the largest crowds of
Americans, but a ballyhooed duel between the fastest thoroughbred in the
North and the fastest in the South had improbably attracted a mob that
dwarfed all earlier crowds. Suddenly, on a sunny spring afternoon, a
racetrack on Long Island was the nation's fourth-largest city.
The country came to a standstill, sweating the outcome of the
race between Eclipse, the North's dark,snorting, undefeated champion, and
Henry, the South's precocious, brilliantly fast darling. Congress shut down
because so many politicians had tickets to see them run. The New York
Stock Exchange was closed. Andrew Jackson interrupted his presidential
campaign to attend.
Public support was evenly divided, and as the animals circled the
all-dirt track at the Union Course in Jamaica that day, little business was
conducted anywhere else in the twenty-four states. People from Maine to
Alabama found their minds drifting to a race that had been anticipated for
months and exhaustively analyzed and debated. Many fans had invested
more than just their emotions. They had bet hundreds, even thousands, of
dollars or, in a few cases, everything they owned.
In hindsight this outbreak of raw, irrational passion, a premature
burst of American sports mania, was almost an apparition, appearing out of
nowhere and vanishing just as quickly. Hoarse, purple-veined sports
fanaticism was a concept whose time had not come. Baseball, football, and
basketball would not even be discovered for decades, much less organized
into popular cultural institutions. Stadiums packed with tens of thousands of
noisy fans would not become commonplace until the 1900s. In 1823 the idea
of sixty thousand people coming together to watch a sports event was only
slightly more fathomable than the idea of a man flying to the moon and
walking across a crater.
But a boiling brew of intense, hardheaded loyalties had turned the
race into more than just a sporting event, setting the stage for this circus to
unfurl. The race had become a national refere on what was right and
just, a symbol of the developing dispute between northerners and southerners
that would eventually tear the country apart.
It would be many years before North and South shed blood, but
the joy of their celebrated union was already flickering, as evidenced by their
increasingly shrill and incessant arguments about slavery, politics, business,
morals—any issue that could be dredged up, really. Southerners were
smugly accustomed to the upper hand; they had controlled the presidency
for almost a quarter-century, easily protected their right to own slaves, and
farmed the crops that were helping the fledgling nation rise to its feet. But
northerners were rising up against slavery now, fighting back politically, and
shrewdly betting their future on industry, not agriculture.
America's political, social, and economic winds were slowly
shifting. The race between Eclipse and Henry was like a leaf picked up and
carried in those breezes, a palpable metaphor of coming change.
Southerners, steeped in horse-racing expertise, nuance, and
history, saw themselves as the rightful bearers of America's equine legacy,
superior in every way to the northerners, whom they saw as clueless
dabblers. Yet several of the South's finest horsemen had recently taken on
the North's indomitable Eclipse and failed to win, delighting northerners and
making southerners increasingly unhappy.
After the last southern defeat, William Ransom Johnson decided
he had to step in. A charismatic forty-one-year-old Virginia plantation owner,
politician, and gambler, Johnson was most of all a cunning and dominant preparing for it, drawing the entire South into his thrall. Because of his
uncanny instincts and unmatched record—in one two-year span, horses
wearing his sky blue colors had won sixty-one of sixty-three races—
southerners thought Johnson's horse surely would crush Eclipse and deliver
a triumph reasserting their superiority.
Northerners, meanwhile, never thought Eclipse could lose. Yes,
the nine-year-old horse was near the end of his racing days, but he was still
strong and fearsome. His fans had faith in him and in his human support
team; his chief financial backer, John Cox Stevens, was a millionaire
sportsman. Cornelius Van Ranst, the self-doubting old horseman who owned
and trained Eclipse, was the only one worried that the horse might in fact be
too old and that this match against Henry would push him beyond his limits.
With both sides viewing the race as a chance to have their
region's superiority affirmed, a spectacle ensued. For days ahead of time,
steamships and stagecoaches brought thousands of southern race fans to
the streets of New York. Hotels, bars, and taverns filled. Northerners and
southerners, jammed shoulder to shoulder, exchanged taunts and punches,
certain their side would win the race.
Hanging in the air, almost tangible enough to grasp, was the
combination of energies that would later serve as the foundation of the
modern sports experience: the power of regional pride, the thrill of shared
passions, the ability to see a contest as an allegory. And the intense desire
to win.
On race day, as thousands of people crossed the East
River on dangerously overloaded ferries from New York City and journeyed to
Jamaica along dusty dirt roads, it was as if all the armies in the world had
gone on maneuvers together. In the end, everyone somehow fit inside the
Union Course's rickety fences, a sweltering rabble with eyes fixed on the oval
dirt track in front of them.
Then the nation stopped to pray, the horses started to run, and
the roars of the great crowd began to thunder. Goodness, who had ever heard
such noise?

Copyright 2006 by John Eisenberg. Reprinted with permission by Houghton
Mifflin Company.


Excerpted from The Great Match Race by John Eisenberg Copyright © 2006 by John Eisenberg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Prologue ix 1 Eclipse Against the World! 1 2 If Civil War Must Come 17 3 The Only Legitimate, Respectable Sport 29 4 A Fine Ole Gen’leman 41 5 His Excellency 57 6 This Plan Will Work 74 7 Don’t Spit Your Tobacco Juice 92 8 What a Heat! 102 9 Every Angle Covered 120 10 A Hairline Fracture 131 11 Nothing Is Heard but the Race 142 12 I Have Decided on Our Challenger 155 13 Riders Up! 169 14 Good God, Look! 187 15 You Can’t Do It! 198 16 See, the Conquering Hero Comes 213 17 Ours Was the Best Horse 223 18 Epilogue 234 Author’s Note 242 Bibliographical Note 244 Index 248

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