Horsey History in the Tar Heel State: Where Breeding and Racing Have Surprising North Carolina Roots

June 23rd, 2023

On June 14, 2023, Governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 347 into law, legalizing sports wagering in the state of North Carolina. The new law allows the state’s residents to bet on professional, college, and amateur sports, and legalizes pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. The bill expands access to sports gambling for the entire Tar Heel State and even authorizes the state to offer licenses for live horse racing, potentially reconnecting this Southern state to its racing past. 

Though live racing has not been part of the sporting landscape for generations, North Carolina has deep roots in the early history of both Thoroughbred racing and breeding, roots even older than the United States itself. 

The Nation’s Oldest Sport 

The earliest horse races in the American colonies were often quarter-mile dashes through small towns, since those main streets were often the longest cleared spaces for such distractions. Over time, sportsmen with large estates would create grassy courses for races, usually contested in four-mile heats. As the sport matured in the colonies, more men of means imported bloodstock from England to create the American Thoroughbred. 

As racing became more organized in the colonies and then after the Revolution, jockey clubs sprung up across the new country, including in Wilmington, North Carolina. Men like Jeptha Atherton and Willie Jones both bred and raced Thoroughbreds, helping to establish the breed in America, a process that started in Virginia and Maryland and then spread across the newly minted United States. On their plantations, they brought in horses like Janus and Sir Archy to stand stud, adding those royal pedigrees to the state’s bloodstock. 

What both stallions brought to the breed makes North Carolina an essential part of the early history of horse racing in America.  

Foundations of a Breed

A grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, Janus excelled in the four-mile heats common to racing in the middle decades of the 18th century. An injury prompted his retirement so owner Anthony Langley Swymmer, a founding member of the English Jockey Club, sold him to breeder George Grisewood. The latter in turn sold Janus to Mordecai Booth, who imported the stallion to Virginia to stand there. 

Standing just 14 3/4 hands, Janus was a small but powerful racehorse, and the horses he sired were known best for their speed. Jeptha Atherton bought the stallion in 1772 and brought him to stand at his estate near Jackson, North Carolina. There, breeders sought him out for producing horses that could win at a quarter of a mile, the preferred distance in that area of the American colonies. Over time, this English-bred stallion who won at four miles became best known as one of the foundation sires for the American Quarter Horse, passing down his power, speed, and durability to the generations that followed. 

Where Janus was influencing the breed that would become the Quarter Horse, Sir Archy was doing the same for the American Thoroughbred. Sired by Diomed, the inaugural winner of the Epsom Derby, Sir Archy excelled in the four-mile heat format, covering one heat in 7:53, a record at that time. Governor William Richard Davie of North Carolina bought Sir Archy for $5,000 in 1809 and then promptly retired his new racer to stud when no one would face the stallion at the barrier. 

Sir Archy then went on to make his mark on Thoroughbred racing through his progeny, standing first for Davie and later for William Amis at his Mowfield estate in Northampton County. In all, this son of Diomed went on to sire a long list of accomplished racehorses who later became good sires and broodmares themselves. His great-grandson Lexington would become just as influential a sire as Sir Archy, further ensconcing his name in the pedigrees of horses like Man o’War, Bold Ruler, and Native Dancer. Nearly every Thoroughbred in the United States boasts some connection to Sir Archy.

History, Horses, and Tar Heels

After the Civil War, most racing in North Carolina came on the fair circuit, where both flat and harness racing shared the attention of crowds on hand. Because gambling was effectively illegal in the state, the sport did not regain the same stature it enjoyed during the antebellum era, though the Pinehurst Harness Track has remained a popular training ground for harness racing since 1915. At least 10 Standardbred champions have been conditioned there over the last century. 

Additionally, the Tryon Steeplechase and the Queen’s Cup have kept racing alive in the Tar Heel State since the 1950s. Both attract crowds of thousands to watch horses racing over the jumps while tailgating and enjoying a beautiful North Carolina spring day. Much like the Iroquois Steeplechase near Nashville, Tennessee, these two chases connect a state once known for its deep bond with horses and racing to the traditions of America’s oldest sport. 

With access to sports wagering set to begin in the first half of 2024, North Carolina is on the cusp of once again enjoying access to horse racing. This reconnection offers a chance to bring revenue, jobs, and more to the area, opening the door to a possible revival of live racing in the Tar Heel State.