Where to Find America’s Horse Museums
By Doug Gelbert
In 1788 a British thoroughbred stallion named Messenger arrived in Philadelphia. This unheralded immigrant soon began a breeding career that launched the sport of standardbred racing in America. When Messenger died in 1808 he was buried with full military honors.
Horses were our first sports heroes. Eager crowds approaching 100,000 would gather to watch fabled horses race in the 1800’s. Today, our equine athletes are no less revered. More American museums celebrate horse competitions than any other sport.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York (Union Avenue and Ludlow Streets, Saratoga Springs 12866, 518/584-0400) is a thoroughbred racing shrine. Inside the brick building across from the Saratoga Race Course the Museum winds in a racing oval around a central courtyard. Gracing the courtyard is a statue of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. On the front lawn sits an eighth pole that was on Belmont Racetrack when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a remarkable 31 lengths in 1973.
Inside the Museum, entered through an actual starting gate, the highlight is the extensive Hall of Fame honoring horses, jockeys and trainers on black, brown and green plaques in illuminated booths. Fans can summon information on their favorite inductees or any of America’s 130 racetracks from computerized video monitors in the booths. A wide screen movie theater, featuring Race America plays inside the Hall of Fame.
The history of thoroughbred racing is traced through galleries of equine paintings and photographs. A skeleton of a horse in extended action helps explain how a 1500-pound thoroughbred with impossibly fragile ankles is a perfect motion machine, accelerating to 42 mph in just over 2 seconds. The race track atmosphere is recreated in a simulated paddock area and jockey’s changing room.
Across town, tucked into the back grounds of the Saratoga Raceway sits a rustic dark green wooden building with a green and red striped roof. With its wide porch and landscaped front yard it could easily be the local garden center. In fact it is The Saratoga Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame (352 Jefferson Street, Saratoga Springs 12866, 518/587-4210), a little gem of a sports museum devoted to harness racing in Saratoga Springs which dates to 1847, 16 years before the beginning of the more celebrated thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.
Harness racing equipment, photographs and exhibits abound as tributes to the horses and horsemen that have raced in Saratoga. A large side room features a collection of antique sulkies including two cutters from the 1800’s with blades instead of wheels, which were used for winter racing on ice. Each visitor to the Hall of Fame receives a free pass to the harness races at Saratoga Raceway. You are encouraged to sit on the Horseshoe Bench before leaving the Museum to test your luck at the races.
The Hall of Fame of the Trotter in Goshen, New York (240 Main Street, Goshen, 10924, 914/294-6330) is in the famous Tudor-style Good Time Stable in the center of town. Inside the Museum the atmosphere of the stable, built in 1913, remains. Stalls have been fashioned into exhibition rooms and hay chutes transformed into miniature stages for statues and trophies. Behind the Museum is Historic Track, the first sporting site in America to be designated a Registered National Landmark.
Exhibits in the Original Stall Area tell the stories of legendary horses including Hambletonian who sired over 1300 foals and to whom all trotters can trace their lineage. A fun exhibit portrays the extent that horse racing has permeated our everyday language. Terms such as start from scratch, flog a dead horse, champing at the bit, and hold your horses are just a few sayings originating in the equine world. Also on display are weathervanes from the 1800s which borrowed heavily on the trotting horse.
The Living Hall of Fame of the Trotter is among the most attractive of horse museum exhibits. Each living member is honored with a colorful 12′ clay statuette in life-like surroundings exhibited in a plexi-glass case. Upon their passing, Hall of Famers automatically become enshrined in the adjacent Peter D. Haughton Room of Immortals.
In a large side gallery hang many of the nearly 200 trotting prints by Currier & Ives collected by The Trotting Horse Museum. In the back of the museum the Historic Track clubhouse has been re-created, providing a glimpse of turn-of-the century elegance. Upstairs, the Sulky Loft sports a collection of sulkies, wagons, and sleighs dating back more than 100 years which demonstrate the evolution of the sport. Also on hand is the first mobile starting gate, welded to the back of a Ford Model-T, which solved the problem of how to fairly start a harness race.
The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington (I-75 and Iron Works Pike, Lexington, 606/233-4303) is actually several museums. The International Museum of the Horse chronicles all breeds of horses as you travel on a circular ramp past exhibits and artifacts. The exceptionally colorful American Saddle Horse Museum depicts the world of the American Saddlebred. Dazzling dioramas explore the elegant saga of the quintessential American show horse. An innovative exhibit puts you in the saddle of such champions as Imperator, Skywatch and Wing Commander. The Museum also houses the United Professional Horsemen’s Association Hall of Fame.
In a corner of the Park is the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame with exhibits and artwork on polo ponies. A display of polo clothes shows how the sport gave the world the button-down shirt, introduced by Brooks Brothers in 1900. Also on the grounds is The Man O’War Monument, burial site of the great racehorse.
Down I-64 under the familiar twin spires of Churchill Downs in Louisville is the beautiful white Kentucky Derby Museum (700 Central Avenue, Louisville, 40201 502/637-1111) where every day is Derby Day. The order and winning silks of every Kentucky Derby comprise the Time-Line around the first floor Great Hall. The boots, not shoes, worn by first Derby winner Aristedes in 1875 are on display. Other unique artifacts from Derby history include an 1896 silk purse awarded Kingman.
In the center of The Great Hall a life-size statue of the current Derby winner and rider stand inside a replica of the Churchill Downs Winners Circle before a tote board lit with final results. Embroidered blankets of Triple Crown winners hang from the two-story ceiling. A 360-degree multi-image presentation shown with 96 projectors on a 225-foot screen around The Great Hall unveils the drama of Kentucky Derby Day. The film is updated each year to honor the current Derby champion.
Many computerized hands-on exhibits bring horse racing alive. In Time Machine Theater videos of 65 Derbies are available at the touch of the screen. Place Your Bets is a computerized race that demonstrates how placing bets change the odds of a horse race. Derby Trivia is a computer test of your Kentucky horse racing knowledge. Horse Talk teaches you the language of the backstretch . Would-be jockeys can pick up a saddle and weigh-in for a race. Hundreds of artifacts capture the magic of the Kentucky Derby. There are trademark mint julep cups and winner’s blanket woven with 600 roses. Guided walking tours of the Churchill Downs track are included in the Museum admission.
In Amarillo, Texas three galleries at the American Quarter Horse Horse Heritage Center & Museum (2601 I-40 East, Amarillo, 806/376-5181) celebrate this supreme equine athlete. An Orientation Theater acquaints newcomers to this fabulous horse. The Museum contains photographs, artifacts and videotapes of historic horses, colorful people, and landmark events associated with the quarter horse. A special collaborative exhibit with the Smithsonian Institution traces the impact of the horse on American life. Live quarter horse demonstrations are periodically scheduled for the adjacent outdoor arena.
Is there one true American sport? Upon leaving the action-packed ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum (Colorado Springs, Colorado 80919, 719/528-4763) you would be hard pressed to name another sport as wholly American as rodeo. Rodeo, which evolved from everyday Western work chores into sport, is a totally American experience. Your precisely orchestrated semi-guided tour takes you through two video presentations and past a stunning collection of cowboy gear.
In the Hall of Champions the stock is honored along with the cowboys. During the summer months a champion bronco lives in the backyard stable area. After his retirement the Hall of Fame bucking bronco Descent made his home in the stable area. You were thus able to meet a living Hall-of-Famer at the site of his enshrinement, something not possible at any other sports museum.
These museums are only the largest of America’s horse museums. There are others honoring different breeds and local horse communities. Whatever your equestrian passion there is an exciting museum for the horselover to enjoy.
I am the author of over 20 books, 8 on hiking with your dog, including the widely praised The Canine Hiker’s Bible. As publisher of Cruden Bay Books, we produce the innovative A Bark In The Park series of canine hiking books found at http://www.hikewithyourdog.com During the warm months I lead canine hikes as tour leader for hikewithyourdog.com tours, leading packs of dogs and humans on day and overnight trips. My lead dog is Katie, a German Shepherd-Border Collie mix, who has hiked in all of the Lower 48 states and is on a quest to swim in all the great waters of North America