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By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

In 1804, the first real horse race in Tennessee took place in Gallatin – and Hartsville played a role in that momentous event.

Of course, men had been racing horses for centuries and the American frontier was no different. Men, boys and even ladies would look at a neighbor’s horse and then at their own mare or stallion and think to themselves, “Why, my ole’ Solomon could outrun that nag of theirs any day of the week!”

If they were willing to make a little wager on such a notion, the race was on!

Submitted photo
The American Thoroughbred horse is a mix of several bloodlines and makes for an especially beautiful animal. The effect of bluegrass on the bones of Tennessee horses made for a horse destined to race. This horse was once part of the Hermitage Stud farm in Nashville.

However, two things happened in the early 1800s that forever changed the friendly bets and races between neighbors and would go on to create the world-renowned racing events and sites of today, such as Churchill Downs.

An Irishman and his Hartsville connections were the prime players in this change!

Redmond Dillon Barry was born in Ireland in 1766. He studied medicine and served in the British Royal Navy as a surgeon. His sympathies, however, lay with the Americans and he immigrated to this country.

Before 1802 he had settled in Sumner County, which at that time included most of what is now Trousdale County. He quickly bought up land and became a prosperous farmer, while also studying law and eventually becoming a lawyer.

But more importantly to our story, when he arrived in Middle Tennessee he brought with him two things: Grey Medley, the first thoroughbred stallion to come west of the Cumberland Mountains, and the first seeds for bluegrass.

Bluegrass was neither native to here nor to our neighboring Kentucky, but it thrived here. The grass was naturally high in calcium and the limestone found in the soil of Middle Tennessee only made it better for any animal that grazed upon it, while also making their bones stronger. That was ideal for a racing horse!

Dr. Barry began breeding his thoroughbred stallion and other men in the area would follow suit. One of them was none other than future president Andrew Jackson.

Now back to that horse race in Gallatin in 1804.

Andrew and Rachel Jackson were there, as was just about anyone of any social or economic standing in the area. We know that Hartsville was well represented.

This was no race between two farmers over rough country roads!

This was a race over a cleared and even track, the horses were thoroughbreds and the riders were professionals, with crowds on both sides of the track and large sums of money bet on whose horse could outrun whose.

Andrew Jackson had brought his prize horse Indian Queen to the racetrack. The excitement was great and bets were placed, but Indian Queen lost to Polly Medley, a horse from the stables of Dr. Barry, the Irish doctor turned American.

And our story has another twist!

Hartsville resident Captain William Alexander was in the picture. The captain and his wife had four children, two sons and two daughters. One daughter, Mary Brandon Alexander, would marry General William Hall – a future governor of Tennessee.

The other daughter, Jennie Alexander, was considered a rare beauty. She was known as “the Cumberland Beauty.”

It’s no wonder that the beautiful Jennie had caught the eye of the Irish horseman! She was Mrs. Redmond Barry!

Now we see the Hartsville connection, but there was more.

The 1804 race set off a chain of events.

Hartsville’s own James Hart saw the potential and before the year was over, he had established “Hart’s Racing Ground.” Andrew Jackson was also severely bitten by the racing bug. He too established his own racetrack, the celebrated “Clover Bottom” and he set out to have one of the best thoroughbred horse stables in Tennessee. And thoroughbred racing became a statewide obsession!

The next few years would witness great races and small, and one of the most famous races involving Andrew Jackson took place right here in Hartsville!

A reminder that the Historical Society will meet this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the county archives building. See our separate article on our speaker.