Selima, America’s First Champion Racehorse

Over the course of the last several months, this blog has taken a turn from the western frontier into equestrian pursuits. Yesterday, I made a serendipitous visit to the Belair Stables, an unassuming building located a stone’s throw from my house, yet deeply connected to one of colonial America’s most intriguing stories.
Godolphin_Arabian
The Godolphin Arabian, sire of Selima, the first champion racehorse of the American colonies.

As a child, I read (and loved) Misty of Chincoteague as well as King of the Wind, both by Marguerite Henry. For those unfamiliar with the plot, King of the Wind tells the improbable yet true story of a horse of unknown pedigree that was brought to Europe from Morocco, where the horse and his faithful attendant experience a series of misfortunes before finally coming into the home and stables of Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. There, the horse–known as the Godolphin Arabian–became a cherished stud and the sire of outstanding racehorses; his progeny Lath won England’s Newmarket races 9 times. The racing records failed to impress my mind as a 10-year-old, but I was enchanted by Henry’s rags-to-riches story involving a horse.

Only a few weeks ago, I learned that Selima, a filly sired by King of the Wind, came to America around 1750. Selima’s new home was none other than the Belair Stables, a site that I had passed many times, never knowing the connection it bore to a beloved tale from my childhood.

Selima was a champion racehorse herself. In 1752, at the age of 7, she won the most significant race of the colonial era at Gloucester, VA. Astonishingly, she is believed to have walked almost the entire 150 miles from Maryland to Virginia for the race, and then still emerged the champion! The purse was a whopping 2,500 pistoles (a typical race of the era might have a prize of 30 pistoles). Selima eventually retired from racing and had 10 foals, many of whom became champion racehorses themselves.

I visited the Belair Stables and stood near the spot where Selima lived out her days, a place that many racing historians credit as the birthplace of professional horseracing in America. I viewed the stables and racing memorabilia, and thought about this mysterious horse named Selima, and the family who owned her, and how happenstance had suddenly brought me into such close proximity with a fascinating tale.

In digging around for more on Selima, I turned up this interesting article, originally published in Smithsonian. But I am sure there is more to the story, and luckily, I may not have too far to go to find it.  

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