Book Review: The Great Sweepstakes of 1877 – Mark Shragger


We bluegrass music fans know “Molly & Tenbrooks – The Race Horse Song” as recorded by Bill Monroe in 1947 with Earl Scruggs playing banjo. It’s a terrific song, one of Monroe’s favorites, that shows what the banjo can do on a fast vocal number. It was also one of the first bluegrass tunes recorded in the key of “B for bluegrass”.

Monroe got the song from the older hillbilly performer “Cousin Emmy”. She played banjo in the old style, and was a comic “cut up” stage personality. You can see video of Cousin Emmy on YouTube.

Many bluegrass fans have no idea that Molly and Tenbrooks were REAL race horses, who really did race back in 1878 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is run to this day.

Mark Shrager has written the definitive biography of the big bay horse Tenbrooks and his owner Frank Harper of Midway KY. This isn’t a book about music – it’s about the world of horse racing in “The Gilded Age”. In racing legend, Ten Broeck (the original Dutch-style spelling) is much more famous than poor Molly, whom as the song tells us Ten Broeck “beat with all ease”.

It’s a convoluted story! Ten Broeck’s fame was based on records he set in awe-inspiring time trials, and a few early races where he literally left the competition in the dust. His fame led to challenges from the East Coast racing king Pierre Lorillard (of the Lorillard tobacco company) and his champion horse Parole. Mr. Harper initially refused to put Ten Broeck through the stress of a train trip east to Pimlico racetrack to meet the challenge, but after all kinds of negotiations and nationwide publicity, the Great Sweepstakes was set for Oct 23 1877 in Maryland – two owners racing the greatest of the East vs the greatest of Kentucky.

The tycoon class made astounding bets, and the general public joined in. The largest crowd in racing history turned out. Federal Washington DC basically adjourned so the senators and their ilk could be in Baltimore for the race. The purse for the winner was $3500, a huge sum for those days, but of course the real action was at the betting parlors (although owner Harper never bet on his horses). In those days the big races were an unbelievable 4 miles long.

This race made Ten Broeck and Parole even more famous, but it also convinced Mr. Harper to never let Ten Broeck travel again – in future he would meet challenges only at home in Kentucky. Country boy Harper and his supporters also felt the rich easterners had “snookered” him badly.

This led the next year to the greatest horse in California, Theodore Winter’s undefeated “Mollie McCarthy”, challenging Ten Broeck to race in Louisville. If you’ve heard the song you know the story. But the details will surprise you! Ten Broeck bulldozed his way to the famous win. There was big talk about a rematch with Lorillard’s Parole, but it never happened.

Author Shrager tells us the full life stories of the owners, their stables, trainers, jockeys, competition in both America and England, the racing press and Hall of Fame, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s extremely interesting reading. For instance, Ten Broeck’s trainer and jockey were each freed slaves who had grown up at Harper’s stable. Bill Monroe called the jockey “Kiper” in the song although his real name was “Walker”. Kiper may be a sly Monroe family reference to Bill’s niece who married a man named Kuyper.

Shrager extends his book to the sometimes sad end of various careers, in a long Epilogue. The book includes fine photos and drawings, and excellent appendices. The author even quotes the first “song/poem” that supposedly was worked up by the African-American stable hands about Ten Broeck and his fame. However, Shrager is not a folk music fan – he doesn’t mention Cousin Emmy or Bill Monroe.

You’ll have a whole new feeling for the song “Molly & Tenbrooks” after this book. Highly recommended fireside reading for this fall and winter.

Available in bookstores and Amazon in hardback and paperback, and on Amazon Kindle.

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