The Humble Origins of Horse Racing in Northeastern Ohio

Thistle Down Race Track, Cleveland

Recently, while researching letters from the Sutliff Collection, I discovered a letter from a man named Lyman Potter to Calvin G. Sutliff in Vernon, Ohio. In the letter, Potter asked Sutliff to train one of his horses just as he “would a race horse.” From my research, I have concluded the letter was written around 1826 and it represents the popularity of horse racing in America well before the first running of the Kentucky Derby in 1875. This essay will examine the humble origins of American horse racing in Northeastern Ohio.

       Letter from Lyman Potter to Calvin G. Sutliff

In the late seventeenth century, after the first generations of Europeans settled in America, horse racing became a popular sport throughout the colonies because American horse racing lacked a component that its English counterpart required: hereditary ownership. The leisure activity was able to appeal to a wider audience, thus making it a sport available to nearly every American; especially people near urban areas.[1]


By the early nineteenth century, horse racing’s popularity spread across Ohio’s Western Reserve. On September 30, 1805, Thomas Robbins, a Congregational minister passing through Ohio, wrote in his diary, “Set out to go to Pittsburgh. Rode to Greensburgh. A horse-race at Youngstown with fifty dollars risqued.”[2] According to Joseph Butler, around 1810, people from Warren challenged Youngstown to a match race in order to determine the placement of the county seat of Trumbull. On behalf of Youngstown, Judge George Tod accepted the challenge. Tod selected a bay mare by the name of Fly to compete in the race and a horse named Dave represented Warren. The race started along what is now Federal Street in Youngstown, and ran for approximately one mile through the town. On race day, both towns suspended work so all of the people could witness the spectacle. A spectator of the race wrote,

“Alexander Walker rode Fly, and under his tutelage the Youngstown horse forged ahead in passing Henry Wick’s store. At Hugh Bryson’s store Dave came alongside, but the spurt was unavailing as Walker plied his whip and gave a few Indian warwhoops and Fly shot ahead once more. Dave’s chance vanished then and there, for Fly reached Crab Creek six lengths ahead. In fact Fly had entered so thoroughly into the spirt of the affait by this time that she refused to stop at all and was brought up only at Daniel Sheehy’s cabin, a mile beyond the goal.”

Although Youngstown won a $1,000, bragging rights and money won from betting on the race, the county seat still ended up in Warren.[3]

              Farmers Making a Deal

The popularity of horse racing in Warren was not lost. Approximately fifteen years after the Youngstown-Warren match race, Calvin Sutliff, a native of the Warren area, trained horses for both labor and racing purposes. According to the historical record, Sutliff was a physically strong and a laborious worker, making him fit enough to train horses. Sutliff’s reputation for training horses was noticed by Judge Lyman Potter from Bristol just north of Warren, Ohio. Potter was also a farmer who recognized the profitability of horse racing.[4] In a letter to Sutliff, Potter asks him to train a mare and, “break her to the harness… Have her exercised twice a day, by so doing we can bring her to speed by November.” At the time, most horse racing on the Western Reserve was limited to the winter months, so horses mainly raced with a harness and sleigh. There were even laws which regulated racing. In 1831, an Ohio law prohibited horse racing on a public road. It stated,

“That if two or more persons shall run a match horse race or races, in any public road in common use, for the purpose of trying the speed of their horses; every person so offending, on conviction thereof before any justice of the peace in the county, shall be fined in any sum not exceeding five dollars, nor less than one dollar, with costs of prosecution.”[5]  

First Jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.
First Jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.

Horse racing even dealt with racial issues. In the early nineteenth century, slaves from the South were used as jockeys. They were successful in defeating white jockeys from the North in big races. There were also successful African-American jockeys from the North. In 1808, a jockey named Enoch “Knuck” Harris was Knox County, Ohio’s first black resident.[6] African-American jockeys dominated the sport for the rest of the century. In the first Kentucky Derby, thirteen of the fourteen jockeys were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. From 1875 to 1898, black jockeys won the Derby at least eight times. At the end of the nineteenth century, because of racial prejudice, the Jockey Club banned people of color from becoming a member, further pushing African-Americans out of the sport.[7]

Since the start of the twentieth century, racing in Northeastern Ohio has remained steadily popular. At the moment, there are eight different thoroughbred and harness racing tracks in Ohio. Two of those tracks, Thistledowns and Northfield Park, are located in Northeastern Ohio. Mahoning Valley Race Course is a new track, or “racino”, that was recently built outside of Youngstown, Ohio. A “racino” is a combination of a horse track with a casino. Ironically, the track opened in November 2014; the same time of year that horse racing season started in Northeastern Ohio 200 years ago.

[1] Rubin, Joan Shelley,  The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 521.

[2] Robbins, Thomas, Diary of Thomas Robbins, D. D., 1796- 1854, volume 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1886), 267.

[3] Butler, Joseph G., History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, Ohio (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921), 132-140.

[4] Dwight, Benjamin W., The History of the Descendants of John Dwight, of Dedham, Mass, volume 2 (New York; John F. Trow & Son, 1874), 543.

[5] Statutes of the State of Ohio, of a General Nature, in Force, December 7, 1810; Also, the Statutes of a General Nature, Passed by the General Assembly at their Thirty-Ninth Session, Commencing December 7, 1840 (Columbus: Samuel Medary, 1841), 260.

[6] Sacks, Howard L.,  Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem (First Illinois Paperback Edition, 2003), 9.

[7] Kirsch,George B.,  Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000), 5.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. David J Gill says:

    It is surprising how important horse racing once was (and boxing) in America and how much it has declined in popularity compared to other spectator sports. I’m from NEO and was not aware of this history.

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