The Great Sweepstakes racing scene is depicted in a picture that hangs above the entrance to the Pimlico Clubhouse.
by Terry Conway
A dozen years had passed since the close of the bloody Civil War. The National League had recently launched with eight charter members, laying the foundation for what would become the national pastime. But America's sporting attention was not centered on baseball. It was squarely focused on the sport of horse racing and, in particular, the "Great Sweepstakes" at Pimlico racetrack on October 24, 1877.
Trains arrived from all directions. More than 20,000 spectators journeyed from distant points across the country and poured into Baltimore. Newspaper sports editors dispatched their top reporters to tell the story of the epic race that spotlighted Ten Broeck, Tom Ochiltree and Parole. The anticipation easily surpassed the boiling passion fans had unleashed for the Longfellow-Harry Bassett races in 1871.
The race was scheduled for the first day of the October meeting of the Maryland Jockey Club. Interest was so powerful that Congress, for the first time in history, shut down for the day to board a special train to witness an "East versus West Championship Race." By mid-morning on that sun-drenched day throngs of race fans pressed toward "Old Hilltop," the nickname of Maryland racetrack.
Surrounding streets were lined with hitching rails, mounting blocks and water troughs. Nearby livery stables, blacksmith and harness shops and residential horse-and-carriage stables dominated the everyday landscape. Arriving on foot, by buggy, carriage and omnibus, the swelling crowd filled Pimlico's grounds. The violet-painted stands and Victorian Clubhouse were draped in the Maryland Jockey Club's blue and white banners.
Most race fans turned up to cheer the western invader, Frank B. Harper's Ten Broeck. During his 1876 and 1877 campaigns, Ten Broeck was proclaimed "the horse of the century." A fearsome five-year old bay, Ten Broeck set the fastest ever time over one, two and three miles. Most turf writers deemed the Kentucky champion invincible.
Cool and calculating, Pierre Lorillard had other thoughts. Learning Ten Broeck had been shipped to Baltimore, Lorillard proposed a two-mile or two-and-a-half mile competition, each side putting down $5,000. Loillard’s entry was the rough-and-ready Parole, a winner of the recent Saratoga Cup. All season Parole and Tom Ochiltree, owned by Pierre's brother George, swapped victories on the east coast all summer. The battles were so heated a backer of Parole tried to poison Tom Ochiltree, an attempt that sickened his stablemate Leander instead.
Local newspapers reported “Mr. Harper remained silent on the offer.” Realizing the passion and excitement in the general public and the money to be made, the Maryland Jockey Club countered with their own proposal. They called for a three horse sweepstakes to be run at two and-a-half miles. Each participant anteed up $500 with the Jockey Club adding another $1,000. The offer was accepted, and the three-horse match race was on.
Intense rivals at the racetrack, Pierre and George Lorillard were the fourth generation of a family that amassed one of the greatest fortunes of the 19th century as the nation's largest manufacturer of tobacco products. Described as quick and restless, the portly Pierre sported a jaunty moustache that twisted to points. Known as one of the "Money Kings" of the fabled Gilded Age, his Rancocas Stud Farm was the most expensive and expansive (900 acres) thoroughbred farm in America. The central New Jersey operation would go on to dominate racing on both sides of the Atlantic. Word had it Pierre regularly bet with bookmakers to the tune of $20,000 a wager
His brother George operated the impressive Westbrook Farm on the south shore of Long Island, New York. He sent Eastern champion Tom Ochiltree to Baltimore. An imposing horse of 16 hands, 2 1/2 inches and a girth of 76 inches, Tom Ochiltree was one of the last sons of the legendary stallion Lexington. In 1875 he captured the Preakness Stakes and was fresh off sensational victories in the Grand National Stakes and All-Aged Handicap.
Bookmakers tabbed Ten Broeck the heavy favorite in the Great Sweepstakes. A son of the influential sire Leamington, the gelding Parole was the least fancied of three. On the evening before the race a heavy rain poured down on the Baltimore track. Some race fans believed it might spell trouble for Ten Broeck.
At 3:15 in the afternoon the three rivals went to post over a muddy track that was deep and testing beneath the surface. Ten Broeck sported red ribbons in his mane, Harper’s stable colors. Tom Ochiltree carried George Lorillard's orange and blue colors, while Parole's jockey William Barrett wore Pierre's famed cherry jacket and black cap.
When the flag dropped Ten Broeck immediately shot to the lead, pressed by Tom Ochiltree. Known for his lazy starts, Parole (the youngest at age four) trailed. After a plodding half-mile of 1.00, the pace quickened. Racing historian W. S. Vosburgh depicted the scene in his 1916 book, "Cherry and Black":
"They passed the half-mile stand amid cheering that might have been heard in Monument Square, the Eastern men cheering, the Western followers of Ten Broeck yelling like demons. It was cheers answering cheers, like the noise of contending armies. Suddenly, as the three turned toward the last quarter pole, there arose a cry 'Look at Parole!'"
Jockey Barrett had loosened his hold on the tall and lanky Parole and with a dazzling turn of foot Parole swept past Tom Ochiltree and in a late rush mowed down Ten Broeck and galloped past the winning post with an emphatic five-length victory. The western crowd so boisterous just moments before, stood in quiet disbelief. One of Parole's supporters quickly penned a poem in his honor.
'Mid tossing of hats, roll the deafening cheers,
"Ten Broeck is beaten," they cry, as up goes Walker's whip --
Parole gallops home gaily pricking his ears.
As he rode back to the scale, to the judge raised his whip,
"Weight's correct," said the clerk. "All right," from the stewards,
Parole wins the race for the championship.
The Great Sweepstakes turned out to be just the second loss of the brilliant Ten Broeck's racing career. As Parole's success swelled, Parole pool halls, Parole saloons and Parole baseball clubs sprang up, all named for the dusty brown gelding.
In 1879 Parole, now age six, was not expected to retain his speed so was shipped to England. The British press dubbed the hard-knocking him the "Yankee mule." That was until he hit the turf courses. Parole caused a sensation among English race-goers by capturing the Newmarket Handicap, the City and Suburban Handicaps and the Great Metropolitan in a week's span. Later he captured the famed Epsom Gold Cup. Racing until age 11, Parole won 59 races, and earned $80,000.
Pierre Lorillard gave Parole to Mr. J. O. Green who transformed him into a saddle horse and Green presented him in the thoroughbred class of the National Horse Show in New York in 1885. When he returned to Rancocas Stud Farm in Jobstown, N. J., Parole became so fond of company that he would follow people around like a dog. He would often pop up at a farm worker's door and whinny until someone came out and spent time with him. He died in 1903 at the age of 29. He was inducted into the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 1984.
Terry Conway is a longtime contributor to Blood-Horse magazine and ESPN.com