Where to Find America’s Horse Museums

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In 1788 a British thoroughbred stallion named Messenger arrived in

Philadelphia. This unheralded immigrant soon began a breeding career that

launched the sport of standardbred racing in America. When Messenger died in 1808 he was buried with full military honors.

Horses were our first sports heroes. Eager crowds approaching 100,000 would

gather to watch fabled horses race in the 1800’s. Today, our equine athletes are no

less revered. More American museums celebrate horse competitions than any other

sport.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New

York (Union Avenue and Ludlow Streets, Saratoga Springs 12866, 518/584-0400) is

a thoroughbred racing shrine. Inside the brick building across from the Saratoga

Race Course the Museum winds in a racing oval around a central courtyard. Gracing

the courtyard is a statue of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. On the front lawn sits

an eighth pole that was on Belmont Racetrack when Secretariat won the Belmont

Stakes by a remarkable 31 lengths in 1973.

Inside the Museum, entered through an actual starting gate, the highlight is

the extensive Hall of Fame honoring horses, jockeys and trainers on black, brown

and green plaques in illuminated booths. Fans can summon information on their

favorite inductees or any of AmericaÕs 130 racetracks from computerized video

monitors in the booths. A wide screen movie theater, featuring Race America plays

inside the Hall of Fame.

The history of thoroughbred racing is traced through galleries of equine

paintings and photographs. A skeleton of a horse in extended action helps explain

how a 1500-pound thoroughbred with impossibly fragile ankles is a perfect motion

machine, acclerating to 42 mph in just over 2 seconds. The race track atmosphere is

recreated in a simulated paddock area and jockeyÕs changing room.

Across town, tucked into the back grounds of the Saratoga Raceway sits a

rustic dark green wooden building with a green and red striped roof. With its wide

porch and landscaped front yard it could easily be the local garden center. In fact it

is The Saratoga Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame (352 Jefferson Street,

Saratoga Springs 12866, 518/587-4210), a little gem of a sports museum devoted

to harness racing in Saratoga Springs which dates to 1847, 16 years before the

beginning of the more celebrated thoroughbred racing in Saratoga.

Harness racing equipment, photographs and exhibits abound as tributes to the

horses and horsemen that have raced in Saratoga. A large side room features a

collection of antique sulkies including two cutters from the 1800’s with blades

instead of wheels, which were used for winter racing on ice. Each visitor to the Hall

of Fame receives a free pass to the harness races at Saratoga Raceway. You are

encouraged to sit on the Horseshoe Bench before leaving the Museum to test your

luck at the races.

The Hall of Fame of the Trotter in Goshen, New York (240 Main Street, Goshen,

10924, 914/294-6330) is in the famous Tudor-style Good Time Stable in the center

of town. Inside the Museum the atmosphere of the stable, built in 1913, remains.

Stalls have been fashioned into exhibition rooms and hay chutes transformed into

miniature stages for statues and trophies. Behind the Museum is Historic Track, the

first sporting site in America to be designated a Registered National Landmark.

Exhibits in the Original Stall Area tell the stories of legendary horses including

Hambletonian who sired over 1300 foals and to whom all trotters can trace their

lineage. A fun exhibit portrays the extent that horse racing has permeated our

everyday language. Terms such as start from scratch, flog a dead horse, champing

at the bit, and hold your horses are just a few sayings originating in the equine

world. Also on display are weathervanes from the 1800s which borrowed heavily on

the trotting horse.

The Living Hall of Fame of the Trotter is among the most attractive of horse

museum exhibits. Each living member is honored with a colorful 12′ clay statuette in

life-like surroundings exhibited in a plexi-glass case. Upon their passing, Hall of

Famers automatically become enshrined in the adjacent Peter D. Haughton Room of

Immortals.

In a large side gallery hang many of the nearly 200 trotting prints by Currier &

Ives collected by The Trotting Horse Museum. In the back of the museum the

Historic Track clubhouse has been re-created, providing a glimpse of turn-of-the

century elegance. Upstairs, the Sulky Loft sports a collection of sulkies, wagons, and

sleighs dating back more than 100 years which demonstrate the evolution of the

sport. Also on hand is the first mobile starting gate, welded to the back of a Ford

Model-T, which solved the problem of how to fairly start a harness race.

The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington (I-75 and Iron Works Pike, Lexington,

606/233-4303) is actually several museums. The International Museum of the

Horse chronicles all breeds of horses as you travel on a circular ramp past exhibits

and artifacts. The exceptionally colorful American Saddle Horse Museum depicts the

world of the American Saddlebred. Dazzling dioramas explore the elegant saga of

the quintessential American show horse. An innovative exhibit puts you in the

saddle of such champions as Imperator, Skywatch and Wing Commander. The

Museum also houses the United Professional Horsemen’s Association Hall of Fame.

In a corner of the Park is the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame with exhibits

and artwork on polo ponies. A display of polo clothes shows how the sport gave the

world the button-down shirt, introduced by Brooks Brothers in 1900. Also on the

grounds is The Man O’War Monument, burial site of the great racehorse.

Down I-64 under the familiar twin spires of Churchill Downs in Louisville is the

beautiful white Kentucky Derby Museum (700 Central Avenue, Louisville, 40201

502/637-1111) where every day is Derby Day. The order and winning silks of every

Kentucky Derby comprise the Time-Line around the first floor Great Hall. The boots,

not shoes, worn by first Derby winner Aristedes in 1875 are on display. Other

unique artifacts from Derby history include an 1896 silk purse awarded Kingman.

In the center of The Great Hall a life-size statue of the current Derby winner

and rider stand inside a replica of the Churchill Downs Winners Circle before a tote

board lit with final results. Embroidered blankets of Triple Crown winners hang from

the two-story ceiling. A 360-degree multi-image presentation shown with 96

projectors on a 225-foot screen around The Great Hall unveils the drama of

Kentucky Derby Day. The film is updated each year to honor the current Derby

champion.

Many computerized hands-on exhibits bring horse racing alive. In Time

Machine Theater videos of 65 Derbies are available at the touch of the screen. Place

Your Bets is a computerized race that demonstrates how placing bets change the

odds of a horse race. Derby Trivia is a

computer test of your Kentucky horse racing knowledge. Horse Talk teaches you the

language of the backstretch . Would-be jockeys can pick up a saddle and weigh-in

for a race. Hundreds of artifacts capture the magic of the Kentucky Derby. There are

trademark mint julep cups and winnerÕs blanket woven with 600 roses. Guided

walking tours of the Churchill Downs track are included in the Museum admission.

In Amarillo, Texas three galleries at the American Quarter Horse Horse

Heritage Center & Museum (2601 I-40 East, Amarillo, 806/376-5181) celebrate this

supreme equine athlete. An Orientation Theater acquaints newcomers to this

fabulous horse. The Museum contains photographs, artifacts and videotapes of

historic horses, colorful people, and landmark events associated with the quarter

horse. A special collaborative exhibit with the Smithsonian Institution traces the

impact of the horse on American life. Live quarter horse demonstrations are

periodically scheduled for the adjacent outdoor arena.

Is there one true American sport? Upon leaving the action-packed ProRodeo

Hall of Fame and Museum (Colorado Springs, Colorado 80919, 719/528-4763) you

would be hard pressed to name another sport as wholly American as rodeo. Rodeo,

which evolved from everyday Western work chores into sport, is a totally American

experience. Your precisely orchestrated semi-guided tour takes you through two

video presentations and past a stunning collection of cowboy gear.

In the Hall of Champions the stock is honored along with the cowboys. During

the summer months a champion bronco lives in the backyard stable area. After his

retirement the Hall of Fame bucking bronco Descent made his home in the stable

area. You were thus able to meet a living Hall-of-Famer at the site of his

enshrinement, something not possible at any other sports museum.

These museums are only the largest of America’s horse museums. There are

others honoring different breeds and local horse communities. Whatever your

equestrian passion there is an exciting museum for the horselover to enjoy.


write by Rachel Puma

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