Revival and a shocking finish, Part 3

by Trey Nosrac

Part one is here.

Part two is here.

People have always enjoyed racing horses. They raced horses using chariots, saddles, wagons, barebacked, in carts, or sulkies. “My horse can best your horse” has long been the boast, often followed by “Let’s place a wager on the result.” In the Gilded Age, between the Civil War and the turn of the new century, everyone still mingled with horses daily.

This attachment to horses allowed horseracing to keep a foothold in both the elite and blue-collar worlds. The Gilded era was a wonderful time for equine enthusiasts, and this era was when the sport of Coaching flourished. The sporting field was sparse; prizefighting and horseracing were the only pre-Civil war sports that offered participants money. After the Civil War, professional baseball and a few other sports tiptoed onto the sporting scene but remained dwarfed by the familiarity and majesty of racing horses.

The clock was ticking for new sports, but in America, the year 1903 may well be the apex of the sport of Coaching.

New York, May 9, 1903

“Fifth Avenue was vibrant with the lively music of the Coaching horn. On Seventh Avenue, spectators waited for the arrival of their teams of horses and respective vehicles, presenting a spectacle of old fashioned road life as if it was in a novel. Various hostelries were all agog twice daily to speed on and welcome the returning coaches, such as: The Pioneer (A. G. Vanderbilt), the Reliance (R. F. Carman), the Liberty (J. H. Hyde), the Freelance (H. W. Beadleson), the Goodtimes, (Kearny), the Squadron, (G. Fahys), the Westchester, and many others were all actively at work, keeping their times well and booking heavily in the all-encompassing dust of the picturesque springtime environment.”

However, all seasons come to an end. Communication advancements would open new sporting doors at the turn of the century, and new sports began to grow in popularity. As the new century stood on tiptoes, America’s latest transportation infatuation, the automobile, began to surge in every corner of America. The roads grew crowded as incredible horseless carriages rattled, belched, and chugged down streets and lanes. Automobile mania struck America, and the ever-busier roads were one of the reasons that American enthusiasm for Coaching began to wane.

But Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the best-known American whips, was not deterred. He had a new plan. He would push his favorite sport to new heights back where it began, England. England remained ribboned with miles of open roads with easily accessible public houses along the routes. Vanderbilt began to relocate his favorite sport. He opted to run his coaches, like the Venture, in England, where the drives would be more enjoyable and historic. He also introduced his grey trotting horses by the hundreds to England.

The Times, May 8, 1906

“The arrival of the horses has already attracted considerable attention, and many leading newspapers have interviewed Mr. Vanderbilt. He said that he hoped to revive the old glories of the sport of coaching on the Old Brighton Road and to prove to the English horsemen and to the public the utility of the American Trotter for coaching purposes. The trotter breed, presently, is generally despised in England.”

And Vanderbilt did revive the old glory in England, and the English loved him for it. One writer said, “Alfred did not flaunt or boast his fortune. He impressed everyone with the modesty of his sportsmanship. He could easily dominate but instead shared, permitting others of lesser means an equal chance. Vanderbilt showed the finest characteristics that a true sportsman could display, unconsciously conforming with the spirit of his country – humanity itself.”

Vanderbilt and his cronies had a decade on those rustic roads, driving those coaches filled with passengers. But as Coaching horses merrily clomped down country roads, storm clouds gathered, a storm that would wash away the sport virtually overnight. The outbreak of the Great War brought a screeching end to many pastimes and sports, but none as swiftly and utterly as equine sports.

The British army commandeered able-bodied horses to serve the war effort. Vanderbilt, always generous, always enterprising, decided to use his horses to pull ambulances on the front lines. Owners suddenly needed to say heartbreaking goodbyes to their horses. Vanderbilt, who was renowned for being attached to his horses to the point of knowing and understanding each of their temperaments, faced dark days.

Vanderbilt was on his way to supervise relocating some of his horses for battlefield duty on the fateful May afternoon in 1915 when the German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania. As the unfortunate passengers and Alfred drifted to the bottom of the sea, the sport he had loved and supported all his life settled with him.