The Turf [From Georgia Scenes]

By Augustus Baldwin Longstreet

[Description, with dry Southern humor, of a day at the races in the 1830s, from Georgia Scenes, by Augustus Longstreet, General Longstreet's uncle; offered as part of a continuing effort to make our Literary Corner both instructive & enjoyable. Augustus Longstreet was a major figure in Southern letters & education. Like his Debating Society, posted earlier, this short piece was highly praised by America's foremost literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe.]

"Come," said my friend Baldwin to me, a few months ago, "let us go to the turf."

"No," said I, "I take no interest in its amusements."

"Nor do I," rejoined he; "but I visit it to acquire a knowledge of the human character, as it exhibits itself in the various scenes of life, and with the hope of turning the knowledge thus acquired to some good account. I am the more desirous that you should accompany me," continued he, "because, as one pair of eyes and ears cannot catch all that passes within a scene so spacious, I shall lose many instructing, interesting, or amusing incidents without the assistance of a friend, and therefore I wish to enlist your services."

"Well," said I, "with this view I will accompany you."

We went; and the following is the result of our joint observations:

We went early, when as yet no one had reached the ground but those who occupied the booths for the purpose of traffic. It was not long, however, before crowds of persons, of all ages, sexes, conditions, and complexions, were seen moving towards the booths; some on foot, some on horseback, some in gigs, some in carriages, some in carts, and some in wagons. The carriages (generally filled with well-dressed ladies) arranged themselves about thirty or forty paces from the starting-point, towards the centre of the turf. Around these circled many young gentlemen, each riding his prettiest, whipping, spurring, and curbing his horse into the most engaging antics, and giving visible token that he thought every eye from the carriages was on him, and every heart overpowered by his horsemanship. As many more plied between the booths and carriages, bearing messages, rumours, apples, oranges, raisins, lemonade, and punch.

"But surely no lady drank the punch!"

"Yes, three of them did; and if I know what large swallows mean, they loved it too but they didn't drink long. The ladies ought to be informed, however, that a countryman passing them observed, 'the way them women love punch is nothing to nobody!' "

The gentlemen generally collected about the booths, and employed themselves in loud talking and drinking. Here I saw Major Close, who two hours before declared he had not enough to pay a poor woman for the making the vest he had on, treat a large company to a dollar bowl of punch; and, ten minutes after, I saw the same man stake fifty dollars on the race. I saw another gentleman do the same, who, four days before, permitted his endorser to lift his note in bank for one hundred dollars, which note the endorser still held. But, thought I, the way these gentlemen treat their creditors "is nothing to nobody." One thing I remarked upon this occasion, which should not be passed in silence. I saw many gentlemen drink spirits upon the turf, whom I never saw taste it anywhere else; some because it seemed fashionable, and some because they would bet nothing but a glass of toddy or a bowl of punch, and, having bet it, they must help drink it.

I had been employed perhaps three quarters of an hour in making observations upon the scene which was before me, when I observed a group of negroes and boys enter one of the gates of the turf, following, with much seeming interest, a horse which was led by an aged black, by whose side walked a little negro boy about thirteen years of age, dressed in pink throughout. I had no doubt but that the horse was one which was entered for the day's running; and as I was desirous of seeing all the competitors before the race, I advanced to meet him apart from the crowd. As soon as I approached near enough to distinguish the features of the old negro who led the animal, I discovered that he was a gentleman who, upon that day at least, was to be approached only with the most profound respect. His step was martial, his eye looked directly forward, and his countenance plainly indicated that he had many deep things shut up in his brain, which the world had long been trying to pry into, in vain. I concluded, however, that I might venture to ask him a question, which all who had read the morning's Chronicle could have answered. I therefore took the liberty of addressing him, as soon as he came near me, with,

"Old man, what horse is that?"

The question seemed to come like a thunder-bolt among his contemplations; and, without speaking a word, he bent upon me a look which I perfectly understood to mean,

"Pray, sir, where were you born and brought up?"

Having been thus foiled by the old man, I resolved, to try my luck with the rider; accordingly, I repeated the question to him. He stopped, and was in the act, as I thought, of answering, when the old man bawled out to him, in an angry tone, "Come along, you Bill; never keep behind you hoss when you fuss (first) come on the ground."

Bill obeyed promptly, and took his position by his majesty , who observed to him, in an under tone, as he came alongside, "Never tell de name you hoss; it's bad luck."

Bill's confusion plainly showed that he ought to have known a thing so obvious from his infancy. I was as much disconcerted as Bill; but was soon relieved by a pert little blackamoor, who, rather to persuade me that he was in all the secrets of the turf than in charity to me, addressed me with, "Master, I'll tell you what hoss dat is."

"Well, my boy," said I, "what horse is it?"

"He young Butteram, son o' ole Butteram, dat usen to belong to Mr. Swingletree."

"And do you know all the horses that are going to run to-day?" said I.

"La, yes, sir," said he; "I know ebery one dat's gwine to run ebery day."

I concluded I would take advantage of the boy's knowledge; and therefore gave him twelve and a half cents to stand by me, and give me the names of the racers as they passed; for by this time they were all on the ground, and following the direction of the first.

"This one," said my Mentor, as the next approached, "name Flory Randle; she b'long to Mr. Pet; but I don't know what hoss he daddy, though."

"This one" (as the next came up) "name Sir William; he come all de way from Virginny, and I tinks dey say he got by Virginny too."

"And this" (as the last approached) "name 'Clipse; by jokey, he look to me like he could clip it too; and I be swinged if I don't go my seb'n-pence on him any how."

Thus I learned that the four horses which were to run were Bertrand, Flora Randolph, Sir William, and Eclipse. At this moment, a voice from the judges' stand cried, "Prepare your horses!" and in an instant the grooms were engaged in saddling the animals.

This preliminary was soon disposed of, and the owners proceeded to give the riders their instructions.

"Now, Bob," said Mr. Pet, "I know that I have the heels of any horse on the turf, but I'm a little afraid of my bottom; therefore, save your wind as much as possible. Trail the leading horse upon a hard rein, about half a distance behind, until you come to the last half mile, and then let Flora off at full speed. As soon as you pass the leading horse about a length, bear your rein, and don't come in more than a length ahead."

"Sam," said the owner of Sir William, "you've got none to fear but Bertrand, and you've got the bottom of him; therefore give him no rest from the word 'go!' unless you find that your heels are as good as his; and if so, you needn't waste your wind. Feel Bertrand at the first rise of the course; if he stands it pretty well, try how you can move with him going down the hill; and if you find that you are too hard for him either at rises or falls, pinch him hard at all of them places; and when you come to the last half mile of each heat, run his heart, liver, lights, and soul-case out of hire."

"Ned," said the owner of Eclipse, "you are not to run for the first heat at all, unless you find you can take it very easy. Let Sir William take the first heat. You can beat the others when you please, and William can't stand a push for two heats; therefore, just play alongside of him handsomely for the first three miles, and at the coming in, just drop in the distance pole. The next heat take the track, and press him from the start."

"Bill," said the owner of Bertrand, "do you take the track at the start, and keep it, and run only just fast enough to keep it."

Here the roll of the drum and a cry from the judges' stand put the horses in motion for the starting-point. Over this point I now observed suspended from a pole a beautiful blue silk purse, spangled with silver and embroidered with gold, on both sides of which were marked in golden characters, "$500!!!"

It would require a volume to describe the scene which now ensued.

"Captain, do you run Bertrand for the heat?"

"I do, sir."

"Five hundred dollars, Bertrand against the field."

"Done, sir."

"Major, will Eclipse run for the heat?"

"No, sir."

"One hundred to fifty that Flora Randolph beats Eclipse the first heat!"

"Done, sir" "Done, sir" "Done, sir."

"I took the bet first."

"No, sir, I took it first."

"No matter, gentlemen, I'll go you all fifty apiece."

"It's a bet, sir" "It's a bet" "A bet, sir."

"Here, Uncle Sam, hold dese trups."

"Now mind de bet. Bob, he bet dat Flory Randle take de fus heat. I bet he take no heat at all."

"Yes, dat be de bet you hear him, Uncle Sam?"

"Tell him over agin, le' me listen."

"Well, dis him: If Flory take de fus heat, Bob win; if he take no heat at all, I win."

"Berry well, I got him now fass in my head."

"Pa, give me a quarter to bet."

"What horse do you want to bet upon, my son?"


"Oh no there's a quarter bet it upon Bertrand."

"Well, Miss Flora, don't you wish to bet?"

"Yes, sir, I'll bet you a pair of gloves."

"Well, what horse will you take?"

"Oh, my namesake, of course."

"It's a bet; you take Flora against the field, of course."

"To be sure I do."

Thus it went; men, women, and children, whites and blacks, all betting.

Such was the bustle, confusion, and uproar among the men, that I could hardly see or hear anything distinctly; and therefore I resolved to take my position among the carriages, in order to observe the ladies under the delights of the turf.

The signal was now given, and off went the horses; Flora ahead, Bertrand next, Sir William next, and Eclipse in the rear.

"Only look at that rascal," said Mr. Pet, as he charged by us at full speed, "how he is riding. Hold her in, you rascal, or I'll give you five hundred lashes as soon as you light. Hold her in, I tell you, you abominable puppy, or I'll cut your throat." Bob did his best to restrain her, for he bore upon the rein until his back came nearly in contact with Flora's, but to no purpose. Ahead she would go for the first two miles.

"Only see, mamma," said Miss Flora, "how beautifully Flora runs! Oh, that dear little rider" (a negro), "how handsomely he carries himself. I knew I should win my gloves."

At the completion of the second mile Flora became more manageable, and the other horses passed her in their order. As the last gained about a length of her, "Now," said Pet, "keep her at that." The rider straightened himself in the saddle, but the space widened perceptibly between him and Eclipse. "Don't bear upon the rein so hard," said Pet. "Let her play easy." Bob slackened the rein; but Flora seemed not to improve her liberty. "Look how you're dropping behind," continued Pet. "Let her out, I tell you!" Bob let her out, but she would not go out. "Let her out, I tell you, or I will blow your brains out." Here Bob gave her a cut. "You infernal rascal you, don't give her the whip! Bring her up to Eclipse." Bob gave her the lash again; but Flora obstinately refused to keep company with Eclipse. "Very well, sir," said Pet, "ride your own way, and I'll whip mine when you get home; I see how it is." Bob seemed to hear only the first member of the sentence, and he gave the whip without mercy.

"Why, Pet," said a gentleman, "what is the matter with Flora to-day?"

"What's the matter with her, sir! Don't you see that I can't make Bob do anything I tell him? I'll learn him how to take a bribe in future."

As Flora received the twentieth cut, she switched her tail. "Ah!" said Mr. Dimple, "I fear you've lost your gloves, Miss Flora; see, your favourite switches her tail."

"Does Flora switch her tail?" said Miss Flora.

"Mamma, Mr. Dimple says Flora switches her tail!"

"Does Flora switch her tail?" said Mrs. Blue.

"Does Flora switch her tail?" said Miss Emma. "Oh, what a pity!"

The horses preserved their order through the heat. Flora was distanced; but her rider maintained his grace and dignity to the last, and rode as if perfectly satisfied that every eye was upon him, and that all were saying, "To be sure Flora is beaten; but her rider is decidedly the best on the ground." In spite of his cry of "Clear the track!" however, the crowd closed in between him and the foremost horses, extinguished his graces from general view, and forced him to come in in the mere character of a spectator.

Between the first and second heats, I saw the owners of Sir William and Eclipse in a pleasing conversation, but I did not hear what they said.

After a rest of about a quarter of an hour, the horses were again brought to the starting-point; and, at the tap of the drum, went off with great velocity. Bertrand took the lead as before, and William pursued him very closely. They kept within two lengths of each other for three miles and a half, when William locked his adversary, and both riders commenced giving the whip and spur without mercy. When they came in, it was evident to my eye that Bertrand's rider (for I could not see the horses' heads) was more than his width ahead of William's; but the judges decided that William won the heat by two inches and a quarter. Eclipse just saved his distance. At the close of the heat the two former exhibited a pitiable spectacle. There was not a dry hair upon either of them, and the blood streamed from the flanks and sides of both.

"Mr. Dimple," said Miss Emma, "which horse shall I bet on next time? Which seems the most distressed?"

"I declare, miss," said Dimple, "I don't know; they both seem to be very much distressed; but I think William seems to be in rather the worst plight."

Between this and the following heat, two little boys engaged in a fight, and not less than fifty grown men gathered around them to witness the conflict, with as great an uproar as if a town were on fire. This fight produced two more between grown persons; one of whom was carried from the turf with a fractured scull, as it was thought, from the blow of a stick. But none of the ladies went to the fights.

Again the horses were brought up and put off. Bertrand once more led the way, and Eclipse followed close at his heels for about a mile and three quarters, when William ran up under whip, nose, and tail to Bertrand. Eclipse fell some distance behind, and continued so for a mile and a half, when he came up and nearly locked Bertrand. Thus they ran three fourths of the remaining distance. On the last stretch they came side to side, and so continued through. On this heat I concurred with the judges that it was a draw race. William was double distanced.

Bertrand and Eclipse put off upon the fourth heat: Bertrand still taking the lead by about half his length. Eclipse now pushed for the track; but Bertrand maintained it. For two miles did the riders continue so close together that they might have joined hands.

They had entered upon the third mile in this way, when, at the first turn of the course from the judges' stand, Eclipse fell and killed his rider. Bertrand, being now left without a competitor, galloped slowly round to the goal, where, with great pomp and ceremony, the pole which held the purse was bent down to his rider, who dislodged it, and bore it on high, backward and forward, in front of the booth, to the sound of drum, fife and violin.

"I declare," said Mrs. Blue, as her carriage wheeled off, "had it not been for that little accident, the sport would have been delightful."

I left the turf in company with a large number of gentlemen, all of whom concurred in the opinion that they had never witnessed such sport in all their lives.

"What a pity it is," said General Grubbs, "that this amusement is not more encouraged! We never shall have a fine breed of horses until the turf is more patronized."

I returned home, and had been seated perhaps an hour, when Baldwin entered. "Well," said he, "I have just been favoured with a sight of the contents of that beautiful purse which Bertand won; and what do you think it contained?"

"Why, five hundred dollars, certainly," returned I.

"No," continued he, "it contained two half eagles, sixteen dollars in silver, twelve one dollar bills, and a subscription paper, which the owner offered to the largest subscriber on it for one hundred and fifty dollars, and it was refused. It is but right to observe, however, that the gentleman to whom the offer was made assured the owner that it was as good as gold."

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