Horses in Surry and Sussex
Sussex County was part of Surry County until 1753 when it was made a separate county. Sussex has many fine old homes, seats of some of Virginia’s oldest families. Hunting Quarter is one. Mary Stephenson, in Old Homes in Surry and Sussex, says that house was probably built about 1710 for Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence, who had patented 2,200 acres there. Later the Hunting Quarter tract was inherited by Captain Henry Harrison, whose stables were famous for fine blooded horses. Before his death in 1773, he was said to own thirty blooded mares, and his “Jolly Roger and Silver Heels” were among Virginia’s finest race horses.
An upcoming horse race at Cabin Point was advertised in the May 5, 1774, Virginia Gazette, offering a purse of seventy-five pounds. The race was open to any horse, mare or gelding, “carrying Weight for Age, according to the Rules for Racing, two mile heats, the best two in three”.
Steeplechase racing supposedly originated in 1752 in Ireland, when two slightly inebriated friends challenged one another to race from the steeple of one church tower to the next one within sight. The winner is said to have actually ridden his horse into the church, disrupting a funeral. Documentation for this story is elusive.
Bishop William Meade, in his Old Churches and Ministers and Families of Virginia, recounts stories of Virginian Episcopal ministers’ involvements with equine activities, including one whose enthusiasm for fox-hunting extended to his deathbed; “in the midst of his ravings he was heard hallooing the hounds to the chase”. The last minister of Southwark Parish in Surry was said to be “so devoted to the turf that he was made President of the Jockey Club of Surrey and Charles City”. These events occurred, of course, in decadent times before Bishop Meade’s arrival, not in the more virtuous era afterward.
Religion still flourishes in the many churches of Surry and Sussex, but horse racing has moved to richer venues.
Reprinted in Surrey Side News in 2012, from Diners Digest by permission of the publisher, Teresa Gregory.
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