The Belmont Stake, Dr. Cheatham and Nashville's Tradition of Horse Racing
Perhaps the most striking image in Belmont Mansion is the portrait of Adelicia Acklen with her beloved horse, Bucephalus. Her love of riding and horses started early and continued through her life. It was an essential element of the social class in which she lived and Dr. Cheatham, Adelicia’s third husband, made this pursuit part of their life together.
To understand the impact thoroughbred horses had on Adelicia’s life, we have to look at how horses and horse racing in its many forms were intrinsic to 19th century Nashville life. White settlers to Tennessee from areas like Virginia and North Carolina brought with them the traditions of the first American settlers, many of whom were part of the English upper class and had pursued thoroughbred horse racing and breeding. So it was logical that these new residents to Tennessee would bring fine thoroughbred race horses – or blooded horses – to race and to use as breeding stock. Newspaper weeklies include advertisements for thoroughbreds as early as 1792.
Today we think of Kentucky as the bluegrass state but in the very early 19th century Tennessee and Kentucky held the same agricultural qualities – limestone, phosphate and water sources – needed for the breeding of blooded horses. However, the basin in which Middle Tennessee is located held advantages over Kentucky. Its fall grazing season lasted longer, its winters were less severe, and its spring grasses arrived earlier all making for more hospitable growing conditions for foals – young horses.
These agricultural conditions coupled with a growing base of wealth Tennessee planters gained from their Deep South plantation holdings allowed for a society that actively pursued the past times of horse racing and breeding. By the time Andrew Jackson was serving as President in the 1830s, Tennessee was the center of horse breeding in the country.
Keep in mind that at this time horse racing – and betting – was not simply the sport of kings but enjoyed by all with some expendable income. There wasn’t baseball, basketball or football to contend with, and the popular 19th century sports of tennis and bicycling had yet to make their mark. Horses had little competition – except each other – and those rivalries could be intense.
The popularity of thoroughbreds in Tennessee was described in 1839 by William Giles Harding of Belle Meade Plantation as, “Blood stock here is all the go. To be without it is to be out of fashion and destitute of taste.” Quite a statement!
Adelicia was not a woman who would place herself on the other side of such a statement. She was an accomplished rider who owned a stable of horses and a follower of all which was socially fashionable.
Adelicia’s first husband, Isaac Franklin’s, estate inventory listed 16 blooded horses, a racing stable, and training track. He owned a one third interest in the Nashville Race Course, Nashville’s first and most prominent track, which was located west of town along the Cumberland River near the end of Jefferson Street today.
Adelicia’s second husband may have favored art collecting and politics over horses but of course, her interest in the sport was always keen.
But it is her third husband, Dr. William Cheatham, and his role in Nashville’s horse history where the story reveals an unexpected event. While we don’t know much about Dr. Cheatham’s involvement with horses prior to the Civil War, we do know that the Cheatham family had members very involved with the Nashville Blood Horse Association. This group of breeders and turfmen acted as a committee to provide oversight of the sport.
The Nashville horse industry suffered greatly during the Civil War. Battles fought in Middle Tennessee and occupying armies destroyed race tracks, stables, and farms. Horse were valuable commodities to armies and were confiscated into use. Once the war was over, however, those men previously involved set themselves to re-establishing the grandeur that had been.
Following the war Dr. Cheatham and Adelcia Acklen were married in 1867. Shortly thereafter Dr. Cheatham and other prominent Nashville leaders worked to re-establish the Nashville Blood Horse Association. By Jan 1869, the Nashville Union and American newspaper announced the running of a “Belmont Stake” to be held the following fall. Dr. W.A. Cheatham was listed as subscriber (or providing part of the prize) at $300 and the Association put forward another $500. The race was run on Oct 21st of that year. Similar announcements appeared in 1873 and 1875 giving the impression that the race was held throughout that time period.
Interestingly, the Belmont Stakes we know today began about this same time. While it seems obvious that Dr. Cheatham and the Association named the Nashville race for the Acklen home, the New York race was named for Mr. August Belmont and was first held at Jerome Park, which is now part of the Bronx. The current Belmont Stakes takes place in Elmont, New York.
After the Civil War, horse racing and breeding, thanks to the support of people like Dr. and Mrs. Cheatham, (Adelicia Acklen), did regain its standing in Tennessee. In fact by the 1880s Nashville area farms received international attention as having some of the finest stock of thoroughbred horses anywhere. As the city grew, however, it saw changes. Other sporting activities developed, the middle class population grew, and thoroughbred racing saw less demand. Standard bred trotters, which were bred for pulling carriages, became the focus of the horse industry. Eventually the financial panic of 1893 and a series of poor horse sales brought about some tough financial years. Then a reform movement that had begun in 1885 gained influence and the State legislature passed an anti-betting law. That killed it for Tennessee. Our long-time rival Kentucky became the center for horse racing and breeding in the South.
James D. Anderson, Making the American Thoroughbred Especially in Tennessee, 1800-1845, (1916)
Leigh Branham, “Rose Mont’s Thoroughbred Racing History Recalled” Sumner AM, The Tennessean (April 19, 2016)
Edward Franklin Geers, Ed Geers’ experience with the trotters and pacers. Embracing a brief history of his early life in Tennessee, with descriptions of som. (1901)
Tara Mitchell Mielnik, “Early Horse Racing Tracks”, Tennessee Encyclopedia, (2017)
Tennessee Department of Agriculture as author, The Horse and its Heritage in Tennessee, (1951)
Margaret Lindsley Warden, The Saga of Fairvue, 1832-1977, (1977)
Nashville Union and American, January 17 and 24, 1869 and July 15, 1875.
Republican Banner, November 26, 1868 and Mary 1 and 20, 1873.
Ridley Wills II, “The Eclipse of the Thoroughbred Horse Industry in Tennessee”, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, (1987)