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Colonial America's Prosperity in Gambling

Lotteries were not only the gambling games available in colonial times.

Horse racing was a popular activity from the start of colonialization. In 1610, Jamestown received its first shipment of racehorses, a total of seven.

In 1620, the Virginia Company shipped twenty mares, 'beautiful and full of courage', and racing began in earnest.

The first horse races were informal affairs run over a short distance. The early colonists found that the cost of clearing large spaces of land precluded the building of traditional racecourses.

Instead, they developed a type of contest peculiar to America--- quarter horse racing.

Early racing enthusiasts laid out a straight course about a quarter of a mile long over existing roads or on relatively level land (often hastily cleared of trees).

Races were all-out sprints from one end to of the track to the other. Typically, a race matched two horses who were ridden by their owners. Spectators bet with one another on their favorites; often the wagers involved tobacco or livestock as well as cash.

This type of racing flourished in seventeenth century Virginia and was also found in Northeastern colonies.

A Plymouth decree of 1674 states that 'whatever person shall forfeit 5 shillings in money forthwith to be levied by the Constable'.

In Philadelphia, the town council repeatedly warned that racing horses on Sassafrass Street was forbidden. Their warnings were not heeded and Philadelphians dubbed this thoroughfare Race Street, a name that later was made official.

In Virginia, the large planters or gentry controlled horse racing and considered it their exclusive sporting domain. Laws were passed forbidding members of the working class to wager on horse races.

An advertisement of an upcoming race meeting in the Virginia Gazette underscores the exclusiveness of racing; the purpose of the contests, it states, is to furnish the county's 'considerable Number of Gentlemen, Merchants, and credible Planters an opportunity for collective Friendship'.

The notice warned that spectators must behave with 'Decency and Sobriety, the Subscribers being resolved to discountenance all Immorality with the most utmost Rigour'.

The gentry often wagered heavily on the outcome of quarter horse races. In 1693, for example, two Virginia planters wagered four thousand pounds of tobacco (about one year's harvest) and forty sterling shillings on the speed of their horses.

The gentlemanly participants often found themselves in disagreement over the terms of their wager or the fairness of the race.

Rather than resort to duels, the gentlemen sought redress in the courts.

In the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries, Virginia courts were besieged by litigious planters seeking arbitration in disputes over horse races.

To discourage court suits, it became an established practice for gentlemen to sign a wagering contract prior to the actual race contest.

In 1690, a Henrico County, Virginia, court dismissed a gambling suit since 'noe Money was stacked down nor Contract in writing made one of which in such cases is by the law required'.