The first Alabama

Saturday brings to us the second oldest race for fillies in the country; the Alabama Stakes, inaugurated in 1872, is younger by four years than the Ladies Handicap. The race is named for Captain William Cottrill, a Southern military man and keen horseman. Edward Hotaling, in They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, tells of the origins of the race’s name:

…the Alabama Stakes…would have been the Cottrill Stakes except Captain Cottrill
of Mobile was (a) so modest he didn’t want a race named for him, or (b) such a
diehard he wanted to honor secessionist Alabama, depending on which legend is

Ron Hale suggests that it is the former, not the latter.

Cottrill was as involved in racing as a man could be, running his horses at races all over the country and dominating the Fair Grounds meets in the first decade of that track’s existence. He owned Buchanan, winner of the 1880 Kentucky Derby, but unfortunately never ran a winner in the race named in his honor. His New York Times obituary in 1887 tells us that he rode in the first hurdle race in this country, and born in England, commanded a cavalry company in the Civil War, serving “with much gallantry.”

While Captain Cottrill himself may have been untainted by regional prejudices, the same cannot be said of the first running of the race named for him. The story begins the day before the first Alabama, on July 18th, 1872, when Sue Ryder (which is spelled “Rider” in the Times on one day, “Ryder” on another), owned by Southerner Colonel McDaniel, took on August Belmont’s Wade Hampton:

It was a two-mile gallop…the Southerners were eager to lay every dollar on their
favorite…Wade Hampton, however, was well supported, and wisely, too, as the
result of the race showed…The Southern party, who had followed the Colonel’s
example, were utterly staggered. The Colonel himself walked over to the
judge’s stand alone, and muttering between his teeth. He was evidently
disgusted and amazed, as were all who had been unwise enough to underrate Wade
Hampton as a race-horse. (New York Times)

Sue Ryder was defeated by “many lengths” in her two mile race, but as was common more than a hundred years ago, came back to race the next day, this time in the Alabama. A virtual sprint at only a mile and an eighth, the race featured four starters, including Mr. Belmont’s Woodbine.

The first race…was, to the Southern element, like a bad headache after a severe midnight’s debauch. They had all gone so heavily on Sue Ryder yesterday
that barely one of them could be found to put up a $20 bill on her in the
pool. Mr. Belmont’s Woodbine was an overwhelming favorite, and the great
hope of yesterday for the Southerners sold for a mere nothing. Yesterday’s
failure was more than repeated today. Woodbine won—she might have won by
two or three lengths—and Sue Ryder was nowhere. (New York Times)

In his book The Great Match Race, John Eisenberg places racing in the historical/political context of pre-Civil War America, noting that regional pride played a major role in the race that took place in 1823, pitting a Northern horse against a Southern one; that pride can only have been strengthened following the “struggle,” as the Times called it in Cottrill’s obituary, making Sue Ryder’s two defeats all the more bitter.

We might, I suppose, in something of a stretch, choose to see Proud Spell’s and Music Note’s potential re-match this weekend as something of a regional rivalry, with the Mid-Atlantic filly (can we call her Southern? Delaware and Maryland are below the Mason-Dixon Line, after all) coming north to avenge her loss last month in the Coaching Club American Oaks.

This will depend, of course, on whether Music Note actually runs in the Alabama; as of this writing, she is still under consideration for the Travers. Here’s hoping that she stays in the Alabama, making Captain William Cottrill’s race the highlight of the Spa meeting, and likely deciding the three-year-old filly champion. Hmm, has Larry Jones considered offered making a donation in order to induce her to run?

4 thoughts on “The first Alabama

  1. You emphatically can’t call Maryland and Delaware southern. In fact, were the Mason-Dixon line extended, part of New Jersey would be below it, too, and that’s obviously no southern state. Regardless, although the state song Maryland, My Maryland was written to incite Marylanders to fight against the Union, Maryland remained in the Union (thanks to much, umm, persuasion by the US Army). We’ll call ourselves mid-Atlantic, thank you very much!

  2. you should write for a major publication. i enjoy the historical background you research for your articles. people do not realize how much saratoga history is associated with in the birth of our nation. keep up the good work…………….joe

  3. Kevin: you may get your wish, but I hope you don’t!Joe: Thanks–know anyone who’s hiring? =)Frank: point conceded–I did say it was something of a reach, though having lived in Baltimore, I do think it’s about equal parts southern and northern…

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