Introducing Imp

And today, we take a turn towards the frivolous.

The former foster kittens are firmly ensconced in the Backstretch household; they made the Thanksgiving trip to Saratoga, and they are now six month old adolescents, engaging in charmingly maddening teenage behavior. Furlong and Ruffian are happy and healthy and friendly and playful. They are perfect.

Except for one thing.

I’ve never been that crazy about having a cat named for a horse who died, famously, on the racetrack. I know, I know: I named her, it’s my fault. But she is so black and fast and inquisitive and intrepid and smart that from her tiniest kitten days, “Ruffian” has seemed nearly perfect for her. Except that her namesake died on the racetrack.

At several points over the last few months, I have made half-hearted attempts to re-name her. Cleo? Nah, doesn’t fit. Other names came and went; none was right.

Until last weekend.

I’ve been reading Women of the Year: Ten Fillies Who Achieved Horse Racing’s Highest Honor, and while home in Saratoga, I read the chapter on Imp, the “Coal Black Lady” who raced 171 times in the 1890’s.

Imp was a Midwestern horse, beginning her life and her race career in Ohio, owned by Daniel Harness, who named her, according to Eliza McGraw, because of the “mischievous way she gamboled around the paddock as a foal.”

Having racing successfully in the Midwest, in 1898, at age four, Imp headed east; Harness wanted to test his filly in the Suburban, run then at Sheepshead Bay. She finished sixth and following one more race here in New York, headed home to Ohio…but not for long.

The following spring, Harness brought Imp back to New York to try the Suburban again…and this time she won it, the first mare to do so. In her victory,

Imp disposed of one of the most cherished of the traditions of the race course—that which has averred that no mare could win one of the great Spring handicaps. She not only won it, but won it in the best time ever made for the race. (“Imp’s Great Race”)

Imp’s record for the mile and a quarter was 2:05 4/5.

Imp’s win in the Suburban was one of 13 victories in 1899 for her; the five-year-old made 31 starts, hitting the board in 21 of them, racing almost exclusively in New York. At age 6, she won the Advance at Sheepshead Bay by 30 lengths; her last win came at Morris Park in October of 1901, when she was seven.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965, Imp compiled a lifetime race record of 171 – 62 – 35 – 29 and was, according to William H.P. Robertson, “the embodiment of the spirit of the Gay Nineties.” She had legions of fans who turned out to see her races, and in the estimation of Kent Hollingsworth, she was Horse of the Year in 1899.

McGraw writes that following Imp’s win in the Suburban, Daniel Harness rejected multiple offers to sell his five-year-old. “I am an old man and there is no pocket in a shroud,” he said. “Imp is all I want.”

She was the “Coal Black Lady,” nicknamed after a popular song in the 1890’s, a song that was played frequently after her races. She was buried at Hamburg Place in Lexington with other well-known horses; when Hamburg Place was developed, Imp’s grave, along with many others, was moved to make room for a Wal-Mart. Cut all the way across the parking lot, observe a little park, walk down the hill…and there she is: the Coal Black Lady, the Black Whirlwind. Imp.

Worked cited and consulted (New York Times are free)

Champions. New York: Daily Racing Form Press, 2000.

Imp’s Great Race for the Suburban.” New York Times. 18 June 1899. Web. 30 November 2009.

Imp Sets a New Record.” New York Times. 1 July 1900. Web. 30 November 2009.

McGraw, Eliza. “Imp.” Women of the Year: Ten Fillies Who Achieved Horse Racing’s Highest Honor. Ed. Jacqueline Duke. Lexington, Kentucky: Eclipse Press, 2004. Print. 29 – 44.

Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.

Smith, Gean. “Imp.” National Museum of Racing, Saratoga Springs, New York. National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Web. 30 November 2009.

8 thoughts on “Introducing Imp

  1. Fantastic name! I think you made a very excellent choice. I wondered where they moved the cemetery….and to think all for another "Wally-World"….geez. Next time I'm in that part of town on a nice day I am sure to go for a visit. More history forgotten to remember.

  2. Thanks, everyone–it does seem to suit her, perfectly. On the day that I went, Trip, the sun was shining on the little park where the markers are–it was the afternoon. Despite the crazy overdevelopment all around it, it was a lovely spot.

  3. Love the story. Imp was my Great Great Grandfather’s (Daniel Harness) horse. Being a big cat lover, this just made my day when I read it.



    • How wonderful to hear from you! Imp is the perfect name for my feline, and Imp the equine is among my favorite historical horses. Would love to hear more about your great great grandfather–

  4. I got your email but accidentally deleted it before I could respond. As for Dan Harness and Imp, from some of the paper work I have that in a binder we had been given at the 200th anniversary of the Harness Farms back in 1998, Dan intended for Imp to retire and live out her days on the farm, but when he died, she ended up being sold. Not sure why other than his son, Robert had no interest in keeping her. That is just speculation. I just know that most of us descendants love her and her story. As a teen back in the 70’s, every time I would visit my Great Aunt Grace or Lillian (sisters and the granddaughters of Dan) I always loved hearing stories about the farm. Grace even gave me a bridal she says was Imp’s training bridal. I have it and several pictures of her on a wall along with a pic of Dan and his wife Rachel. The farm has always been a crop, and one time cattle farm. It’s just crops now. I even have a drawing that Grace made of how the farm looked during Imp’s time.

  5. Hi, my name is Lou Ann , I am a great great granddaughter of Daniel r. Harness. My great grandmother was his daughter. I am amazed to find a relative. I am on vacation but I will contact you when I get home . My grandpa was john harness Cunningham.

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