O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention…
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth…
Prologue to Henry V, William Shakespeare
We are just a few days away from the date accepted as Shakespeare’s birthday – April 23, the same date on which he is thought to have died. A bard is a singer, a poet, a reciter of epic verse; The Bard is Shakespeare, singularly worthy of the definite pronoun. There’s only one.
In literature, that is. In racing, there are plenty.
Pedigree Query offers five The Bards, bred in the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. All were male; the earliest was born in Britain in 1833, the most recent in Australia in 2002.
There were two The Bards born in 1883, one in Britain, one here. The British The Bard was by Petrarch–so delicious, that! Petrarch was the 14th century poet besotted with the married Laura, to whom he dedicated a series of poems about his unrequited love for her. It is he who gave us the Italian sonnet, without which the world would be a much, much poorer place. Just ask Edna St. Vincent Millay, who totally rocked the Italian sonnet with an early 20th century bohemian vibe. But I digress.
The Stateside The Bard was by Longfellow—which is fine, but I’ll take Petrarch over Longfellow any day. I suppose, though, that it’s fitting that The (American) Bard was named for an American poet, even though Longfellow, while a bard, is no The Bard. But I digress.
The British The Bard was no slouch, according to Pedigree Query, winning 23 of 25 races, but even if Longfellow is no Shakespeare (or Petrarch), the Yank The Bard, winner of the 1888 Jerome, might have given that British horse a run for its money.
The 19th century New York Times reports on The Bard are practically odes, effulgent panegyrics to his looks and his talent. The advance for the 1888 Brooklyn Handicap offers a sample:
The Bard [was owner] Mr. Cassatt’s pride and pet…The few who have been permitted to see The Bard since his arrival here are simply astounded at his appearance this Spring…the picture of a perfect race horse…with a coat lustrous as satin, a horse fitted and furnished to suit the eye of even the most captious critic, and apparently in condition “to race for a man’s salvation.”
If that last is an allusion, I don’t know the source, but it gives a sense of the esteem in which this horse was held. Walter Vosburgh’s Racing in America tells us that The Bard’s racing career got off to a slow start; he won the Jerome (then run at Jerome Park), and the Preakness at 3, and was second in the Belmont, but, typical of Longfellow’s get, this son hit his stride as a 4-year-old, winning 11 of 17 races, and improving even further at 5. He was, said Vosburgh, “incontestably the champion,” winning 7 of 8 races, including the Brooklyn Handicap, the St. James, the Brooklyn Cup, the Coney Island Cup, and the Ocean Stakes.
[How did it take me so long to find this horse? This horse named for a poet, who dominated Brooklyn racing? Where was he hiding? But I digress.]
The Bard’s win in the Brooklyn Cup, his third stakes win in two weeks, sent our Times writer into a frenzy of encomiums (or encomia, if you prefer), the headline declaring The Bard “America’s Greatest Race Horse”:
The antiques who prate of the glories of the turf in bygone days, just as other antiques do of the glories of the theatre in years long past, are loth to acknowledge that the modern days have brought forth anything good. Yet the fact remains that there never was a horse who wore shoes on American soil who was as great a racer as The Bard has shown himself to be during the past two weeks.
The Bard isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and aside from Vosburgh, he gets scant attention in racing history books. The Times fortunately and faithfully recorded much of The Bard’s career; without that publication, we would have regrettably little information about a horse who inspired such poetic tributes 124 years ago.
Another Bard, in about 1590, was also concerned about legacy, about posterity, devoting a series of sonnets to how beauty and memory might be preserved through time. Like our Times writers, he pulled it off pretty well.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thy wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare
(Extra credit available for those who identify what “eternal lines” and “this” refer to.)
Quoted and consulted
“Jerome Park’s Opening.” New York Times, September 26, 1886.
“The Bard Wins The Cup: He Is America’s Greatest Race Horse.” New York Times, May 27, 1888.
“The Brooklyn Handicap,” New York Times, May 15, 1888.
Vosburgh, Walter. Racing in America.