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Annapolis displays its horse-racing credentials


Annapolis Alderman Ellen Moyer wanted prominent display for the Annapolis Subscription Plate, the second-oldest horse-racing trophy in America and the pride of the city's golden age of horse racing.

But Moyer knew that one trophy wouldn't make an interesting exhibit, so she started researching and collecting items that identified Annapolis as the place where horse racing in America originated.

The items are now displayed in the exhibit "And It All Began Here in Annapolis: Thoroughbred Racing in Maryland Colonial Days," featured in the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College. The exhibit opened yesterday, in time for Saturday's 126th running of the Preakness Stakes, and continues through May 27.

In a strange turn of events, the exhibit will feature only a photograph of the subscription plate - it's too worn to be moved from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

But the exhibit does display a copy of the documents that show the Annapolis city council was responsible for organizing the first municipally sponsored horse race in America. Council meeting minutes from 1720 show the group authorizing the race and establishing a plan to finance the track and trophies.

"I thought we could brag a little bit about this sport," said Moyer, who is also on the Maryland Racing Commission. "After doing all the research, I discovered that horse racing was to Annapolis what sailing is to it today."

The exhibit tells the story of the time when, taking after the British gentry, Annapolis citizens imported thoroughbreds into the county as a symbol of their wealth and success. The horses would race against others from rival colonies, creating a popular social season in the city, once called the Athens of America.

"Sons were sent back to England to go to school," Moyer said. When a young man went, "he was to look for a horse to bring back with him, because a man of fashion had to have a horse."

During a two-year period, Moyer and volunteers organized the exhibit, which consists of about 70 items from 14 collections. Included are one of a set of 12 spoons awarded in 1721 as the first horse-racing prize, portraits of Annapolis from the 1700s and letters from George Washington about losing 1 pound, 2 shillings at the track.

The exhibit also explains how the horses were transported by ship and that, in 1747, the first "royal pair" - a world-class breeding stallion and mare - came into the Annapolis harbor.

"There's a lot more research to be done," Moyer said. "I think we've just barely scratched the surface."

Three free noon lunchtime lectures also are offered during the exhibit.

On Tuesday, Stephen Patrick, curator of the City of Bowie Museum, will talk about the Chesapeake's Colonial thoroughbred families; on Wednesday, Mitch Crosswait, a member of the Virginia Historical Society, will discuss aspects of horses in 18th- century England and America; and on May 24, Moyer and researcher Brigitte Wilson will lecture on Annapolis' golden age of horse racing.

The exhibit also will act as the starting point for a permanent Maryland horse-racing museum, Moyer said. When the exhibit closes, some of the items will go back to the owners and others will be left to help create the museum, which does not have a location.

"That something of this nature will be established on a permanent basis can only improve and enhance the image and the standing that thoroughbred racing has on the history and fabric of Maryland," said Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

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