Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Greatest Doswell ... updated

This is a short account of the greatest Doswell. It begins with a branch of my family that moved to and became established in Virginia during pre-revolutionary days. [I'm not a direct descendant of that line. My great-grandfather, John Indiana -- perhaps I'll have more on that story later.] The Virginia Doswells became landed gentry (no doubt with slaves) and moved in the same social circles with the truly famous Lees of Virginia. Many of these aristocrats had racing stables, and the Doswells were no exception. A Civil War skirmish was fought between Grant and Lee on Doswell land (near the North Anna River), during the interlude between major battles at Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor -- a book I have about the skirmish (J.M. Miller, 1989: Even to Hell Itself, ISBN-0-919930-71-8) mentions "the celebrated horse breeder Major Doswell" on whose property part of the skirmish took place.

My friend David Hoadley sent me a story years ago that had appeared in a Virginia newspaper's Sunday supplement. The gist of the story is that the Virginia Doswells had a long history with horse racing, but fell on hard times and were forced to sell their stables at some point, presumably after the Civil War sometime. I can no longer find the article, and I can't remember the details regarding the date of the sale or to whom the stables were sold. Part of the arrangements associated with that sale, according to the story, was that any new owners would continue to race under the colors of the Doswell racing stables.

There recently was a movie about the great horse Secretariat and the horse breeding and racing operation under Penny Chenery Tweedy. The movie opens with a scene in Doswell, Virginia (a small town north of Richmond named for that branch of the Doswell family), home for Meadow Farm Stable. The star of that movie is undeniably the horse, Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973. The most famous and greatest Doswell is the celebrated horse, Secretariat! [We can claim him because he raced under "our" colors.] I've seen a color photo of Secretariat with Ron Turcotte (the jockey who rode him to the triple crown) aboard, and they got the colors (blue and white checked) more or less right in the movie.

A few years ago, I had a chance to visit Doswell, Virginia. It’s not much of a town but has an amusement park of significance, and apparently has something of a timber industry, but is otherwise not impressive. It seems to be little more than a “whistle stop” on the CSX rail lines that run through the town. The pimply-faced teenager behind the counter in the local convenience store was unimpressed with the fact that my driver’s license proclaims me to be related to the family for which the town is named. Nevertheless, it’s the home of a line within my family that at one time were local aristocrats and can claim the proud heritage of arguably the greatest race horse that ever lived and raced -- from Doswell, Virginia and under the Doswell racing stable colors!

UPDATE: I recently located what appears to be a newspaper article by someone named John Markon that I hand-dated July 1982 from the Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch, where Markon was a staff writer. It makes no mention of the sale of the Doswell racing stables, but discusses the relationship one Major Thomas W. Doswell had with Capt. Richard Johnson Hancock. Major Doswell lived in the vicinity of Hanover Junction (later to be named Doswell) and had an estate called Bull Field, where apparently he put on some big horse races annually until his death. Doswell is recognized in the article to be the third in a line of horsemen. This is evidently the same Major Doswell mentioned in the book about the Civil War skirmish at the North Anna River. The article discusses a horse Major Doswell owned for a while, Eolus, which is claimed in the article to be the origin of an "equine empire" in the region.

According to the article, "By 1877. Doswell and Hancock had also begun a racing partnership with Hancock conditioning Bull Field colts and fillies in Albermarle and the horses later racing under the Doswell colors." The article goes on, "T.W. Doswell died in 1890 ... Eventually, Hancock gained ownership of much of the Bull Field stock, and race horses owned by the Hancocks have carried Doswell's orange silks, the first to be officially registered by the American Jockey Club, for the last 90 years." Apparently, it was the Hancock breeding operation at Claiborne Farm that's associated with Secretariat, who was born at Chenery's Meadow Stable .

Thus, it seems the memory I had that Secretariat ran under Doswell colors was mistaken. Christopher T. Chenery (father of Penny Chenery Tweedy, who bred and raced Secretariat) established his Meadow Stable on land adjacent to Bull Field. The article makes it clear that the Doswell colors were orange silks, not blue and white checks, so my recollection of the content of the material sent to me by Dave Hoadley was in error. We Doswells probably can't make much of a claim to Secretariat after all. The most famous Doswell is likely of lesser fame than Secretariat!

I also remember an article which ran in a Richmond Sunday supplement on this topic, but if that's still in my possession and not just another mistaken recollection, I can't locate it.

1 comment:

Peter Doswell said...

Hi Chuck, i have just read your blog about Doswell, i did mention to you once that i had planned to visit Doswell myself this year and indeed i still plan too, it seems my daughter wants a photo of herself taken by the sign 'Doswell' thats if there is one of course, i myself wanted to sign a hotel register with the name Doswell and see a reaction,but i guess i will get the same blank exspression, ah well. i am sure we will enjoy the drive over the Skyline anyway.