Before there was Big Red…there was “the Great Red Fox”

                                                         

A century before Meadow Stable, home of Hall of Famers Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Hill Prince and Cicada, put Doswell, Virginia on the racing map, Bullfield Stable in nearby Hanover County dominated the American racing scene.  Its most famous son was a long-striding chestnut stallion named Planet, also called “the great red fox.” He was considered, after Lexington, the greatest racehorse up to the time of the Civil War.

On August 10, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga will induct Planet into the Hall of Fame in the historical category.  Not only did this great champion and Bullfield Stable symbolize an era known as “the golden age of Virginia horse racing,” but they were an early influence on a horse-crazy boy named Christopher T. Chenery and the future Meadow Stable.

 Founded in 1824, Bullfield became known as “the Red Stable” because so many of its winners were sorrels and its jockeys wore flashy orange silks.  Operated by Major Thomas  Walker Doswell and his father, Bullfield gained renown as one of the most successful Thoroughbred farms of the East Coast.  In fact, the locality of Doswell was named in their honor.

 Planet was born in 1855, sired by Revenue, the leading sire in 1850. His dam was the great racer and broodmare Nina, said to be the best racing daughter of the top sire Boston. A prolific broodmare, she gave Bullfield Stable 15 outstanding foals, including Exchequer and Ecliptic, a son of the great Eclipse. Planet was said to be Nina’s best. She was one of the reasons that writers of the period referred to Bullfield as “a nursery of Virginia racehorses.”

 Planet was a handsome horse, described by John Hervey in his book “Racing in America – 1665-1865” as follows:  “In color a rich chestnut, 15.2 ½ hands tall, he was remarkable for his symmetry of mould and the excellence of his limbs…” 

 Those limbs exhibited whirlwind speed against the top horses of the day such as Daniel Boone, Congaree, Hennie Farrow, Socks and Arthur Macon.   Planet won 27 of 31 races and became the top money winner with nearly $70,000 in purses, a record that stood for 20 years.  

He possessed enormous stamina as well. Those were the days when horses raced in heats ranging from one to four miles, sometimes running as much as 12 miles in one afternoon. Such races would be unthinkable today, as would the practice of racing the horse again after only a three-day layoff, as Planet’s schedule occasionally dictated.

 However, the versatile Planet could win at any distance, long or short, posting some of his best performances at four mile heats. He carried Bullfield’s orange silks on familiar Virginia tracks at Ashland, Petersburg and Broad Rock and further afield on the Southern circuit from New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston and even north to New York.  

 Planet also displayed another form of versatility.  He was an accomplished trotter who could do a mile in three minutes. According to John Hervey, this talent landed him in trouble at the New York track in 1860 where he was being worked at a flying trot before a meet. A race official ordered Planet and his rider off the track, declaring that trotters were not allowed. Other horsemen jumped to Planet’s defense, finally convincing the official to rescind his order against the champion Thoroughbred.

 The Civil War and its aftermath curtailed racing in the South and interrupted what would have been Planet’s best years at stud (1861-1868). During that time, many of the Bullfield horses were hidden in the woods to protect them from marauding horse thieves. Nevertheless, an advertisement of the era proclaimed that “Planet – Virginia’s Unrivalled Race Horse will make his season of 1866 at Bullfield… commencing March 1st and ending July 15th, at $50 the season, with $2 to the groom.”  

 Despite the handicap of war, Planet managed to sire impressive offspring who made turf history of their own.  His blood figures in the pedigrees of Kingman, winner of the 1891 Kentucky Derby; Bowling Brook, winner of the 1895 Belmont Stakes; the great filly Regret who won the Kentucky Derby in 1915; Exterminator, winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby; and (on the female side) Fleet Nasrullah, successful son of the legendary Nasrullah, the grandsire of Secretariat.

 Planet passed his trotting blood, which flowed from his sire Revenue, to his daughter Dame Winnie. She was bred to Electioneer, the great Standardbred, and produced the champion trotting stallion of his day, Palo Alto. 

 In the custom of the day, Planet’s portrait was painted by the famous equine artist Edward Troye, who at Major Doswell’s insistence, included Planet’s black jockey Jesse in the saddle.  During a raid on Bullfield, the portrait was cut from its frame by Yankee soldiers. It was later found in a ditch and returned to the Doswells by someone who recognized the orange silks worn by Jesse.  

Major Doswell sold Planet to Mr. Alexander of Woodburn Farm in Kentucky, where he lived until his death in 1875 at the age of 20.

Planet and Bullfield influenced not only Thoroughbred history but also the history of  Meadow Stable in neighboring Caroline County.  After Major Doswell died in 1890, his son Bernard inherited a portion of the farm called Hilldene and ran his own small stable there. Bernard’s younger cousin by marriage, Christopher T. Chenery, would walk seven miles from Ashland to Bernard’s farm and exercise his few remaining horses on the old Bullfield track.  Here, Bernard regaled Chris with tales of Bullfield’s glory days, introducing him to a  heady world of gleaming trophies and fine-blooded Thoroughbreds, a world far removed from  the boy’s humble circumstances in Ashland.  Perhaps it is no small coincidence that when Chenery purchased The Meadow in 1936 and began building his foundation bloodlines, he named one of his most prolific mares Hildene.

 And, as everyone knows, The Meadow also produced a great red stallion, one who became Virginia’s and the nation’s “unrivalled racehorse.”  Secretariat, “Big Red,” together with Planet, “the Great Red Fox” of Bullfield  stand as pillars of equine perfection and performance, reminding the world that some of the most magnificent horses of the American turf sprang from Virginia soil.

We will have the honor of attending the Hall of Fame ceremony in Saratoga next Friday with Sarah Wright, the 93-year-old granddaughter of Bernard Doswell and her daughter Cecelia.  Sarah’s meticulous documentation of her family history in her book “The Doswell Dynasty” helped the Secretariat’s Meadow book team offer the nomination of Planet for the Hall of Fame.  You can read more about  Planet, the Doswells and Bullfield in “Secretariat’s Meadow – The Land, The Family, The Legend.”    

by Leeanne Meadows Ladin

co-author of “Secretariat’s Meadow – the Land, the Family, The Legend”

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4 Responses to Before there was Big Red…there was “the Great Red Fox”

  1. Sharon Jones says:

    Those horses were magnificent. But, then what can we expect for such a great bloodline. They were gorgeous ,too. There will never,in my opinion be a greater racehorse then “BIG RED”.

  2. Steven Jordan says:

    Hope to see you at HOF.

  3. freereinwriting says:

    Hope to see you too! Please come find me if I don’t see you.

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