Neither the victory of Lady Eli (by Divine Park) in the Grade 1 Gamely Stakes at Santa Anita nor that of Rey de Oro (King Kamehameha) in the G1 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) was quite a squeaker. Each won by three-quarters of a length, and both these top-class winners and all of racing are beneficiaries of work done by man and horse more than a century ago to produce photography that would stop action, freeze a moment in time.
The impetus for the work of capturing a photographic record of a horse’s stride was the money and curiosity of Leland Stanford. The technical skill and problem solving that produced the sequence of photos that both recorded a horse’s stride action and froze independent portions of it came from the English photographic professional and experimenter Eadweard Muybridge.
Both men are significant, both in their own time and for us today.
The least-known member of this operation was the horse. A Thoroughbred mare owned and raced by Stanford was the initial test subject for capturing stride motion, and her name was Sallie Gardner.
Muybridge conducted his experiments with Sallie Gardner in 1878 at the Palo Alto track with the mare running at speed for a mile in 1:40, which translates into furlongs of :12 ½ seconds or quarters of :25. Sallie Gardner was described as “one of the fastest runners on the coast, and noted for her superb form and graceful gait.”
Bred in Tennessee (or Kentucky, depending on the source) by Arthur Towles, Sallie Gardner was a daughter of the distinguished stallion Vandal out of Charlotte Thompson.
Vandal was a son of English stallion Glencoe, winner of the 2,000 Guineas and a very important mid-century sire in America at R.A. Alexander’s Woodburn Stud. Foaled in 1850, Vandal was bred by Alexander and became an important sire in his own right, with his most important breeding son being Virgil. The latter sired three Kentucky Derby winners: Vagrant (1876), Hindoo (1881), and Ben Ali (1886).
Of that trio, Hindoo was the most important, both on the racetrack and at stud. His most famous son was Hanover, who was the key to one of the three eminent “American” lines at the end of the 19th century: those of Hanover/Hamburg, Hastings/Fair Play, and Domino/Commando.
A foal of 1872, Sallie Gardner was a 6-year-old at the time of date with destiny, and it is this series of photographs for which the mare is remembered.
Although the winner of races and dam of seven reported foals, Sallie Gardner descends to us today not as a taproot producer but as an icon.
She is an icon because she proved a point and showed that a photograph is worth a thousand words. Especially a series of photographs in her case.
There had been considerable controversy among horse folk about a racehorse’s gait and especially about whether all four of a horse’s feet were all off the ground at the same time. Without slow-motion photography or cinematic captures of complete galloping or trotting actions, there was room to wonder how animals moved.
Stanford had the money to back the endeavor into finding out exactly how things worked, and Muybridge had the offbeat approach to put the experiment together practically.
The result was a series of photographs that definitively proved horses are airborne for a portion of each stride, and it proved that the most common illustrated form of the racing horse was wrong. Illustrators typically showed racing Thoroughbreds with both forefeet stretched before them, both hind feet stretched back. Typical of the bounding racing action of the greyhound, this is not correct for the horse.
Muybridge’s horse and the work he did in illustrating motion proved a spur to developing motion picture cinematography, and the photo-finish cameras that stop the action of horses at the wire to determine the winners and placed horses in races are heirs of this tradition of photographic development that began with horses.
Part of the horse’s iconography extends beyond racing or motion pictures. Recently, my daughter Holly Mitchell had a brief narrative poem, “Muybridge’s Horse in Motion,” selected as Poem of the Week and published in Narrative online. It is available here.
Whether we find Sallie Gardner in a photograph, a strip of pictures mimicking motion, or a poem, she proves that a Thoroughbred is poetry in motion.