Thoroughbred Racing in the “City by the Bay”

Oakdale Race Track in Mobile, Alabama. c. early 1900s.

When most folks think of Thoroughbred racing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Deep South, one city usually comes to mind—New Orleans. However, another city on the Gulf Coast shared equal popularity during this era—the “City by the Bay,” that is, Mobile, Alabama.

While New Orleans had its Metairie Race Track and the Fairgrounds (the nation’s third oldest track still in business), Mobile had the Bascombe, Arlington Fairgrounds, and Oakdale race courses.

Bascombe Race Course. In the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, a popular magazine in the antebellum era, Bascombe’s 1838 racing schedule is listed, along with the names of the various horses competing, the days when different races will be held, the purse for the winner, and so on. These were the races the publication had omitted in an earlier issue. In 1860, the course was used as an encampment for volunteer troops called “Camp Montgomery.” Nowadays, Mobile uses it to train its Mounted Police Unit.

Arlington Fairgrounds. This track was located near the Bascombe Course, on a road that followed along the Mobile Bay southward for seven miles. Called the Bay Shell Road at the time, it was paved with oyster shells and to travel on it one had to pay a toll. Arlington’s track began around the 1870s, and its use for racing continued into the early twentieth century.

Oakdale. A track in this community was also in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Some local historians consider this one to have been Mobile’s best.  

In Turfmen and the Prodigal, due out this September, I use a fictional track in Spring Hill, Alabama, west of Mobile. During the antebellum era, Spring Hill was a late spring and summer refuge for many of Mobile’s wealthy citizens.

Bibliography

“Camp Montgomery,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958): 293

“Fairgrounds History Remembered in New Documentary,” Mid-City Messenger, November 18, 2014,https://midcitymessenger.com/2014/11/18/fair-grounds-history-remembered-in-new-documentary/.

“Horsing Around,” Mobile Bay Magazine 37, no. 4(2021):82.

McLaurin, Melton and Michael Thomason. Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City.  Woodland Hills, CA, 1981.

“Omissions in the Racing Calendar,” American and Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 10 (January and February, 1839): 94.

Preston, Ben C. “Mobile Alabama Nostalgia Back in the Day,” Facebook, December 23. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/groups/MobileNostalgia.

Scott, Mike. “From Horses to Corpses: How Metairie Race Course Became Metairie Cemetery,” The Times Picayune, April 12, 2017; Updated July 22, 2019https://www.nola.com/300/article_4d8f567b-5039-5e52-88b7-9e6a4331925a.html

Jimmy Winkfield, Hall of Fame Jockey

In the 1890s, an African-American jockey named Jimmy Winkfield was the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Throughout the nineteenth century, African-Americans dominated Thoroughbred racing. Most of them in the South, before the Civil War, were slaves. Winkfield gained fame in America as well as in Europe and Czarist Russia.

Today, in Queens, New York, a race is held every year in his honor–The Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. I’ve attached a short YouTube video that tells about his fascinating life.

Turfmen and the Prodigal: A Novel of Antebellum Mobile, due for release in September, features some fictional jockeys as they train and compete against each other.

Lottie Deno: The Real Miss Kitty Russell

When Amanda Blake was chosen to play Miss Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke, it wasn’t an accident she was a redhead. The historical “Miss Kitty,” Charlotte Tompkins, was a redhead too, and she inspired Amanda Blake’s character.

But Charlotte wasn’t any ordinary saloon girl. In fact, in Kentucky where she was from, she was born into the state’s upper class. She was a well-mannered and attractive Southern belle whose wealthy father taught her how to gamble and win at cards, bet on horses in races and gamble on riverboats … all to support her sister when the need arose. During the Civil War, her family lost its fortune. So, she turned to gambling, first on riverboats.

In 1863, she went to San Antonio where a part-Cherokee gentleman named Frank Thurmond hired her to be a dealer at his University Club. He gave her a percentage of the profits.

In keeping with her upper-class breeding, she always wore nice clothes, maintained the manners with which she was raised and kept the men at her card table honest. “You gents will not swear, smoke or drink liquor at my table,” she told them while she shuffled the cards. Most players were agreeable to this.

Today, she’s known to history as Lottie Deno. No one is certain how she got this name. According to one story, when she was living in Fort Griffin, Texas she’d had a run of luck playing poker at the Bee Hive Saloon. At the end of the evening, a cowboy said to her: “Honey, with winnings like that, you oughter call yourself ‘Lotta Dinero.’” She liked the name and began using it to protect her upstanding family’s reputation.

Eventually, Lottie married Frank and they both quit gambling. She became one of the founders of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Deming, New Mexico. She used $40,000 of poker winnings in a game Doc Holliday had participated in to finance its original construction. Frank eventually became president of a bank. They were well-respected, and wealthy, citizens in their community.

Frank died in 1908. Charlotte (Lottie) died in 1934.

Sources

Lottie Deno and Mary Poindexter – POINDEXTERHISTORY

What do we know about Lottie Deno? – True West Magazine

lottie deno – Search (bing.com)

TSHA | Thurmond, Charlotte Tompkins [Lottie Deno] (tshaonline.org)