America's first sports hero was a horse, a graceful bay mare with blinding speed and a bewitching personality named Goldsmith Maid. Her popularity as a campaigner and a favorite of the crowds has never been excelled even to this day. During her career (1865-77) she trotted 426 heats, appearing on every great track in the country from New England to California, and drew huge crowds everywhere. So great was her popularity that she was paid $5,000 for mere exhibitions against time. Men scrambled for her castoff shoes whenever she was shod. In 1876 all the employes of a large shoe factory in North Brook-field, Mass. walked out and journeyed to Springfield, 35 miles away, to see her perform. Whole villages used to gather at the depot for a glimpse of her as she passed through. No stall on a jolting boxcar was for The Maid. She had her own private car. It was always hooked on to passenger trains and in one end was a drawing room for her driver, Budd Doble.
Born on a New Jersey farm in 1857, The Maid was no equine aristocrat. Her sire was a son of Rysdyk's Hambletonian but her ma was a worn-out cart horse of questionable lineage. Nellie was The Maid's first name and she was so high-spirited and unruly in her youth that she kicked several buggies to bits before she could be broken to harness. Her first owner, John B. Decker, gave up on her and sold her for a trifling sum. One of her owners (she had five in all) was Alden Goldsmith, who bought her in 1865 for $650 and a second-hand buggy, and furnished her with a new name. Goldsmith taught her to trot and entered her in her first race when she was an eight-year-old, much too old for a beginner, everyone thought. She won the race easily against an experienced field. It was the start of an amazing 13-year career during which she won over 350 heats and 97 out of 123 races, many of which were best-three-out-of-five heat races. She had 16 seconds, seven thirds, ran fourth once, went unplaced twice.
Three times The Maid crossed the continent, racing on both coasts and throughout the Midwest, and never once did she miss a performance. An iron campaigner, she traveled some 130,000 miles by rail and made countless short jumps between towns under her own steam in her early days.
The Maid was ageless and her speed increased as she grew older. At the advanced age of 14, when most horses are finished, she stepped the fastest mile in trotting history: two minutes, 17 seconds. Unbelievably, she lowered her own mark six more times until she reached 2:14, the fastest of her career. That was in 1874 when she was 16, the equine equivalent of almost 50 years in a human. As a middle-aged girl she went undefeated from 1871 through 1874 against younger horses of both sexes. Not until she was 21 did she call it quits, when she ran an exhibition mile for Governor Leland Stanford of California. Her time was only two seconds off her own world record. At that age she was still as fine and unblemished as a three-year-old.
Four years ago when Proximity, a harness racer, stretched his earnings to $252,929.67 the sports pages noted that he had broken the all-time record of $206,462.50 which was set by The Maid in 1877. It had taken 73 years as well as inflated purses to do it. These figures, however, are based on race winnings only. With exhibition money added, The Maid earned $264,573.50, perhaps more than any other harness horse in history. Whether or not, the belle of the '70s still stands as America's most remarkable horse.