When Andrew Jackson moved into the White House in 1829, he brought with him from Tennessee a string of race horses and jockeys and a reputation as a leading western turfman. The White House stables were hardly adequate for his prize Thoroughbreds, and Jackson spent thousands of dollars rebuilding them.
Horses had been his passion since boyhood, and by the time he was 15 he was considered a shrewd horse trader. Later, as a lawyer in Nashville, tall, white-haired Jackson had operated the western country's foremost racing stable and stud farm at his home, the Hermitage, a baronial mansion and plantation. At one time he had 16 horses in training there and was part owner of Clover Bottom, a race track.
Some of his Thoroughbreds he trained himself, demanding of them the same relentless determination and physical stamina that were his own chief characteristics. "He worked a horse to the limit of endurance," the late Marquis James said in his Pulitzer Prizewinning biography, "but somehow implanted in the animal a will to win, a circumstance which epitomizes the character and elucidates the singular attainments of Andrew Jackson."
Of the horses Jackson trained, his favorite was Truxton, a big Virginia-bred bay stallion, sired by Diomed, the famous English import whose get sired many top American horses (Lexington was one). The General had bought Truxton for $1,170 shortly after the stallion's defeat in 1805 by Greyhound, an unbeaten gelding. Convinced that he could win a return match, Jackson vigorously threw himself into training Truxton and raising the $5,000 to cover the side bet.
July 16, 1956
Interest in the race was so high that people were literally betting their shirts. Jackson accepted $1,500 wagers in wearing apparel, and his friend Patton Anderson put up money, his horse and 15 horses belonging to other people. Many of the 15 had ladies' saddles on their backs, and Jackson, making a fine moral distinction, commented: "Now, I would not have done that." But it is likely that the horses of Mrs. Jackson and her niece, Rachel Hays, were there too.
Fortunately for Jackson, Truxton beat Greyhound handily, and Jackson's reputation as an outstanding turfman was firmly established.
Truxton won many more races wearing Jackson's colors. The greatest was against Ploughboy, owned by Captain Joseph Erwin of Nashville. The contest between these rival stables grew so heated that later a duel was fought to settle the matter.
The horses had been matched once, but Erwin had called off the race and paid the forfeit.
When the race did run, a contemporary account in the Nashville Impartial Review and Cumberland Repository announced it as follows: "On Thursday the 3rd of April next  will be run the greatest and most interesting race ever run in the Western country between Gen. Jackson's horse TRUXTON, 6 years old carrying 124 pounds, and Capt. Joseph Erwin's horse PLOUGHBOY, 8 years old carrying 130 pounds.... For the sum of 3,000 dollars."
The announcement attracted at Clover Bottom "the largest concourse of people I ever saw assembled, unless in the army," said Jackson. As was then the custom, the match was for the best two of three two-mile heats, horse against horse, winner take all.
A RACE AND A DUEL
Truxton went lame just before the race, but Jackson, despite the urging of his friends and backers, as usual refused to give up. The stallions were brought to the starting post and got off at the tap of a drum. To the surprise of almost everyone except Jackson, Truxton took the lead, held it and won going away. He finished so lame it didn't seem he could go another heat. But again the Hermitage stallion took command from the start and ran away from the other horse, winning in three minutes 59 seconds.
The outcome of the race didn't settle the rivalry, however, as far as Erwin and Jackson were concerned. A misunderstanding over the terms of the forfeit paid by Erwin for postponing the race caused so much ill feeling that a month after the race was over a duel over the affair was fought between Jackson and Charles Dickinson, Erwin'sson-in-law. Jackson allowed Dickinson to fire first, took the bullet in his chest without flinching, then calmly killed his man. The bullet remained in Jackson's body for the rest of his life.
Although horse racing took up most of Jackson's leisure time, he was also a cockfight aficionado. As a boy of 12, he already knew all the esoteric lore of the game cock. "How to feed a Cock before you him fight Take and give him some Pickle Beaf Cut fine...." wrote little Andy in his boarding school notebook. (He fought mains while he was justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, sometimes in the shadow of the courthouse where he had just presided.)
When Jackson was a boy, said Marquis James, "few could best him in a foot-race or jumping match, but he was too light to wrestle. I could throw him three times out of four,' a classmate said, 'but he would never stay throwed. He was dead game, never gave up.' "
Jackson was a hard man to beat, in war or in sports. But there was one horse he never could defeat, a mare named Maria, owned by Jesse Haynie of Sumner County, Tennessee. That horse cost him a fortune and eternally stuck in his craw. The mare came into prominence after Truxton's racing days were over, and she beat Truxton's son, Decatur, and every Jackson-owned or backed horse sent against her.
Many of these races took place during the War of 1812 while Jackson was fighting the British. During the Natchez expedition in 1813 Old Hickory wrote Colonel William R. Johnson of Kentucky to buy and send to the Hermitage "the best 4-mile horse in Virginia, without regard to price" (for the purpose of beating Maria). The following year, while Jackson was facing the British at Mobile, he found time to ship home two race horses.
An order issued by Jackson shortly before the Battle of New Orleans indicates a mind divided between racing and war. "I see in the Nashville Gazette that Pacolet [the horse Col. Johnson had bought for Jackson] has beat the noted horse Doublehead," he began in a missive to General John Coffee, his lifelong friend, and concluded, "I have only to add that you will hold your brigade in complete readiness to march...."
Pacolet never met Maria. In 1837, when he was an old man in retirement at the Hermitage, a neighbor asked the general if there was anything he had ever undertaken that he had failed to accomplish. "Nothing that I can remember," said Old Hickory, "except Maria. I could not beat her."