Sometimes You Need to Go Where the Action is
By Eliza McGraw

The Outrider by Eliza McGraw

Horses and books are my two primary preoccupations. I love books about horses, and I love racing libraries. The Library of Congress, where I do a lot of my research, has extensive holdings of racing racing materials but sometimes you need to go where the action is. I divide racing libraries into two categories: the ones I know well, and the ones I want to go to.

In very horsey Middleburg, Virginia, on the same campus that houses the editorial offices of The Chronicle of the Horse, is the National Sporting Library, or NSL. For racing scholars (or just interested readers), the NSL has extensive, unique collections like the Woolums Collection, which consists of over 3,000 stud books, periodicals, and reference works on 20th century Thoroughbred racing. The NSL’s website says that, “Margaret (Sissy) Woolums was one of the world’s experts on pedigrees and she had amassed a library that included stud books from more than 38 countries worldwide where Thoroughbreds are bred and raced.” The Library also offers a fellowship for scholars and writers–last winter, I worked one afternoon next to someone writing about equestrian fashion.

I’ve done a lot of research at the NSL–antique riding manuals, horse taming, stable management–and it’s one of the most pleasant places to work I can imagine. There is equestrian art on the walls, the stacks are accessible, and there are comfortable chairs in well-lit corners, as if you are being hosted at the gracious weekend house of a particularly literate rider. Inasmuch as I rely upon the astounding online resources of the Daily Racing Form (as a side note, check out this video on the preservation process at DRF), and the many New York papers maintained at Fulton History, I love to turn the flapping, oversized pages of actual turf papers. For me, reading about a horse like the 1920s-era racing giant Exterminator in the same way his fans would have makes the writing that much more vivid, and the collection of the NSL has allowed me to do this. The NSL also houses an art collection featuring works by equestrian artists like George Stubbs and Edward de Troye, and the gallery is the perfect destination after a day spent reading about horses.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, near the Bowie Training Center, training center, is a big, modern, public library. It looks much like any suburban American library–audiobooks, DVDs, carrels, computers–but it contains the Selima Room, which is entirely devoted to material about horse racing. You don’t have to reserve time or produce credentials; you just ask the upstairs librarian if he or she will unlock the door for you. It’s an unassuming space, with wide research tables on which to spread out files. The room is lined with shelves containing horse books and has a particularly comprehensive selection of material concerning Maryland racing. There are two file cabinets stuffed with Preakness programs, articles about the old Havre de Grace racetrack, and information on great racehorses, particularly Marylanders like Challedon.

The name of the room, the library’s website says, “takes its name from Selima, an English mare imported to Maryland in the 1750’s, who once roamed and grazed the grounds where the Bowie Branch Library, home of the Selima Room, now stands. This collection is one of the very few horse racing and breeding libraries housed in a public library in this country and perhaps in the world.” Selima was a daughter of the Godolphin Arabian, and her dam was by Hobgoblin. Her European heritage symbolized the type of Thoroughbreds early Marylanders prided themselves on.

Now for a place I’d love to go: the library at Keeneland. I’ve never been there, but the librarians there have helped me over the years, sending me packets of xeroxes culled from their collections. According to its website, the Keeneland Library “serves as one of the world’s largest repositories of information related to the Thoroughbred, housing more than 15,000 volumes of books and journals, 250,000 photographic negatives, thousands of newspaper articles and 1,500 videocassettes documenting sales and racing at Keeneland and other tracks.” Librarians at the John A. Morris Research Library at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga have been similarly helpful to me with articles and book chapters. There, over 15,000 photographs are housed, as well as special collections, including scrapbooks compiled by Seabiscuit owner Charles Howard and his family. The NMR also has the Ed Hotaling collection and a series of photographs taken by turf writer Charles Hatton.

California’s Huntington Library, which houses important historical books such as a copy of the Gutenberg Bible on vellum and early editions of Shakespeare’s works, also owns books on Thoroughbred racing, donated by the widow of California attorney and racing fan Edward Lasker. In 2004, the Huntington had an exhibit with the evocative, appealing name of “The Noblest Conquest: the Sport of the Horse in Europe and America,” which featured works from the Lasker collection.

Visiting the websites of these faraway libraries online, I’m encouraged to plan a trip and turn the libraries I’d like to visit into ones I know well.

One comment

  • Thank you for your lovely article on racing libraries. They’re such best-kept-secrets. I do hope you get to go to the Keeneland library. It’s filled with windows that look out upon the fields surrounding it and wonderful equine art. If you don’t happen to get there soon, here’s a blog post I wrote about the KL with some video I shot:

    On another note, I think I read an article a few years back saying that George Washington owned a descendant of Selima. Does that any ring bells for you?

    Anyway, thanks for a great article.

Questions? Comments? We're here to help!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *