INTRODUCTION Historians have generally overlooked the contributions made to the world of horseracing and thoroughbred breeding by James Ben Ali Haggin.
To be sure, his contemporaries noted his outstanding accomplishments in mining, land speculation, and other financial pursuits, and this enormously wealthy man was well known in Sacramento, San Francisco, and New York for his business dealings.
Turf writers with historical interests and students of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century likewise recorded his contributions to the world of thoroughbred racing.
But outside of Northern California the public is generally unaware of Haggin, and what he accomplished in the early days of Sacramento.
Steven Avella in his history of Sacramento, Indomitable City, mentions Rancho Del Paso in passing, but not as a breeding center.
However, Joseph A.
McGowan acknowledges Haggin’s accomplishments with four paragraphs in his three volume History of the Sacramento Valley.
Because of McGowan’s emphasis on farming and ranching in the Valley, the inclusion of Rancho Del Paso as a famous horse facility was essential.
Avella only mentions the Rancho in terms of its subsequent development after Haggin left California for Kentucky. Throughout history, horses have played a crucial role in human society.
As Sandra Olsen notes in Horses Through Time, a compilation of essays done for the Carnegie Museum of National History: In the history of humankind there has never been an animal that has made a greater impact on societies than the horse.
Other animals were hunted much more or domesticated earlier, but the horse changed the world in innumerable ways with its tremendous swiftness. [ILLUSTRATION 1: J.B.
HAGGIN] Farmers used horses to plow, till, and harvest crops.
With horses, the production of food crops increased, allowing populations to grow.
With horsepower, people turned to their pursuits of creating civilizations and culture.
Without the use of the horses, and especially after the invention of the stirrup, the Mongols and other armies would not have been able to move great distances and conquer foreign lands.
Horses provided the means of travel for the Crusaders to the Middle East during the Middle Ages.
The Plains Indians based their culture on horses, which increased their ability to move swiftly across the prairies.
The horse has been both beast of burden and history maker.
Cavalries, prior to World War I, determined the outcome of national and international conflicts.
Humans have been dependent on horsepower longer than they have had the machines that replaced them. Horses have also provided entertainment and sport.
Even prior to the Ancient Greeks, horse racing proved a popular sport.
The earliest recorded evidence of racing is found in the records of the Scythians, who raised horses solely for competition. Prior to the advent of the automobile and self propelled mechanized farm implements, horses were the primary mode of transportation in rural areas and provided a means of employing farming implements.
Horse racing has long offered a popular form of entertainment, attracting large numbers of spectators.
Although live attendance at horse racing events declined after the mid-twentieth century and continues to decline today, thoroughbred horse racing still commands the attention of hundreds of thousands of fans throughout the world.
The close connection that people have had with horses reveals itself in our conversations.
Instantly recognizable expressions like “hold your horses,” “get off your high horse,” “putting the cart before the horse,” and “do not beat a dead horse” are everyday terms.
They represent a lost connection with our past contact with horses in everyday life.
The author of Horses Through Time, summarizes the significance of the horse in history: It is hard to imagine what history would have been like without the horse.
Without raiding armies of nomads on horseback, many of the great ancient civilizations would probably still be flourishing The grass lands of the world might still be teaming with herds of wild animals, and human population would be isolated as physical and cultural entities adapted to their local environments.
Without the horse the diffusion of people, culture, and technologies all would have been much slower. In the United States in the late nineteenth century and beyond, the gentry and nouveau riche alike enhanced their status by their interest in racehorses, particularly thoroughbred racehorses.
On the East Coast during the late nineteenth century, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Belmonts, and Mellons counted themselves among the elite group of thoroughbred horse owners. In the West, too, successful businessmen turned to the pursuit of thoroughbred horseracing to increase their social stature.
Men such as James Ben Ali Haggin and his business partner, Lloyd Tevis, as well as Theodore Winters, George Hearst, Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, Marcus Daly, and Leland Stanford, were among those who used their considerable fortunes to become racing enthusiasts.
While Stanford is perhaps the most familiar of these names, in the last decades of the nineteenth century and during the beginning of the twentieth century, all these men ranked among the wealthiest and most powerful men in the West. Wealth and business interests connected these men.
Wanting to be perceived as gentlemen, they turned to the most prestigious pastime available to the elite—the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses.
Indeed, nothing signified gentility more than involvement in what was dubbed the “Sport of Kings”—a phrase that recalled horseracing’s long association with royalty. James Ben Ali Haggin represented arguably the most successful participant in the elite world of thoroughbred horseracing during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
Indeed, his Rancho Del Paso proved to be most successful breeding and racing operation in the world, contributing in important ways to the history of American racing. Today, remnants of Haggin’s Rancho, particularly the Haggin Oaks golf course, can be seen from the Capital City Freeway (Business 80).
While these grounds are now groomed for playing golf, it is easy to imagine the horses grazing there in their green pastureland.
Likewise still visible on the left side of the Sacramento Regional Transit Light Rail at the end of the line on Watt Avenue is an old barn with the name “Barbara Worth Stables” painted on the roof that would have been situated in the heart of Haggin’s vast thoroughbred breeding operation.
Today’s light rail follows Haggin’s own rail line used for transporting his breeding stock to auction or his racehorses to meets.
Driving through the once grand avenues of Del Paso Heights, many streets bear the names of Haggin’s racehorses, including Firenzi and Woodburn.
The bronze statue of Haggin’s Kentucky Derby winner, Ben Ali, a recent addition, stands in the center divider of Del Paso Boulevard, which along with Del Paso Road honor the famous Rancho.
Additionally, Haggin Oaks and Haggin Avenue pay tribute to the owner of the former Mexican land grant.
Overlooked now by the countless cars whizzing by on Business 80, this area once represented the world’s largest thoroughbred breeding farm. Shortly after the American takeover of California, Haggin had secured control the of the 44,000-acre rancho, converting it during the next half century into a breeding farm that was unparalleled on the globe for the quality and quantity of thoroughbreds.
His endeavors to find breeding stock from all parts of the world, combined with the hard work of the Rancho’s staff and propitious climate of the lower Sacramento Valley, allowed Haggin to garner international acclaim and mark Sacramento as one of the premier equestrian centers on the planet.
The purpose of this essay is to describe how Haggin attained national and worldwide attention for himself and for his Rancho del Paso, on the northern fringes of Sacramento. Chapter 2 HAGGIN AND TEVIS
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