Terre Haute’s emergence as the hub of American harness racing occurred gradually between 1886 and 1892.

Vigo County’s famous “Four-Cornered Track,” designed by surveyor George Grimes and superintendent Uriah Jeffers, was finished Aug. 12, 1886, in time to host a four-day race card in October. Yet the first world record at the track was not set until 1889.

Long before Axtell’s miraculous accomplishment on Oct. 11, 1889, national periodicals lauded the quality of standardbred horses raised in the Wabash Valley.

A story in the May 1886 issue of “Western Sportsmen,” an eight-page weekly published in Indianapolis, praised several Terre Haute horses and their owners.

During a visit to Terre Haute during the Spring of 1886, Western Sportsman editor N.A. Randall identified a number of men devoted to stock breeding who had the financial wherewithal to compete on a national level: William Riley McKeen, William P. Ijams, Samuel McKeen, Demas Deming, George W. Carico, William T. Beauchamp, Merrill N. “Med” Smith and George F. King.

He was particularly fascinated by horses stabled at Edgewood Farm, owned by William Riley McKeen, president of the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad (known as the “Vandalia system”) and the McKeen National Bank.

Randall wrote:

“Upon feasting our eyes on the finest five-year old stallion on the continent that was never foaled, Jersey Wilkes, and Mr. McKeen’s 9-month old filly by Wedgewood, dam by Daniel Lambert, an animal too pretty to occupy a normal stable, we crossed the [National] Road to the Vigo Fair Grounds to Mr. McKeen’s commodious stables, where our old friend John M. Edwards, superintendent and trainer for Mr. McKeen, had the stock led out for our inspection.”

Randall mentioned other horses owned by McKeen: Daisy Wilkes, Conquest, Nelsie, Lottie, Lady Marjoe, Duda, Pattie, Ruth Park, Winsoe, Zaratia and Seraph.

He also visited the stables of Col Carico on North Third Street and was impressed by Stride Wilkes, Nellie and Red Wilkes.

“In this stable,” Randall added, “our amiable friend M. N. Smith [Vigo County Clerk] keeps his superb roadster Macey, a dark bay or brown gelding by George Wilkes. This is the fastest, handiest road horse we know of in this state.

“Mr. Smith also has some high bred youngsters at Warren Park, which he purchased in Kentucky … Among the number is a three year old grey gelding by Banker that Sam Fleming says is certain to turn out to be a race horse, and judging from the action at a halter we are inclined to agree with him.”

Fleming, a seasoned horseman, moved to Terre Haute in 1885 to manage Ijams’ stable at Warren Park. He stayed, eventually developing his own horse farm.

In the first race at the Four-Cornered Track on Oct. 12, 1886, Jennie Lind, owned by E.E. Hamilton of Springfield, Ill., paced the mile at Terre Haute in 2:181⁄4, a new record for any Terre Haute track. The previous mark of 2:183⁄4 was established by Little Em in the Spring of 1886, before the new track was completed.

Yet the top attraction during the October meeting probably was the presence of Lady DeJarnette, ”the nation’s most famous show horse.”

By agreement, downtown stores closed on Friday afternoon, Oct. 15, perpetuating a tradition launched in the spring. The feature race of the four-day meet was a free-for-all trot that afternoon with a $600 purse.

Jerome Turner of Louisville was the favorite, having trotted the mile in 2:151⁄2 at Lexington earlier in the year. Phyllis, owned by Charles Wagner of Dickinson’s Landing, Ontario, had the best mark at 2:133⁄4, set in 1885, but had not yet reached that time in 1886. The world record (2:13 1/4) was maintained by the stallion Maxy Cobb.

To boost attendance, the Terre Haute Trotting Association offered $500 in challenge money if Jerome Turner or Phyllis could better Maxy Cobb’s mark. A crowd of 5,000 was disappointed. Phyllis defeated Jerome Turner in three of the four heats. Jerome Turner’s best was 2:19, the top mark of the day but far short of a world record.

Ijams — elected Terre Haute Trotting Association president in November 1886 — was chosen to serve on the initial board of the American Trotting Association, a new alliance formed March 2, 1887, in Detroit as the result of multiple defections from the National Trotting Association.

On June 10, 1887, a nice crowd watched the California trotter Arab defeat a notable field, including Jerome Turner, in 2:18, the fastest mile ever trotted in Indiana.

The 1888 racing season was relatively quiet but Axtell’s record performance on Oct. 11, 1889, was so significant that it earned editorial comment in the New York Times the following day:

“The performance of Axtell yesterday at Terre Haute is, perhaps, the most remarkable in the annals of the trotting turf. It is commonly by fractions of a second the “record” is lowered, yet Axtell has in the same heat lowered the record for three-year-olds by a second and three-quarters and the record for stallions of any age by more than a second. It is to be borne in mind that the trotter is an animal of comparatively slow development and that he both matures later in respect of speed and lasts longer than the thoroughbred. Axtell’s mile in 2:12 is, therefore, much less significant as a performance than as a promise, and indicates that the horse, if everything goes well with him, will hereafter perform far more wonderful feats.”

Sadly, Axtell was injured in the early Spring of 1890 and never raced again. Instead, he was retired to stud at Warren Park, making its owners quite wealthy.

Yet crowds continued to flock to the Terre Haute track, which produced fast times and a few world records even before the sulky conversion from high wheels to bicycles in 1892. That was the year Nancy Hanks and Mascot set back-to-back world records in September to cement Terre Haute’s fame.

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