by Dianne Hermann (Copyright 2013)
Fact is always stranger, and infinitely more interesting, than fiction. And facts involving animals are no exception.
Many of us have heard the song, “Old Stewball Was A Racehorse.” But did you know there really was a racehorse named Stewball? This horse spawned a legend that has endured for more than two centuries.
Actually, the horse’s name might have been Sku-Ball or Squ-Ball, but evolved into Stewball. The name may be a reference to its color. According to the Irish Piebald & Skewbald Association, a Skewbald horse has patches of color on its head, legs, and belly over a white coat, what we in America call a Paint or Pinto horse.
It seems in the late 18th Century this Skewbald horse, owned by Arthur Marvell, is placed in a mismatched horse race in Kildare, Ireland, against a thoroughbred grey mare named Miss Portly, owned by Sir Ralph Gore. The upset win by 11-year-old Sku-Ball undoubtedly strikes a serious blow to Gore’s pride and wallet and ultimately launches the legend.
So incredible is the win that within a few short years the event is immortalized in song. A ballad appears in print in England in 1822 and finds it way to America in an 1829 songbook. “Sing Out!” Magazine reports the song is then adopted as a Negro slave song, but “Stewball” has many variations in several languages. It is resurrected as a folk song when Peter, Paul, and Mary record their version in 1963.
But it’s the lyrics of that song that best tell the story. Here are some of the words, just to jog your memory.
“Old Stewball was a racehorse
And I wish he were mine,
He never drank water,
He always drank wine.”
“Oh, the fairgrounds were crowded
And Stewball was there,
But the betting was heavy
On the bay and the mare.”
“I bet on the grey mare
I bet on the bay,
If I’d have bet on ol’ Stewball
I’d be a free man today.”
Bottom line – the underdog won. Americans love an underdog (or horse). It’s why we pick out the runt of a litter or root for a losing team in the closing minutes of a game. It’s why we are such optimists.
It’s why we see problems as opportunities. It’s why we want to right an injustice done to someone else. It’s why we like helping others without relying on the government.
It’s why we love freedom.
We were the underdogs in the American Revolution. We were outnumbered, outgunned, and out supplied. We suffered with inconsistent uniforms, inferior shoes, and intemperate weather. But we persevered, persisted, and prevailed.
We still seem to be the underdog, though, because our own government – the president, both houses of Congress, both political parties – rule against the will of the people. That must change. We must change it.
As Tennyson wrote in his poem Ulysses, “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
We are Stewball.