California's long infatuation with the "sport of kings" began--as so many things here do--with an unlikely combination of immigrants: an Australian mare, ridden by a black jockey, trained by a Yankee cowboy and owned by the heir of a Spanish dynasty.
The year was 1852, and the horse was Jose Antonio Andres Sepulveda's Black Swan. The Sepulveda family was Southern California aristocracy, landowners whose holdings ranged from what is now Newport Beach to Santa Monica.
Like most californios, he loved horse racing and loved betting on it; as early as 1834, Californians were taking one another to court over unpaid racing debts. Sepulveda's contribution to the lore came when he entered his mare in a nine-mile race against Sarco, the Spanish-bred, undefeated stallion owned by another California grandee, Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California.
That one race made or broke the fortunes of many of the region's landed families and reshaped the sport of horse racing, raising the stakes to absurd heights and turning thoroughbreds into the monarchs of the track.
Black Swan was a true dark horse. She was to Australia's racing world what Sarco was to California's. One in an equine breed unknown to californios, she seemed undersized and more delicate than her California competitors. Sepulveda had bought her sight unseen on the strength of her reputation, and had had her shipped to California to witness her brilliance himself.
He expected a lot of her. It was a long, grueling ocean voyage that was known to make even hardy seafarers wan and ill, never mind a landlubber thoroughbred.
When the fragile creature stepped off the gangplank in San Francisco in late 1851, along with her traveling companion, a gray gelding named Ito, she was unsteady, gaunt and sickly. Onlookers were not impressed.
This was californios' first look at the thoroughbred who would raise the ante of the sport. Until then, horse racing was an everyday type of activity, little more than a pastime. The stakes were never very high: brandy, livestock and bits of money.
Sepulveda, who rode north from Los Angeles to meet the ship, quickly drummed up some competition for Ito to give Black Swan time to regain her strength. A few weeks after Ito's $5,000 win in a Bay Area race, Black Swan was ready.
This race, at San Francisco's Pioneer Jockey Club, next to Mission Dolores, matched Black Swan with Ito in one-mile heats for a $10,000 stake. Ito won. None of the histories records what became of Ito afterward; Black Swan stole the subsequent limelight.
Sepulveda saw magic in her running and rode ahead to prepare 3,500 Angelenos for Black Swan's arrival.
In the meantime, his trainer, the Yankee cowboy Bill Brady, took his time riding Black Swan the 400 miles south. Communicating with his gentle touch instead of force, Brady took her over winding paths, carefully avoiding sharp stones and other hazards that might injure her.
As he waited, Sepulveda hatched a plan that turned into a bonanza. His purse was still fattening with the enormous profits he began reaping three years earlier, when the discovery of gold had driven up the price of beef, and he delighted in racing and gambling.
His fellow californios patriotically revered their noble Spanish steeds, and that's what Sepulveda was betting on.
He made sure that a crowd, among them Pico, was in Los Angeles when Brady rode into town on Black Swan. Seeing the mangy and emaciated mare only confirmed Pico's and his cronies' opinion that the majestic, cinnamon-colored Sarco was invincible.
Recklessly, Angelenos wagered their life savings on Sarco. Carrillo family members bet their last $400. The total bet in the $50,000 match race: $25,000 each in octagon-shaped gold slugs, in addition to 500 horses, 500 mares, 500 heifers, 500 calves and 500 sheep.
Sepulveda, Brady and Sepulveda's son-in-law, Tom Mott, had three months to condition Black Swan. While building up her weight, they exercised her with discretion, running her after dark when no one could see her.
Pico and his hard-core betting pals were confident that Sarco was the better horse and therefore needed no training--an unbeatable mount, powerful and ready for a race at any moment.
As the date--March 20, 1852--drew near, the excitement and the bets grew higher. The Avilas and Duartes, who were friends of Sepulveda, bet a "bottle of brandy, two broken horses and $5." For others just as low on cash, every animal imaginable--cattle, horses, goats, pigs, chickens--was fodder for a wager, along with land and furniture.
Families from as far away as San Francisco and San Diego arrived for the race, which began at what is now 7th and San Pedro streets.
The track extended 4 1/2 miles south to a wooden stake, where the horses and their riders turned around and headed back to the start.
Springtime mustard plants growing 10 feet tall lined the roadway, making it difficult to see. Bystanders stood in their wagons and climbed trees, gates and rooftops of the occasional house.
As the tension mounted, Sepulveda's wife, Francisca, arrived in her carriage, holding a fortune in gold coins. Unwrapping her handkerchief, she ostentatiously handed each of her servants and many bystanders a shiny $50 gold piece to bet on the race.
But the greatest secret of the event remained to be revealed. Who was going to ride Black Swan?
A gasp of astonishment went up when Black Swan appeared, no longer looking like a sickly nag, but sleek with a shiny blue-black mane. Mounted on her back, sitting in a lightweight English saddle, was a small black man, dressed in bright clothing with a small cap turned backward on his head. Atop Sarco sat a hefty Mexican youth in a heavy Western saddle.
"Caramba! A black jockey and a black horse," someone cried in Spanish. Indeed it was a scene the spectators had never witnessed before. The jockey's name is lost to history.
With so many animals made nervous by the crowds, the starter began the race not with a gunshot but with the cry of "Santiago!"
Sarco jumped out to an early lead, and all those betting on him breathed a sigh of relief. Many leaped to their own horses and followed, tearing through the mustard plants. But the fleet horses soon lost them, and the spectators headed back to watch the finish.
Frenzy gripped the crowd at the halfway mark when Black Swan pulled ahead. Sarco strained every muscle to keep up with the speedy little foreigner.
Nineteen minutes, 20 seconds from start to finish, Black Swan crossed the finish line five lengths ahead. She was bleeding from her nose and flanks from the spurs, and foaming from her mouth.
Racing fans stood around in stunned silence, as others broke down and cried. While Sarco tasted his first defeat, Black Swan, in her moment of triumph, wiped out entire family fortunes. The race contributed to the downfall of Pico, who lost $25,000 and who, more than four decades later, would die penniless.
Although Sepulveda refused ever to race her again, Black Swan's prowess threw eager californios into a scramble to import blooded horses. They recklessly traded their cattle and land for thoroughbreds, some of which were stolen by Indians as they were brought overland to California.
The first thoroughbred stallion to make the overland trek from Ohio to California was Belmont, in 1854. Although he never raced, he sired a great dynasty that became the premier stud horses of the Pacific Coast.
Very little was heard of Sarco again, but some historians believe that the outstanding trotters and pacers to later come out of California inherited his stamina and soundness.
Four years after the race, Sepulveda was captured on canvas astride his prized Black Swan. The painting hangs in the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. (At the Los Angeles County Fair, a pair of stake races are named for Black Swan and Pio Pico.)
Less than a decade after the portrait was painted, Sepulveda was broke, in debt from exorbitant wagers on less successful sporting events, from cattle-killing drought and from attorney fees for clearing title to his land. In 1864, Sepulveda sold Rancho San Joaquin's nearly 50,000 acres to James Irvine Sr. and his partners for $18,000--far less than he had won in one day's race a dozen years before.