Pasted on one of the first pages of one of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s many guestbooks is a surprising image: a Steeplechase. The full-page photograph shows horses rushing down a lawn and jumping over a hedge. While she loved collecting art, Gardner also loved horses and horse racing.
The Origin of Isabella’s Passion for Horses
Horseback riding was one of Gardner’s childhood hobbies. She also rode as an adult, and what may have been her riding crop is still in the collection. However, it is unclear when Gardner’s enthusiasm for horse racing began.
A check stub in the museum archives indicates that she purchased a horse named Halton in 1893. She bought him from Henry K. Vingut. His obituary in the New York Times describes him as a sportsman, broker, and horse owner. Vingut continued to serve Gardner as Halton’s trainer after the purchase.
Throughout the 1890s, her enthusiasm for horse racing emerges in the guest books. In one entry, Vingut writes under the sketch of a horse and buggy: “‘Win as though you were used to it and lose as though you liked it’ - Motto of the Green Hill Stable”. Green Hill was Gardner's property in Brookline, just outside of Boston.
About two years after this comment, Gardner dedicated two pages of another guestbook to horseracing and Halton in particular. A pasted newspaper clipping describes Halton as “the best of the lot” in the field. Gardner even added “My horse. I.S.G.”. She was a proud owner.
The Legacy of Isabella’s Horses
The archival record is patchy about how long exactly Gardner remained involved in horse racing. Halton no longer appears after the 1890s, but she continued to follow the sport. A guestbook page from 1904 includes articles dedicated to George Green. He was an African-American jockey who won an important steeplechase on a horse named Fox Hunter. Gardner even included a snapshot of Green.
Isabella consecrated her love of horses generally—if not horseracing in particular. Along with her dogs Foxey, Rowley, Kitty Wink, and Patty Boy, Gardner made a charitable donation in honor of three horses in her will—the same document that governs the museum.
I hereby direct that the gift to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [MSPCA] is on the condition and subject to the charge that the said Society shall expend each year the sum of seventy-five dollars for a free stall in memory of three horses, Dolly, Pluto, and Lady Betty.
— Last Will and Testament of Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1921.
Whether watching them race or assuring that they had a safe stall at the MSPCA, Isabella loved horses. She would have loved watching the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby.