Under Wraps: Bonner’s Bicentennial

Celebrating the 200th birthday of a legendary trotting aficionado

by Tim Bojarski

For as long as I can remember, I have been a student of Victorian-era harness racing—it was a time when trotting was king and the players were a very interesting lot. Whereas most who raced horses back then did so to make a living like they still do today, there was one man who bought the fastest horses of his time and never planned to make any money with them. That man was Robert Bonner.

Bonner was born on April 28, 1824, in the town of Ramelton, in Donegal County, Ireland. In 1839, at age 15, he traveled to America to live with his uncle in Hartford, Conn., and started a long and storied career in the newspaper business.

Bonner interned as a typesetter at the Hartford Courant and soon moved to New York to work at the Evening Mirror in 1844. He then worked at the Merchant’s Ledger and Statistical Record, a paper that he went on to purchase in 1851 for $900—his entire savings—at age 26. In 1855, Bonner would turn that failing paper into the New-York Ledger, which became one of the 19th century’s most popular periodicals, reaching a circulation of 400,000.

 

Bonner changed the format of the Ledger from a financial weekly to a “story paper” that featured well known literary writers. Many of these writers were under contract to Bonner, which was revolutionary at the time. Some of his contributors included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edward Everett, Louisa May Alcott, Alfred Tennyson, Fanny Fern, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Henry Ward Beecher, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, and even Charles Dickens, who wrote the story “Hunted Down”—the only Dickens piece to be published in the United States before being published in Britain.

From the stress of growing his business, Bonner was not feeling well. His physician asked him “What is the use of all this success if you are not going to live to enjoy it?” That same doctor bought Bonner a little bay mare for $375 that he felt would “make a good driver” and suggested that for his patient’s stress relief. Little did Bonner know that low-priced trotter would lead to his becoming obsessed with Standardbreds and spending in excess of one-half million dollars in pursuit of the finest horseflesh of his time. But not to race; he simply wanted to drive them. Bonner was a strict Presbyterian and “didn’t believe in trotting horses for money to make the animal an instrument of gambling.”

Bonner bought horses for tandem driving and tried to match each pair for similar abilities. But as he got more involved, his eye for speed continued to grow.

 

In 1864, Bonner bought the mare Pocahontas, who was the best pacer around, for $40,000. That was the largest sum of money ever paid for a Standardbred at that time. She was so good that no one cared to compete against her, and that was part of the reason the former owner sold her.

Then, Bonner bought Dexter in 1867. One of the owners told him they could not sell Dexter until he raced at Boston, Buffalo and Chicago, as he was already committed to appear. Bonner said that he would pay $35,000 for him if he could beat Flora Temple’s world record of 2:19¾. After Dexter trotted in 2:19 at Boston, Bonner signed a contract and gave a $1,000 binder, with the agreement he would take Dexter after he wrapped up his commitments. The following week, Dexter trotted in 2:17¼ at Buffalo, and it was announced that Bonner was the new owner.

President Ulysses S. Grant, who was a friend of Bonner’s, was very fond of Dexter after having driven him on occasion, so much so that Grant had offered to buy him. But Bonner would have nothing of it and flatly vetoed the president’s request.

In 1879, Bonner bought another world champion, Rarus, from the same connection of his prized mare Pocahontas. He paid $36,000 for the horse that had set a world trotting mark of 2:13¼ at Buffalo a year earlier, an achievement which, at the time, was hailed as the greatest on record.

 

The queen of the trotting turf, Maud S, was next on the Bonner acquisition list, and she moved to his stable in 1884 from William Vanderbilt at the cost of $40,000. Vanderbilt was offered $100,000 for the mare but refused to sell her to anyone who would start her in public races. The fact he offered her to Bonner for $60,000 less because he knew she would be kept for his private use was taken as a great compliment by Bonner. The mare who lowered the world trotting record seven times in five years did it again in 1885 for Bonner after trotting a mile in 2:08¾ in an exhibition at the Glenville track in Cleveland.

His last major purchase was also his most expensive: in 1889, he bought Sunol from Leland Stanford for $41,000. Two years later, Sunol trotted a mile in 2:08¼ at Stockton, Calif., breaking the record of Maud S and setting the final world record to a high-wheeled sulky. Sunol was then retired to Bonner’s farm, where she was bred.

During his life, Bonner owned no less than 45 of the best horses of the era that he used as “daily drivers” based at his New York City stable. Bonner also had another band of about 40 broodmares stabled at his farm in Tarrytown, N.Y., and he was hands-on with all of them.

Robert Bonner died on July 6, 1899, with an estimated worth of $5 million. But his true wealth came from his lifelong passion for Standardbreds. Even though his horses never earned Bonner a dime, they enriched him with joy on a daily basis. HB

 

Tim Bojarski, past president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, is a freelance writer living in New York. The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the USTA. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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