First of all, yes, there was a distinguished gray
mare named Lady Suffolk. She was a true
champion Standardbred, who raced under
saddle and to sulky in the 1840s. In the early
era of the "steppers," that is, trotting horses,
this gray mare gained fame as a top
Lady Suffolk was originally the property of a
Long Island liveryman. She was foaled in 1833
at Smithtown on the farm of Carl S. Burr, Jr. Her
sire was Engineer II, her dam Jenny. She was a
great-granddaughter of Messenger, the
foundation sire of the Standardbred.
David Bryan bought the filly, who was pulling an oyster cart, when she was four-years-old. She ran her
first race in Babylon in 1838, winning her first victory for a purse of $11. She raced under saddle and
won two out of three heats. During her career, she was held in high regard for her speed and stamina.
She pulled a heavy two-wheeled high sulky against the best trotters, traveling to and from most of her
races pulling her own harness equipment. During her racing career, she won 89 of 162 races and was
second 56 times.
The term "Standardbred" was introduced in 1879 to distinguish those trotting horses who met a certain
"standard" for the mile distance. The time was 2 1/2 minutes. Lady Suffolk's fame was built on being
the first trotter to finish a mile under saddle in under 2:30. She swept under the wire in 2:26 in 1845,
setting a world record at Beacon Course in Hoboken, New Jersey, becoming the first horse to trot a mile
in under 2 1/2 minutes. She was 12 years old when she set her record.
A campaigner for sixteen seasons, Lady Suffolk was considered the "Queen of the Turf" until her death
in 1855 at age 22, in Bridgeport, VT.
My take on the Old Gray Mare Song
Here's the bad thing about actually doing research: the
more you dig, the more questions you ask. In this case, by
the time I was tired of looking things up, there weren't
good, clean answers to any of my questions. The result?
I'm still not sure of truth to be had about the Old Gray
Mare / Whiffle Tree song.
However, since I started, one thing I seriously doubt is that
the song has anything to do with the late, great racehorse,
The general documentation found is that composer Frank
Panella's song is an old folk song. Published in 1915, it is
considered a children's tune and has been used to
underscore anything featuring an old horse. Popular
perspective is that the song refers to a horse - and to people - that are past their prime.
The Song & Lady Suffolk
Do the math, and you realize that Lady Suffolk died 60 years before the song was published. Since she
raced for 16 years starting at the age of 4, she raced until she was 20 years old. Since she died in 1855,
her last race was in 1853. Play with your calculator a little more and you figure Lady Suffolk was 22
years of age when she died, which is verified in most Lady Suffolk information bytes.
In the 1940's, Mr. Panella was in his 60's. Means he had to be born near the time of Lady Suffolk's
death in the late 1880's. So now you have to ask the question: why would a composer, who played
saxophone in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, write a folk ditty based on a OLD & beloved New
York sports legend of a horse, who died about the same time he was in diapers?
There's a famous picture by Currier & Ives of Lady Suffolk racing Lady Moscow in Philadelphia at
Hunting Park course in June of 1850. Remember our calculator? She had to be 17 years old for that
race - and in the picture, she was winning. So I guess that in her old age, she was doing just fine!
The Old Gray Mare / Whiffletree Song, published in 1915, was the time of World War I, ragtime and
Irving Berlin. Robert Maine, Richard A. Reublin, & Beverly Maine, of PARLOR SONGS, state that solid
evidence exists to indicate Panella was not the creator of the song. They elaborate:
"According to A History of Popular Music in America (1948 by Sigmund Spaeth), the song actually has its
origins in an 1858 song by J. Warner titled, Down in Alabam'. According to Spaeth, this song was the
original version of what is now known as the Old Grey Mare. Its words dealt with an "old hoss" that
"came tearin' out de wilderness" and the tune is very nearly identical with what has become one of the
world's most familiar basic melodies. Other resources credit the final version of the melody we know
today to Panella but the origins of the words are still shrouded in mystery ... I think it just might be that
Mr. Panella borrowed a tune from the past."
Panella may not have composed the music, nor written the lyrics. Was he simply the first to write down
a popular tune and then got it published? Did he know of words that fit the tune and knew he couldn't
claim the lyrics as his own, but still included them with his musical score and left the interpretation to
the sheet music buyers?
Now, if you forget Panella, let's consider the original melody & lyrics. You're left with an "old hoss" that
came "came tearin' out de wilderness" in 1858, three years after Lady Suffolk's death in Vermont.
Makes you wonder about the identity of the "old hoss" in Alabama. The southern based lyrics probably
don't have anything to do with a famous gray mare who raced up in the land of the Yankee.
1915 was also the beginning of the automobile revolution & WWI. While the caissons kept rolling along,
many of them were horse driven & horses were still widely used for transportation and hauling goods.
And just like the inevitable demise of an old car, the reduced usefulness of a good horse as it aged was
something to be lamented, especially after many years of steady service.
The lyrics of the song are interesting, in that they say that our old mare has "kicked on the whiffletree."
So what does that mean? First, you need to know that a whiffle tree is the wooden member that divides
and attaches to the traces - one of the leather parts of the harness strapped onto the horse's body - on
either side of the horse. The whiffle, or whipple or singletree is then attached in the center of the cart,
wagon or whatever is being pulled.
Depending on the vehicle, the whittletree is usually positioned between the hock and upper thigh and is
always well behind the harnessed horse. Typically, the whiffle tree cannot be kicked unless the horse
REALLY wants to kick. OR, if the horse is really moving quickly and the back legs are extended. Then the
whipple tree cannot be avoided.
A habitual kicker is considered a poor choice for a harness horse. It If a reliable horse started to kick,
usually there was a good reason. Problems in carting arise from an overly heavy load, or a problem
with the harness, or if a horse is being mishandled. In any case, if our steady old gray girl "kicked on
the whiffle tree" and "she ain't what she used to be" it was a pretty good indication that something was
wrong. And it probably wasn't the horse's fault.
Panella's original sheet music features an old horse with it's ribs showing, one leg amputated & fitted
with a peg leg, another leg injured, yet still hitched to a wagon. Despite her crossed eyes and sorry
condition, the old gal is expected to perform for her smiling, chubby male driver perched in the driver's
seat. His hands are clenched, the reins are taut and he's pushing her, despite her age & infirmaries, to
keep working. What a visual statement !
It's a mystery as to why folks in our generation have put two and two together and came up the idea
that the Old Gray Mare song is about Lady Suffolk. While little to be found about Lady Suffolk's last
years, accounts indicate that she was a strong competitor for the full duration of her racing career.
If you know anything about racing, you know that to continue to campaign an animal who is not a
winner is a costly proposition. That she raced well into her latter teens & early twenties is a testament
to her speed and stamina. Lady Suffolk was a champion who did not need to be lamented for being
old. Her legacy is that instead of getting useless as she aged, she just got better with time.
Old Gray Mare Lyrics
Finally, here they are - the lyrics to Old Gray Mare song. After
doing my homework & really pondering the lyrics, I'm left
wondering why folks have embraced the sentiment that the song
should be a negative view of horses & women in the first place.
And, after thinking about it, I'm not sure it's such a bad thing to BE
an old gray mare. First of all, I don't want to be as I used to be. I
know I'm BETTER than I used to be. Do you remember turning
40? It wasn't so bad and fifty wasn't too awful either. We're still
the same person inside, but better, I think, because our years on
earth have given us wisdom that only comes from living.
The OGM lyrics can be interpreted as a lament about horses
and/or women, that as they age human & equine ladies are just
not as good as they get older. There is no denying that as we age,
we physically are NOT the same as when in our youth. However, I
have a lot of first hand experience with older horses, and now
that I'm in my 50's, my friends are older women too.
If offered a young horse and an old horse to take home, I'd pick
the old one first, hands down. They've been there, done that,
and any problems are evident. It's a choice of experience over "needs more training & miles". Maybe I
appreciate the value of experience more now that I'm older too. Nah, I always valued the known vs. the
time consuming opportunity to educate the ignorant.
No matter what the song says, I disagree that the song means that old horses and older folks are
worthless & past their prime. Old gray mares, horses AND women, are just plain better. And as for the
song's old gray mare? Whoever she was, I hope she had a good life after all.
Was there REALLY an Old Gray Mare?
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