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Reign of a race horse

photos by Mark Hertzberg

1. This is a cutout of one of about 20 lithgraphs of Jay-Eye-See produced by the famous American print makers Currier & Ives. Titled “The Grand Young Trotter — Jay-Eye-See," it was produced in commemoration of the Racine horse's record time of 2 minutes, 10 seconds in the mile. Riding the sulkey is Edwin Bither, the J.I. Case trainer. The prints are courtesy of Racine collector Roberta Fiene.

2. The cutout of the lithograph produced by a Buffalo company shows 6-year-old Jay-Eye-See trotting to the world record (right). Melton Jones, 90, (below) shows local historian John Van Theil where the famous race horse is buried on land expected to be developed soon.

BY JIM KNEISZEL Journal Times

The Victorian-era “field of dreams" may have been a pasture right here in Racine, and before baseball took over, one icon of the American sporting world was a sleek black gelding named Jay-Eye-See.

Around the turn of the century, hundreds of visitors every week made a pilgrimage to the sprawling horse farm owned by thrashing machine manufacturer J.I. Case for a glimpse of the revered trotter.

In a day when horses meant more than horsepower, no sport was bigger than harness racing and few stars were brighter than Jay-Eye-See. In the 1880s and 1890s, he set several records and remains the only horse to hold world records in two different gaits.

Just like sports stars today, there were trading cards of Jay-Eye-See. His familiar likeness was used to sell products, most notably a harness bit, a cigar, and of course, a farm implement. The Case company was gaining a national name because of the horse, not the other way around.

The country's foremost printmaker, Currier and Ives, devoted about 20 lithographs to Racine's celebrity.

The summer before he died at the ripe old age of 31, Jay-Eye-See appeared at the Wisconsin State Fair, where thousands gathered for a peek. Though his last world record was set 16 years earlier and he hadn't pulled a sulkey (high-wheeled racing carriage) around a track for years, he was still a star.

Sports figures of this magnitude should be properly memorialized. Babe Ruth has a museum in Baltimore. Curly Lambeau — founder of Wisconsin's beloved Packers — has a shrine in his name about 100 miles north of here. The Field of Dreams, a ball field in rural eastern Iowa, pays homage to the greats who have swung a bat.

But where is the trotter who hit the first 2 minute, 10 second mile in 1884 and captured the pacing world record in 1892 immortalized?

The fact is Jay-Eye-See has never been given a fitting memorial. (Sure, there's a street named after the horse on the south side of Racine, but few people today understand its significance.)

And the greatest affront to his memory is looming on the horizon.

In the next month or so, the great race horse's grave is expected to be bulldozed to make way for a business development that will include the new Menard's store south of Highway 11 between Highway 31 and Sturtevant.

Instead of allowing a parking lot to permanently entomb Jay-Eye-See, local historian John Van Theil wants to see the horse get a proper resting place and memorial.

Van Theil is working with fellow historians and horse-racing fans on a plan to locate Jay-Eye-See's remains and move them to a fitting burial site with a marker, possibly in a city park.

The crusade might seem like an odd one, but Van Theil said Jay-Eye-See is indicative of the way important local history fades into the ether.

The story of the famous race horse and the tradition of horse racing in Racine County is largely forgotten. He compares it to the forgotten Case entries in the first Indianapolis 500 and Racine's National Football League team that played against the Packers.

“The Case legend is disappring. All eyes were on Racine because of this horse and we don't know it," Van Theil said. “We need to keep track of these things so we have a sense of place and stability."

Case died in 1891, but his family continued to race Jay-Eye-See and treated the horse like a treasured family heirloom. He was transported in a special train car and pampered in every way. Near the end of his life, Jay-Eye-See was kept at the farm of DeGrove Bull, a distant Case relative.

A patch of the land has been farmed through the years, but much of it has been a golf driving range for the past 40 years. A 30-foot marble shaft planned as a family monument to the horse was never erected. But Van Theil has a good idea of the exact location of the grave.

Obituaries for Jay-Eye-See ran in all the papers when he died on June 25, 1909. Melton Jones, 90, remembers sitting across the street on his parent's porch when the horse was led out of the DeGrove Bull barn for the last time.

“Three men came out of the barn leading this horse. He was kind of wobbly. Then he just disappeared," Jones recalled while examining the field with Van Theil one recent afternoon.

“It's vivid in my mind. I don't know how they dispatched the horse. I've often wondered about that," he continued.

After pinpointing the spot where he saw the horse disappear into a hole, Jones answered skeptics who wondered how he could recall something that happened when he was just over 2 years old.

“I got horse blood in my veins and I remember that pretty well. A story gets good with the telling, but there are certain things that are indelible in your mind from childhood," he responded. “And I remember Mom and Dad during the course of the day remarking that `they buried the Case horse today.' "

From other accounts and local legend, Jones is probably no more than a few yards off with his recollection, Van Theil said. Caleb Case, a family descendent, pointed out about the same spot based on his parents' recollections of the DeGrove Bull farm.

Gerry Karwowski, another local historian, theorized that the horse is buried in a shallow, hand-dug grave that may be easy to find by probing in the soil or systematic digging with a back hoe. He said the bones are likely in tact.

But what about other horses buried in the pasture? Even early in the 1900s, horses were sent to rendering plants or glue factories when they died, Karwowski said. That this horse was buried at all is a tribute to its significance.

“If they'd bring down (the grade) a few feet, they'd find it," he said. “They should exhume the bones and place them with a proper marker."

Van Theil has contacted archaeology experts, the Case Corp. and Continental Properties, the firm developing the 70-acre parcel, to figure out the best way to locate the bones. He would like civic and corporate leaders to support a monument to the horse.

The Milwaukee-area developer is open to allowing the historians to search for the horse, said company spokesman Terry Aceto. The Menard's store will be built on 15 acres on the western edge of the property. The horse is on the eastern edge. Continental hasn't earmarked that part for a specific business but will level the grade this summer.

“We certainly would make the property available to them to do their investigation," Aceto said. “This is not a typical development issue. But I am very interested, particularly being a Racine native and knowing some of the J.I. Case history."

Local horse racing tracks and Case's fanatical interest in the sport are interesting topics for Van Theil. Several tracks operated in Racine from before the Civil War to the turn of the century. Among them were tracks at the site of the Racine Zoo, near Lathrop and Victory avenues, and at the fairgrounds at 16th Street and Taylor Avenue.

Case also had a stable and track at his Hickory Grove Farm, at what is now Roosevelt Park near the sewage treatment plant. During its heyday, the farm included state-of-the-art heated stables and an indoor one-eighth mile track where as many as 150 horses trained. Some of the best horse flesh in the nation included Jay-Eye-See and successful studs Phallus and Gov. Sprague, which Case paid an unheard of $27,500 for in 1876.

“Case took it to a national scale, and he set out to build the finest stock he could breed," Van Theil said.

Jay-Eye-See was a considerable bargain at $500 as part of a lot Case bought from a Lexington, Ky., farm in 1880. After he became the first trotter to make the 2:10 minute mark in a Providence, R.I., race, Case turned down a $50,000 offer for the gelding.

Eight years later, after Case died, a leg injury forced trainers to convert Jay-Eye-See from trotting to pacing. He then ran a 2:06.25 minute world record mark at Independence, Iowa. No other horse has hed world records in two different gaits.

To understand theextent of Jay-Eye-See's popularity, you have to reflect on the times, said John Urhausen, Elkhorn trotting horse trainer and blacksmith. Urhausen, a Racine native, fought for and won enshrinement for Jay-Eye-See in the Wisconsin Harness Racing Hall of Fame in January. The horse was inducted into the Trotting Horse Museum Hall of Fame in 1990.

“It was something that the common man associated with because horses were the main mode of transportation. Famous horses were known nationally more than they are now," he said.

The double-gaited racer would certainly break the two-minute mark pulling today's lighter sulkeys, Urhausen said. The current trotting record is about 20 seconds faster than Jay-Eye-See's mark set 113 years ago.

Urhausen hopes a monument is in the offing and wants to be there if and when searchers look for the horse's bones.

“It's an important part of Racine history, and I'd hate to see his burial spot paved over for a parking lot without some kind of recognition," Urhausen said. “Because of his fame, his name was a household word throughout the country for a while. He pretty well put Racine on the map."

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