Deconstructing the legend of Hickory Jim [aka Sorrel Mike]

“Sorrel Mike was said to be one of the most intelligent horses that ever looked through a bridle. It is told of him that sometimes when he had won a race, he would come back to the judges’ stand and would stand trembling while Davis approached him, as if fearful he had done wrong by running it out. But when Davis went to him with a “Good boy, Mike” and a pat on the neck, his head would fly up and he would prance about, the proudest horse on the track. After he was taken east, and his name changed to Hickory Jim, the old horse became quite a celebrity, and he raced until after he was twenty-three years old.

A number of years ago “Vigilant,” in the Spirit of the Times, devoted considerable space to the old horse, among other things saying that he was the best horse he knew for any large breeding establishment as a “schoolmaster” for the colts and was easily worth $5,000 to any such establishment, as he was so intelligent, docile, could be placed anywhere, and although then about twenty years old, could still go fast enough to make the fastest of the youngsters extend himself. Davis never sold the horse, who is still alive, and must be all of thirty years old.” (The Ravalli Republican (Stevensville, MT), 11/28/1894)

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the legend regarding the age and longevity of the racehorse Hickory Jim grew to almost mythical proportions. His memory is long lost to the ages, but it’s time to take a second look and attempt to determine fact vs. fiction.

The below information is clearly incomplete; however, the only way to build his story is to put it out there. If anyone comes across this and has additional information to add or corrections to make, feel free to leave a message. His story deserves to be told as accurately as possible.

It should be said that the below all hinges on belief that Hickory Jim was originally a colt named Sorrel Mike.  Based on incomplete and unconfirmed evidence, I do believe that Hickory Jim and Sorrel Mike are the same horse. The two names will be used interchangeably below, depending on where we are in his career, defaulting to “Hickory Jim” when talking about him in the present.

While essentially unheard of in the modern era for a horse with races behind their belt to change names (the only recent one that immediately comes to mind is Columbine Is Sad to Dake in 1999), it was not uncommon at the time for a horse to race under different names for different connections/regions (see Wamba to Bob Saccser to Wamba 1) or for their name to be changed simply because their connections so desired (see Troublesome to Warhawk to Friday 2), and this is not something that would immediately send up a red flag.

1 “The review of the Westbrook stable would not be complete without allusion to the colt Wamba, by Harry Bassett, out of imported Wombat. He has been running in the South under the name of Bob Sasscer, and was entered in the Rancocus Handicap by Mr. Lorillard. This proceeding was mysterious, at least, and provoked unpleasant comment. It did look like an effort to deceive the public on the part of somebody, and who that somebody is the following letter from Mr. Lorillard’s trainer will explain:

ISLIP, March 9, 1881.
To the Editor of the New-York Times:
Mr. Lorillard lent the horse Wamba to Mr. J. J. Bevins last Fall, and he is to return him in the spring, at Baltimore meeting. Therefore, the entry is correct. Mr. Bevins runs the colt under the name of Bob Sasscer, by whose authority I do not know, but he will run under the name of Wamba during the coming season.    R. W. WALDEN.” (The New York Times, 03/14/1881)

2 “George Rice, the well-known trainer of running horses, has changed the name of the chestnut gelding Warhawk to Friday. His reason for changing the name is because Friday is considered an unlucky day, and the horse has never brought anything but bad luck to him.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 02/09/1879)

Additionally, Sorrel Mike/Hickory Jim would be leased out to a number of individuals during the course of his racing career, so the various names that crop up in association with him over the years are not a reason to necessarily conclude that a multitude of horses were competing at the time under the names “Sorrel Mike” or “Hickory Jim.”

However, when looking at the cases of Greaser and (Newman’s) Rattler listed below, maybe there is something to the multiple horses theory.

Hickory Jim’s parentage is uncertain; however, he was said to potentially be by (Old) Dasher by Glencoe (GB) and out of a mare either by “George” or Young Rifleman (per The Breeder and Sportsman, 03/21/1885) and was likely foaled in Oregon or Washington.

On his potential damsires, the pedigree of “George” (possibly “Old George”) is unknown. In the case of Young Rifleman, he was by Rifleman by Glencoe (GB) and out of Mary Davis by Red Bill [aka Redbill] by Medoc (per the Nevada State Journal (Reno, NV), 05/16/1874).

Both Rifleman and Young Rifleman sired Thoroughbreds and trotters, with Young Rifleman said to be a natural trotter.

Hickory Jim’s parentage becomes of particular interest when you take into consideration the Texas-bred horses Greaser and (Newman’s) Rattler, who are considered to be two of the foundation sires of the American Quarter Horse.

Greaser, foaling date unknown, was said to be by Hickory Jim by Dasher by Steel Dust and out of a Jackson Quarter mare. (Newman’s) Rattler, foaled in 1890, was said to be by Hickory Jim by Dasher out of an unknown dam.

Are the reports that Hickory Jim was sired by Dasher correct? If so, is he the sire of these two horses? However, Hickory Jim had been listed for much of his career as a gelding. Was this designation an error?

Is this “Hickory Jim” listed as sire of Greaser and (Newman’s) Rattler an entirely different horse?

It is difficult to determine just how old Hickory Jim was, but based on race history and anecdotal evidence, we can conjecture he was born at some point between 1865 and 1872.

It is likely that the latest Hickory Jim was foaled was 1872, as per the American Racing Calendar of 1874 (as published by the Turf, Field and Farm), he (racing as Sorrel Mike) would race at least twice for E. G. Butcher in 1874, finishing last in both a one mile dash at Ottumwa Driving Park (Ottumwa, IA) on July 30 and in a quarter-mile dash at the Clinton Driving Park Association (Clinton, IA) on August 11.

James (Jim) A. “Hickory Jim” Davis reportedly had had Hickory Jim in his care for 15 years as of 1886 and/or 18 years as of 1890. Based off these unconfirmed dates, Hickory Jim was either born in 1871 or 1872.

Other published information indicates Hickory Jim was 16 years old in 1885, making him a foal of 1869.

“He [Missouri breeder Buford Farris] referred to the feats of Gilt, Hickory Jim and Top Sawyer, runners that are winning races throughout the States. He laid much stress upon the performances of Top Sawyer and Hickory Jim, better known to the Montana turfmen as “Sorrel Mike.” Hickory Jim has made winnings in every State and Territory he has started in, and now at the advanced age of 16 year, is running in long races with good success, his latest feats being at Brighton Beach, where he as shown himself capable of contesting first place in the society of the best horses on the turf.” (per the Rocky Mountain Husbandman, as later published in The Breeder and Sportsman, 01/10/1885)

However, additional sources state “on good authority” that Hickory Jim was a foal of 1865.

“Hickory Jim (once known as Sorrel Mike) remained on the turf longer than any horse of which there is any record. Foaled in 1865 (it is declared on good authority) he ran up to 1891, when he was 26 years of age, and took part altogether in about 300 races.” (The San Francisco Call (Vol. 74, No. 103), 09/11/1893)

As has been made clear by this point, there are a lot of unknowns and conjecture surrounding the true age of Hickory Jim. Yet another source states that he was 3 years old in 1876, making him a foal of 1873. As Sorrel Mike was racing in 1874, and therefore at least a foal of 1872, this should be considered invalid.

“The latest addition to the voluminous literature anent the mystery of Sorrel Mike is the following, which we take from a letter from Mr. J. S. Trask, of Walla Walla, Washington Territory, who knows the horse well. He says “Hickory Jim, formerly Sorrel Mike, was three years old in 1876. I tapped him off in the first race he ever ran in that year, on Davis’ race track, Reese river, Lauder county, Nevada. He was raised by a man named McKnoll, a few miles above where I now reside, on Touchet river, Washington Territory. He was sired by Old Dasher, out of George or Young Rifleman mare. I write this because I see in the papers he is made out an older horse than he really is.” (The Breeder and Sportsman, 03/21/1885)

“The phenomenal success of certain California racing stables, and of individual campaigners from the far West, is enough to set one to ask questions regarding the influence climate may have on the endurance and speed of racehorses. Joe Howell, though bred far enough east of the Rocky Mountains, never appeared to know how good a racehorse he was till he had done running enough in the far West to have used up two or three ordinary horses. Hickory Jim, bred somewhere in the far West, has a ranchman’s brand upon him, and until his lungs had been expanded by the rare atmosphere of the celebrated Belt Range, “he was unknown to fame.” As Sorrel Mike, he made a humble commencement on the turf, but some occult influences, climatic or otherwise, ultimately developed him into Hickory Jim, the crack springer from Montana.” (per Canadian Breeders, as later published in The Breeder and Sportsman, 12/05/1885)

The transition from Sorrel Mike to Hickory Jim appears to have coincided with his post-Montana move eastward in approx. 1882.

If photographs were ever taken of him at the individual times he was “Sorrel Mike” and “Hickory Jim,” the alleged brand he sported could potentially aid in legitimizing the horses as one and the same.

Sorrel Mike would spend a good portion of his early career in Montana, where he would become a short distance heat racing specialist, setting numerous track/state records at courses across the state and earning himself the nickname of the “Montana Flyer.”

He would become a local favorite in the city of Helena, with a local prostitute, Lottie “Sorrel Mike” Ables, adopting his name as her moniker.

On December 5, 1884, Hickory Jim would record a dead heat with Ligan in a selling allowance (9f) at Brighton Beach. Ligan would win the resulting runoff by three lengths.

On March 18, 1888, Hickory Jim would set a new American record for 1,200 yards (1:10) at New Orleans, LA, carrying 110 lbs.

Based on the above attempt to decipher the year of Hickory Jim’s birth, he would have been at least 16 years old at the time he set this record. If he were truly born in 1869 or 1865, he would have been 19 or 23 years old, respectively.

Anecdotal evidence says that Hickory Jim raced until the ages of anywhere from 21 to 23 to 26. However, without knowing his actual year of birth, the span of his career cannot be determined.

As of May 1890, Hickory Jim had reportedly won 47 times in 232 starts over the course of his career; however, other sources state he had run around 300 times.

“Snow and ice did not stop races in the colder climates of America back 35 years ago. Many tracks ran during the cold months in the East, Guttenberg and Clifton, in New Jersey, were the courses where turfmen sent their charges over the snow during the coldest weather. It is recalled that Hickory Jim won the Snowball handicap at Clifton back in those days when his owner claimed he was 21 years old. There is no doubt that Hickory Jim raced to a ripe old age, but it is questioned whether he was that old when he won the famous handicap referred to.” (The Washington Post, 01/19/1925)

“You’ve often heard of that fellow who’s been around the race tracks since Hickory Jim was a 2 year old. Found one near the Washington Park paddock yesterday who claims to have watched Old Hickory win the Snow Ball handicap at Clifton Park, N. J., on a cold Christmas day many, many years ago. He was Henry T. Batchellor, agent for the Three D’s stable, now in his 80th year, and he claims Old Hickory Jim was 21 years old when he won that handicap. Batchellor has turned 80, but looks 20 years younger.” (French Lane for the Chicago Daily Tribune, 05/30/1931)

“Hickory Jim, a famous name in the annals of the turf, was racing until he was 26 and actually won one, mirable dictum, when he was 25. Historians don’t say whom he beat at that age, but one should not quibble about the feats of an oldster, even an equine one.” (Arthur Daley for The New York Times, 09/11/1943)

I’ve attempted to locate information on the aforementioned Snowball/Snow Ball Handicap, to no avail.

Jim Davis would pass away in November 1894, with Hickory Jim following less than a month later.

“NEW YORK, Nov. 22—[Special.]— Old “Hickory Jim” Davis was buried in Flower Hill Cemetery, near the Guttenberg race track, this afternoon. There were at the grave only a few horsemen who have long known this old man. For years and years Davis, gaunt, hollow-cheeked, and weather-beaten, had been drifting about the Eastern race tracks. Wherever he went he was invariably accompanied by a worn, battered old horse called Hickory Jim. Davis was a lonely old man, without wife or children, living the isolated life of a race track trainer, and all the repressed sentiment of his nature went out to his horse.

Davis once raced Hickory Jim from the Canadian line to the Rio Grande against the horses of Indians, Mexicans, and cowboys, until Jim became so well known and so thoroughly feared that he was not allowed to compete. He brought the horse East and won good races with him at Monmouth Park and Sheepshead Bay, and at one period Davis was worth $75,000 or $100,000. Davis had a number of offers from museum men for his horse, because he is believed to be the oldest race horse in the world, but he would always reply: “Me and Jim’s been together a long while now, an’ I guess we will stay together until one of us dies.”

In the last few months Davis’ fortune picked up a little, and at Narragansett this fall he managed to win some money and buy several horses. Davis had always said he wanted to be buried beside Hickory Jim, and C. J. Donovan, who arranged the funeral, tried to buy a plot of ground at Flower Hill Cemetery large enough for both of them. The cemetery authorities refused to allow the horse to be buried there, however. Davis has a brother and sister in Wisconsin. Old Hickory Jim, who was nearer to him than any of his relatives, is now at Guttenberg in charge of a stableman named Lewis.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 11/23/1894)

“NEW YORK, Dec. 14.—[Special.]— Hickory Jim, probably the oldest thoroughbred racehorse in the world, is dead. The Tribune told recently of the death of Davis, a lonely old Western turfman, the owner of Hickory Jim, and of how the old man and the old horse traveled together for so many years that Davis became known from Sheepshead Bay to San Francisco as “Hickory Jim” Davis. Friday last the old horse was led out to exercise when he suddenly jumped up as if frightened, and fell in a heap—dead. It may have been old age, for Jim was so old that the oldest turf guides, way back in the seventies, mark him “aged,” but those who knew the affectionate relationship existing between Jim and his master are convinced that the old fellow died of a broken heart. Jim and Davis were inseparable for over twenty years.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 12/15/1894)


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