How A Bad Joke Triggered History’s Greatest Horse Race

“He doth nothing but talk of his horse.” —William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

In A Nutshell

In 1893, cowboys in Chadron, Nebraska decided to plant a joke story in an eastern newspaper claiming that they were planning America’s longest horse race. Unfortunately, the fake story went viral and captured the imagination of the world. In order to avoid national humiliation, the people of Chadron realized they were actually going to have to stage the greatest race the world had ever seen.

The Whole Bushel

In the late 19th century, there wasn’t much to do in Chadron, Nebraska. The town had only come into existence in 1884, in anticipation of a railroad being built in the area. When the railroad was actually built a few miles away, the townsfolk simply packed up and moved to meet it—taking the buildings with them. By 1893, a couple of local cowboys had taken to amusing their buddies by planting wildly exaggerated stories of life on the range in various tenderfoot eastern newspapers. One of their hilarious hoaxes claimed that 300 cowboys were planning an epic 1,600-kilometer (1,000 mi) race from Chadron to the World’s Fair in Chicago. The distance was ludicrous and the article spiced things up by declaring the mild-mannered town fire chief “the deadliest shot in Nebraska” and a local 11-year-old “a daring rider” who was sure to win. Other entrants included such hardened cowpokes as “Cockeyed Bill” and “Dynamite Dick.”

The whole town thought it was hilarious—until thousands of letters started arriving. The jokers had accidentally captured the imagination of the country, and the townsfolk of Chadron faced national humiliation if they backed down. They soon realized that they had no choice but to keep up the bluff and actually go through with the race.

Helped by a generous purse put up by Buffalo Bill Cody, a genuine field of rough riders was soon assembled. The early favorite was Doc Middleton, the infamous gunfighter and leader of the Pony Boys gang, said to have stolen over 2,000 horses in a two-year period. His main rival was Joe Berry, famous as a mail rider during the Indian Wars, who had to borrow a horse to enter. Other contenders included Rattlesnake Jim Stephens (so-named for the rattlesnake rattles that lined his hatband) and an enormously fat cowboy called Joe Gillespie.

Doc Middleton, the Snidely Whiplash of our story, immediately started playing dirty, demanding that Berry be disqualified since he had helped to stake out the route. The judges agreed, but an outraged Berry announced that he was going to ride in the race anyway. Even if he couldn’t win the prize money, he could still prove he was the best.

Thousands of eager spectators gathered for the start, only to be disappointed when the riders all sensibly set off at a walk. Thirteen days and 16 hours later, Berry, too exhausted to even hold his head up, arrived in Chicago in first place. In second was Emmet Albright, who was set to get the prize until it was revealed he had shipped his horses part of the way by train. Third to arrive was the fat man, Joe Gillespie, who might even have beaten Berry if he hadn’t paused halfway to take part in a parade. After attempting numerous cunning tricks (and allegedly trying to poison the other horses) Doc Middleton finished last.

Show Me The Proof

Sports Illustrated: The Great 1,000-Mile Race From Chadron To Chicago
Omaha World-Herald: America’s Longest Horse Race Had Chadron Riding High
McCook Gazette: The Great 1,000 Mile Horse Race
Chadron Chamber Of Commerce: History Of Chadron