When he was a mere lad weighing all of 95 pounds at the tender age of 14, James Rowe was widely considered the premier jockey in America. The year was 1871 and Rowe was riding some of the greatest racehorses in the country; he won the Travers Stakes on the mighty Harry Bassett as well as the Saratoga Cup, Jerome Handicap and consecutive editions of the Belmont Stakes.
But while his accomplishments as a jockey were significant, they are but a footnote in a much more substantial legacy. It can be strongly argued that Rowe, a Virginia native, is the greatest American racehorse trainer of all time. Yup, you read that right: of all time.
After growing too big to be a race rider, Rowe—still a teenager—joined the circus, riding horses in P.T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome. After an undoubtedly thrilling few years with Barnum, Rowe returned to the racetrack, landing his first training gig for Mike and Phil Dwyer’s Dwyer Brothers Stable, training future Hall of Famers Hindoo, Luke Blackburn and Miss Woodford.
His clients got only more high profile from there. August Belmont’s stable had been in decline before Rowe quickly resurrected it by developing the top 2-year-old colt (Potomac) and filly (La Tosca) of 1890. After Belmont’s death, Rowe spent some time as a racing official in California before returning to training in 1899 for James R. Keene, whose stable, like Belmont’s, had fallen on hard times. Just as he did for Belmont, Rowe helped Keene return to the sport’s upper echelon, conditioning future Hall of Famers Colin, Commando, Maskette, Peter Pan and Sysonby. When Keene died, Rowe didn’t skip a beat, going on to train 11 champions for Harry Payne Whitney, of which Regret, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, was the most remarkable.
When Rowe passed away at the age of 72 in Saratoga Springs in 1929, he had won every prestigious race in America, including a record eight editions of the Belmont plus nine renewals of the Futurity, seven of the Alabama, six of the Brooklyn Handicap, and many more. R. T. Wilson, president of the Saratoga Racing Association at the time, said, “It is with the deepest regret that I learned of the death of Mr. Rowe. What we of the organization think of him may be judged from the half-masting of our flags, something we have never done for another trainer.” Greatest of all time, indeed.