Ask McGehee: Is there a famous racehorse buried in Magnolia Cemetery?

a horse painting by Edward Troye

Famed artist Edward Troye taught French and art at Spring Hill College. While he lived in the city, he created some of his most notable horse paintings. Image courtesy wikicommons

The tale of a beloved horse resting beside his owner in Mobile’s historic Magnolia Cemetery is a persistent one and seems to be centered on the gravesite of William Cottrill, who died at a local racetrack in 1887. A year earlier, his horse, Buchanan, had won what today is the Kentucky Derby. Cottrill’s death warranted coverage in major newspapers from New Orleans to New York.

Mobile had been home to a horse track as early as 1823. Cottrill, who had been born in England in 1818, had immigrated to Mobile in 1841 where he got into the butcher trade with his brother, Robert. In 1847, he married a Mobilian named Sarah Weeks. When the combination City Hall and Southern Market was completed in 1857, Cottrill occupied stalls 41, 43 and 45, and had a lucrative trade sending beef up river via steamboats. According to one account, his business became the largest in Mobile.

Four Racetracks

In the antebellum decades, Mobile boasted as many as four racetracks. Since all were outside the city limits, gambling was rampant and popular. The sport attracted all levels of the city’s population. Its wealthiest — men and women — arrived in splendid carriages and watched from well-appointed grandstands. Working-class residents could take in the action from the infield. News accounts and racing forms noted the distinctive colors worn by each jockey to make their horse easy to identify.

- Sponsors -

Over the years, Mobile became an important breeding ground for racehorses, and many were shipped down from New York and Kentucky in the winter months. The results of numerous races held in Mobile during the months of March and December were reported in papers around the country.

The renowned artist Edward Troye taught French and art at Spring Hill College between 1849 and 1855. Some of his finest horse paintings were created in Mobile at that time.

It is not clear what year Mr. Cottrill began raising winning race horses of his own, but they were soon racing at courses all over the South. In time, he also owned a part interest in a horse farm in Kentucky. The party was certainly interrupted with the advent of war, and Cottrill had a blow when he lost his wife Sarah on Valentine’s Day in 1866.

Horse Tracks Revitalized

At war’s end, the wealthy who had once crowded the grandstands had vanished and the sport languished. William Cottrill is credited with helping to bring it back. An advertisement appearing in March of 1867 noted that there would be seven days of races at the Magnolia Jockey Club, located on the Bay Shell Road, some five miles south of town.

The Weekly Advertiser in Montgomery wrote this about the track: “The Jockey Club has expended a great deal of money and made the Magnolia Race Course one of the finest on the continent.”

Mobile’s economy struggled under the constrictions of Reconstruction and by 1872, a reporter bemoaned the “smallness of the stakes compared to those offered in former times” but blamed this on “the hardness of times that has borne us down to silence and inaction.” Still, an event was held over four days in December with special races and stakes for horses of different ages.

Cottrill’s Bonaventure won First Place at an 1875 race held at the Magnolia Course and a news account stated the purse was $200. Today, that would equate to a bit under $6,000.

Throughout the 1870s and beyond, the name William Cottrill and those of his horses appear in news accounts of races from Mobile to New York. His fame as a breeder and owner was recognized in 1872 when the founding fathers of New York’s Saratoga Race Course wanted to name a race in his honor. His modesty would not allow it, and the race today is known as the Alabama Stakes Race and has a purse of $600,000.

Cottrill and Horse Races Die 

William Cottrill died on Valentine’s Day, 1887, after what one newspaper termed “a long and painful illness.” His obituary appeared in countless newspapers terming him “the well-known thoroughbred horse-raiser and owner. He has owned hundreds of horses many of which were victors in Eastern and Western contests. Cottrill was universally esteemed at home and abroad.”

Having had no children, he left his estate to his niece, Jennie Cottrill. On November 8, 1887, it was reported, “The rare stables of the late William Cottrill, 60 horses in all, left today for Lexington, Kentucky for an auction sale next week.”

The same year of his death, laws were enacted in Alabama all but outlawing horse racing, and the state’s 1901 constitution banned gambling completely. As a result, the tracks in Mobile were subdivided and used for commercial and residential development. The long and colorful history of horses in Mobile was all but forgotten.

Mr. Cottrill’s love of horses and ownership of so many champions apparently led to speculation that he had a favorite — perhaps even Buchanan — buried in his plot in Magnolia Cemetery. According to cemetery records and personnel, no proof of any such burial has ever been discovered.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!