Peter the Great: Champion Trotting Horse

“If Kalamazoo had never held a horse race, had there never been a trotting track here, the name of Kalamazoo would still never be forgotten by horsemen. That is due to three men, and one horse. The men were Samuel A. Browne, Daniel D. Streeter and Peter V. Johnston; the horse was Peter the Great.” These three men used their shrewd business sense, their intimate knowledge of horses, and a good bit of luck to breed and train a champion trotter like the world had never seen.

Background

All standardbred horses, the trotters and pacers of today, trace their ancestry back to a single horse named Messenger who came to America in 1808. Compared to the ancient history of horse racing in general, the standardbred is relatively young. During the second half of the nineteenth century, horse racing became increasingly popular in Kalamazoo, and wealthy businessmen took to breeding horses for recreation and as a sign of status. One of these was the prominent lumberman Samuel A. Browne. While most of his operations (of which U. S. Senator Francis Stockbridge was an important partner) took place in the Muskegon area, he lived and raised horses in Kalamazoo. In 1891 Browne sold a mare named Santos to prominent Kalamazoan Daniel D. Streeter for one thousand dollars.

Peter V. Johnston

Kalamazoo News Advertiser, 2 February 1939

Early Beginnings of Peter the Great

Streeter bred horses at his Oaklands home on what is now the campus of Western Michigan University. In the winter of 1894, Streeter sent Santos to Battle Creek to breed with a stallion called Pilot Medium. Her colt was born at the Oaklands in 1895 and named Peter the Great.  Peter V. Johnston, a world famous horse driver and trainer who had retired to Kalamazoo, almost passed up the opportunity to train and drive Streeter’s new colt, saying that he was retired and was “going on a long fishing trip.” After much persuasion by Streeter, Johnston gave in and agreed to train Peter. Johnston was an experienced trainer and put all his knowledge to work in training Peter to be a champion.

Racing Success

In 1897 when Peter the Great was two years old, Streeter and Johnston took him to Lexington to race in the Kentucky Futurity, the greatest trotting race of the day. Almost no one had heard of the dark red horse from Kalamazoo, but when he finished a close second to race favorite Janie T., the name of Peter the Great was on every tongue. The following year Peter returned as a three year old and dominated at the Futurity. He won all three of his heats and set a new track record of 2:12:1/2. At the end of 1898, Streeter sold his prize horse to a Boston sportsman named J. Malcolm Forbes for $20,000. In 1899 Forbes raced Peter at the Empire City Track in New York where he recorded his lifetime best time of 2:07:1/4 and finished in first place to claim a $5,000 purse. Soon afterwards he came up lame in one leg. Peter’s racing career had been brief but memorable, but his lasting contribution to the trotting world was in the incredible number of quality colts that he sired.

Peter the Great - racing

Peter the Great winning a race, 2nd heat, 1899, Lexington, KY.
Image originally published Dec. 9, 1953 Harness Horse, digitized by Don Daniels, and provided to KPL by Terry Motycka and the U. S. Trotting Assoc.

Peter’s Remaining Years

Over the rest of his life, Peter the Great lived in Boston, Lexington, and Indianapolis and was bred by several different owners. By the time Peter died in 1923 at the age of 28, he had sired 549 standard performers. His blood still flows in the veins of the majority of champion trotting horses today.

A Monument to Peter the Great

In 1931 Kalamazoo area businessman Charles B. Hays and relatives of Daniel Streeter provided funds to erect a monument to commemorate the birthplace of Kalamazoo’s most famous horse. The plaque, affixed to a boulder, reads: “On this farm was born the trotting stallion and sire Peter the Great 2:07¼.  Bred by D. D. Streeter. Trained and driven in Kentucky Futurities by Peter V. Johnston.” The marker was originally placed near the barn where Peter was born but has been moved several times as the campus has grown. It presently sits at the west end of Western Michigan University's Administration Building on Michigan Avenue.

Peter the Great historic marker

Peter the Great historic marker, Western Michigan University, West Campus.
Photographed by Alex Forist

Sources

"Peter the Great - A Racing Legend"

  • Hager, Dave
  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 June 1975, page D1

Local History Room Subject File: Peter the Great

"Horses and Horse Racing in Kalamazoo"

  • Miller, Leon W.
  • Michigan History, Volume 35, No. 4, December 1951, pages 385-405

The Life and Legacy of Peter the Great, Famous Trotting Sire from Kalamazoo

  • Motycka, Terry
  • Roxy Publishing, 2006 (additional copies in circulating collection
  • H 636.1 M922