Remembering Only Champion Racers

The striking difference in the disposal of nonprofitable working animals versus their successful counterparts in the world of horse racing.


Thousands of racehorses live, train, and race at the Saratoga Race Track in New York  each year. Since the track’s opening in 1863, only five horses have been buried on site (MacAdam, 202021). Used for their strength and speed to compete in sport, racehorses are considered working animals during their racing career. This lifestyle differs from that of a “pet” horse, which in contrast can be thought of as a longer term companion who provides more utility than just their monetary worth (Avles, 2018).

Each of these five champions of the Saratoga track are buried beneath gravestones that emphasize their success in winning races and earning money for their owners. Buried along a walking tour route of the race track, these horses are clearly marked and honored as champions in plain sight to the general public. The memorialization of these five horses creates a bias in the archaeological record towards remembering the lucrative winners through their respectful burial and careful documentation, and consequently leaves behind the horses who were less successful money makers on the track.

The gravestone of Four Star Dave, buried right along the path that is heavily trafficked by eager tourists during Saratoga’s racing season (Figure 1), states his lifetime earnings: a whopping $1,636,520 (Bouyea, 2018). There are no human names on this gravestone, which is one common note amongst both most pet graves and these 5 horses buried at Saratoga. Instead, there is a list of achievements to emphasize that he was good at his job. The focus on monetary achievement is dissimilar to the words of praise for a friendly temperament or silly nicknames found on many pets’ graves, as noted by Gradwohl’s observations of a pet cemetery (Gradwohl, 2000). The pet gravestones typically show an emotional bond with the buried animal, whereas the race horse gravestones are more explicitly focused on the value extracted from their body through work.

Figure 1. Gravestone of Four Star Dave, buried at the Clare Court track in Saratoga Springs, New York. Photograph by Adam Coglianese.

There are unsuccessful racehorses in the industry. Some find another job as a show horse or companion for pleasure, but others are shipped internationally to slaughter houses and killed for their meat (Figure 2). Moving these animals far from where they used to live and race is symbolic of the common phrase “out of sight, out of mind.” There is a clear archaeological record of the successful horses, who are buried in easily viewable locations at racetracks, but a much more muddled archaeological record of horses who have gone down the auction to slaughter pipeline.

Figure 2. An unsuccessful, former racehorse horse loaded on a trailer to be slaughtered. Photograph by Michael Mulvey.

This is a quiet ridding of some unsuccessful racehorses, whether on purpose or through a series of mishaps. The intense contrast in the memorialization of a horse who was paid for by the pound at auction versus the champion whose gravestone is publicly displayed shows the significant disinterest in what happens to unsuccessful or worn out working animals in the United States.

Links to Additional Resources:





Alves, Rômulo Romeu Nóbrega. 2018. “The Ethnozoological Role of Working Animals 

in Traction and Transport ∗.” In Ethnozoology, 339–49. Elsevier.

Bouyea, Brien. “Fourstardave: 3 Things Everybody Should Know about the ‘Sultan of 

Saratoga’.” Saratoga Living, July 30, 2018.

Gradwohl, David. May/June 2000. “Parakeet to Paradise.” Archaeology Vol. 53 (No. 3): 

  1. 22-24.

MacAdam, Mike, and Photo Provided. “Horse-for-the-Course Quick Call Memorialized 

at Saratoga Race Course.” The Daily Gazette, July 14, 2021.


Image Credits

Gravestone of Four Star Dave [online image]. Photograph taken by Adam Coglianese.

A horse being sent to slaughter [online image]. Photograph taken by Michael Mulvey.


Dynamic Nature of the Archaeological Approach

The progression of archaeological practices as shown by the study of the Tolland Man.

In 1950, farmers Viggo and Emil Hojgaard were spading through a peat bog near the town of Tollund in Denmark. The pair found a well-preserved body laying in a sleeping position in the bog (Figure 1). The body had a rope wrapped tightly around his neck and a cap on his head (Levine, 2017). Now known as the Tollund Man, the incredible preservation of his skin, hair, and organs give the opportunity for archaeologists to look into his life from 2,300 years ago.


Figure 1. Tollund Man after excavation (Levine, 2017).

The Tollund Man is one of many bodies found in peat bogs across Europe. These bogs stood out from Europe’s dense forests as one of the few places where the entire area from water to sky was exposed. The acidic bogs have little oxygen and an abundance of sphagnum moss. When the moss dies, it releases a chemical that binds to nitrogen, preventing the growth of bacteria that could break down the body. The sphagnum extracts calcium from bones, which is why the flesh of bog bodies is better preserved (Levine 2017).

Because of the unique nature of the preservation of these bodies, bog bodies are a wealth of archaeological information, as tests like microCT scans of his arteries are performed on body parts that are not usually preserved (Levine, 2017). The Tollund Man has been tested and retested since his discovery in 1950, offering an insight into how archaeology methods have changed throughout the years.

The handling of the body initially showed use of the culture history approach to archaeology. In the 1960s, scientists started to use processual archaeology. Culture history focuses on when and where artifacts were found (Renfrew 2018, 25), whereas processual archaeology uses science to ask questions that connect the artifact to its place in a complex culture (Renfrew 2018, 28). The initial cataloging of the Tollund Man falls under a culture history approach, while later testing shows the progression into processual archaeology.

Testing right after the discovery consisted of an x-ray to the body and head, and an autopsy. Instead of using archaeology specific methods that took into consideration the age and fragility of the body, researchers used similar techniques to an autopsy of a modern body, possibly disrupting his preservation (Levine, 2017). The intestines were briefly removed and examined, but an in depth study of the contents of his stomach would not occur until later (Nielsen et al. 2021). Notably, researchers found both barley and flax, which grow in different seasons (Figure 2). The use of a processual archaeology lens revealed evidence of food storage 2,300 years ago, a find that the brevity of a culture history approach might have missed.

Figure 2. Tollund Man’s last meal (Nielsen 2021).

Moving past the culture history approach of collecting and dating artifacts has allowed archaeologists to study the larger culture surrounding the Tollund Man and bog bodies.

Further Reading:


“Why Did the Tollund Man Have to Die?” 


“The Tollund Man”


Discovery of the Tollund Man- Episode 128



Djinis, Elizabeth. “Last Meal of Sacrificial Bog Body Was Surprisingly Unsurprising, 

Researchers Say.” History. National Geographic, July 21, 2021. 

Levine, Joshua. “Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets.” 

Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, May 1, 2017.

Nielsen, Nina H., Peter Steen Henriksen, Morten Fischer Mortensen, Renée Enevold, 

Martin N. Mortensen, Carsten Scavenius, and Jan J. Enghild. “The Last Meal of Tollund Man: New Analyses of His Gut Content.” Antiquity 95, no. 383 (2021): 1195–1212. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.98.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and 

Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.


Image Credits

Tollund Man after excavation [online image]. Photograph by Christian Als, Smithsonian Institute.

Tollund Man’s last meal [online image]. Photograph by P.S. Henriksen, the Danish National Museum.