This was not Churchill Downs.

The men wore handlebar mustaches, bandanas and shoulder-length hair. The women wore beads and no makeup. They drove Volkswagen buses and long-hooded Jeep Cherokees, drank American beer from a can and smoked cigarettes. Fred Fisher took kids around the field in a wooden cart drawn by two heavily muscled horses. Allen M. Look Jr., a West Tisbury resident and a Hampshire College film major in those days, was there to shoot it all with a hand-held Bolex camera, a sound man and a couple of canisters of Tri-X black and white film.

It was Thanksgiving weekend 1972, the second year John and Kappy Hall ran a series of races with horses of wildly mismatched breeding and ages, and riders with so little racing experience that one is seen wearing a motorcycle helmet. Mr. Look’s film, which appears on the Gazette website as part of its Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project, takes viewers back to a moment in Island history when events like this sprang up almost without notice and attracted crowds from all over the Island by word of mouth alone.

In the film, dollar bets are placed at a pari-mutuel stand with an upturned wooden skiff serving as its roof. Small children run free in the crowd. And everybody talks with everybody else; perhaps notably nobody has a phone in their hands. Mr. Look appears to be the only man with a device capable of recording a moving image. He heard about the races in college and rushed down to the Island with his camera and sound man Tim Brennan to film it all.

“I knew it was a happening event,” he told the Gazette in an interview. “It was such a magnificent event, a spontaneous, huge community party. . . . Those things are wonderful. There was a sense that things were changing here for sure — a lot of real estate was going up for sale. But it was just one those joyous events. There was just a hum in the air and everybody was having a good time. There was great music and great food and camaraderie.”

The idea for the races had come up the year before. John Hall and his friend Jim Hoe were playing backgammon “near a place they called Magic Pond,” according to a story in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. “The summer was over and they were looking for something to do. Jim had recently bought a horse, which is what sparked the idea in the first place.”

John and Kappy Hall cut an 800-foot straightaway through a field at the family farm in West Tisbury, and the first event was held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1971. Jim Hoe rode one of the steeds. John Hall’s brother Joe ran the betting booth. Thirteen horses were entered and a couple of hundred people came. Fred Fisher’s son, Freddy Jr., won the final heat aboard a crook-legged horse named Frosty.

The second year, captured on a mild Thanksgiving Sunday in Mr. Look’s movie, there were 23 entrants and at least 500 viewers. Faces of Islanders in younger days appear as the camera weaves its way through the crowds — Everett Poole in a Greek fishing cap and smoking a cigar, Pamela Wall in her motorcycle helmet, Robert Woodruff leading oxen with a sled of children behind.

John Wilson of Edgartown edited the clip for the Gazette’s website.

Ms. Wall won the day that year aboard a retired chestnut thoroughbred named Zachary. The Gazette covered it. “The start was in a shallow hollow,” the newspaper reported, “so that if you stood . . . beyond the finish line, the horses grew out of the horizon like sailing vessels at sea.”

The races at the Hall farm went on until 1975, when they grew too big to manage. Another series run by the Nathan Mayhew Seminars was later staged at Scrubby Neck Farm in West Tisbury, but they too ended after a time, a victim of their own success.

Mr. Look reflected:

“It was just a simpler time. That’s just the way it evolved. But I think that spirit that’s demonstrated in the film is still very much alive here. A sense of community as an extended family I think is probably the most succinct way to describe it. People have each other’s back down here like nowhere else I’ve ever been . . . . It’s a welcoming community here. You see that in the film. You still have great events like that going on down here. They’re just more civilized.”

The Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project saves, archives and introduces old Island films to the public. To see the collection of 13 Vineyard films presented to date, go to For information about the project, contact (To avoid damage, please do not run an old film through a projector.)