by Dean Hoffman
Would people actually home out to see a horse race at a small county fair on a Wednesday afternoon?
That’s what Little Brown Jug officials were wondering when September 18, 1946 dawned. The race had been just a dream for founders Joe Neville and Hank Thomson during World War II, but on this day reality would set in. Would their dreams come true? Could the Jug establish itself as the pacing counterpart of the Hambletonian for trotters?
It had a good field of eight, including the gifted filly His Lady and the top colt Ensign Hanover. The latter was from the powerful Castleton Farm stable that was making such a big splash in harness racing in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Prominent drivers such as Sep Palin, Henry Thomas, Tom Berry, Joe Hylan, Jake Mahoney, and Del Cameron would be among the sulkysitters in the first Jug.
The plot thickened when Sep Palin, the trainer and driver of Engisng Hanover, was too ill on Jug morning to drive that afternoon and Delaware horseman T. Wayne “Curly” Smart was selected to catch-drive the favorite.
Royal Chief and Del Cameron won the first heat ever in the Jug, but Smart and Ensign Hanover were popular winners of the second heat. Then the filly His Lady shocked the fans by winning the third heat and sending the first-ever Jug to a fourth heat raceoff. The fans who flocked to Delaware were certainly getting a good show for their money.
The flashy chestnut Ensign Hanover was too much for his rivals in the fourth heat, overpowering them to win in 2:07-1/2.
A crowd estimated at 27,000 saw history being made. And it sure helped that a local boy, Curly Smart, drove the winner. The marathon pacing event was competitive and exciting. Many of the fans liked what they saw so much that they became regulars at the Jug and the crowd size swelled in the ensuing years.
Joe Neville and Hank Thomson won their bet. Yes, the people would come – and did come – to a small county fair to see racing on a weekday. And the Little Brown Jug soon became the biggest prize in pacing.
This year’s 69th Annual Little Brown Jug is brought to you by Fazoli’s