story by Dean A. Hoffman
Mirror, mirror on the wall—who’s the fairest of them all?
That’s the rhetorical question that Sleeping Beauty famously asked her mirror.
With the Breeders Crowns for 2018 in the books, voters are now asking who’s the fairest in each age-gait-sex category for 2018, while Americans are preparing to vote in the mid-term elections for the U.S. House and Senate.
Invariably, there is worthwhile debate in some divisions, but a longer and far more spirited debate unfolds when harness racing devotees open that can of worms about “the greatest ever.” It might be the greatest trotter or pacer or perhaps the five or 10 best on each gait.
There are no right or wrong answers. There are only opinions.
There are many people that relish the chance to take part in such discussions, assuming that the debate is conducted over several bottles of red wine—and someone else is picking up the check.
By the way, many voters are considering their choices in the year-end balloting. Some people, who probably prefer not to have their names mentioned, have been participating in these votes for almost a half-century. For example, there is one individual who began voting in 1970 while still in college, but that was the result of the USTA sending a ballot because that person worked for the USTA that summer.
But, pray tell, who is the fairest of them all in harness racing? Who are the greatest harness horses of all time?
It’s a question without an answer. Or perhaps a question with a helluva lot of answers.
How do you compare a Hannelore Hanover to mares like Moni Maker, Delmonica Hanover, Fresh Yankee, Proximity or Rosalind?
How do you compare North American stars to the best of Europe?
It’s not easy. The strongest harness racing program in the word is unquestionably France. Sweden would be second. But horses from those countries are all trotters. No pacers need apply.
The puzzle is difficult enough if limited to North America, and becomes virtually impossible when you examine the expanse of harness racing history on this continent. How can you compare Hannelore Hanover or any modern stars to stars of the past?
One way to get a basis of comparison is to limit the discussion to those horses voted Horse of the Year since voting began in 1947. Over that period of more than seven decades, many great horses, some still famous and some forgotten, have been voted Horse of the Year.
Ah, but others have been voted Horse of the Year more than one time. That’s a special distinction. And if you want to search for an exclusive category, what about the horses that were voted Horse of the Year each season they raced?
It’s not a long list. It begins with Bret Hanover (1964-’65-’66) and continues with Nevele Pride (1967-’68-’69) and then goes to Niatross (1979-’80).
If a horse wins the sport’s highest honor in North America each season it races, how can you leave such a horse off any list of all-time greats?
Then there are horses that have won Horse of the Year honors twice. This list includes Good Time, Scott Frost, Adios Butler, Albatross, Cam Fella, Mack Lobell and Moni Maker.
A special shout-out goes to Good Time, who was voted the sport’s best as a 3-year-old in 1949 and again as a 6-year-old in 1952. That is evidence of tenacity and that’s just one of the many compliments tossed at the horse that trainer-driver Frank Ervin called “Shorty” during his career.
Horses winning the title of the sport’s best more than once are truly special. Of course, earning that title even once is a remarkable accomplishment. The reputations of some horses, however, simply haven’t stood the test of time.
Have you heard of the pacer Hi Lo’s Forbes? Perhaps not, but he was the best in harness racing in 1953. That was based on his earnings of $52,625 with 11 wins, two seconds and a third in 17 starts. His best time was 1:58.
His mile of 1:58.3 over the half-mile track at Roosevelt Raceway on June 6, 1953, astonished experts in the sport and was the talk of the backstretch the entire season. Imagine that—a 1:58.3 mile over a twice-around at night! Yes, he deserved Horse of the Year honors.
Most people with any foundation in harness racing have heard of Delmonica Hanover. She was voted Horse of the Year in 1974, despite winning five races in 17 starts and banking $252,165. Delmonica Hanover, however, picked the right races to win: she won the Prix d’Amerique in Paris and also won the Roosevelt International.
In limiting this review to the Horse of the Year winners in North America, excluded are stars who came to prominence prior to that award being initiated in 1947. So Billy Direct, Single G, Directum I, Greyhound, Dan Patch, Maud S, Minor Heir, Peter Manning, Peter Volo, Star Pointer, Uhlan, Volo Song and other stars of the first half of the 20th century were never eligible for Horse of the Year honors.
Impressed that Foiled Again won 104 races? Then you’re probably more impressed by Goldsmith Maid winning more than 350 races. But Foiled Again’s wins came one at a time while Goldsmith Maid often chalked up multiple heat wins in one afternoon.
When voting, wins in restricted events such as sire stakes can usually be discounted. Those count far less than wins in open competition. To me, restricted events are like minor league baseball while open events are the major leagues.
Horse of the Year and divisional honors are lasting. The times and earnings that today’s champions achieve will likely be eclipsed by future four-footed stars, but the honors won in 2018 can never be taken away.
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.