by Perry Lefko
If may have happened 10 years ago, but the memory of Vivid Photo winning the Hambletonian in 2005 is etched in the minds and hearts of Roger Hammer and Todd Schadel and anyone who saw the horse pull off one of the biggest upsets in the race’s long and cherished history.
How it all happened is something that proved you don’t need to have deep pockets to win a race with the magnitude of the Hambletonian. All you need is a good horse. But in the case of Vivid Photo, it took some genuine horsemanship to turn Vivid Photo from ordinary into extraordinary.
Schadel and Hammer, both veterans of the Pennsylvania circuit, were longtime friends who had owned horses together for many years. In the fall of 2003, they travelled to Lexington for the yearling sales and liked a trotting colt sired by S J’S Photo. They paid $30,000 for it and decided Hammer would do the training because Schadel had not had much luck with offspring of S J’S Photo. Schadel and Hammer had a deal with horses they bought together: whoever trained the horse would take care of all of the expenses. At the end of the year, they totaled the money they made from the horses, subtracted the expenses and divided the net profit.
Vivid Photo did little to distinguish himself as a two-year-old of significance, his most notable achievement finishing first in a Pennsylvania Sire Stakes race that had a purse of $31,704, of which $15,852 went to the winner. The horse battled soreness climbing the walls in his stall and biting himself.
“He was a mean, stud horse,” Hammer recalls. “I don’t know why, he was just all stud and he knew it.”
After five races, followed by two qualifiers in which he broke stride both times, Hammer decided to retire Vivid Photo for the year and geld him, knowing the horse would never realize his potential if he constantly hurt himself.
Hammer had confidence the horse would develop into a stakes horse as a three-year-old and kept Vivid Photo eligible for some of the big sophomore races, including the Hambletonian. But the start of the second season resembled a similar picture to his freshman campaign. Vivid Photo qualified once, then raced and showed little. He was a judges’ scratch in his next two scheduled starts and finished up the track when he finally raced. But then something magical happened: Vivid Photo won a $3,100 condition race at Pocono Downs by 8½ lengths at odds of more than 7-1. Next time out, he placed second when parked for much of the trip. He won after that and just kept on winning, putting together a five-race win streak in Pennsylvania.
“He just completely came around as far as racing goes,” Hammer says.
Hammer was approached with an offer to sell the horse and asked for $200,000. But when the buyer found out Vivid Photo was a gelding, the deal fell through.
After dominating the Pennsylvania circuit, Hammer decided to point Vivid Photo toward the Hambletonian. He told Schadel the horse deserved a shot and went forward with a plan to get him there. He raced the horse at Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland, where Vivid Photo won by four lengths, and then at Scioto Downs in Ohio, where Vivid Photo won by five.
Next up was the Hambletonian elimination races with $100,000 purses. Vivid Photo had not set foot on the track before and looked to be a good horse that raced well on the front end on five-eighths mile tracks but would be tested against much stronger competition on the expansive one-mile surface of the Big M.
Instead of shipping Vivid Photo to the Meadowlands early in the week to acclimate to the track, Hammer continued to train the horse at home. Hammer had other horses and didn’t have the luxury or the time to spend a week at the Meadowlands with Vivid Photo and leave his stable behind. He also didn’t want to disrupt Vivid Photo’s routine. The trip from Pennsylvania to New Jersey for the Hambletonian took more than four hours, but Vivid Photo handled it well, arriving the day before his race and settling nicely in the detention barn.
Vivid Photo went postward at almost 9-1 odds in his elimination race, which saw him parked at the opening quarter and then take the lead, which he maintained the rest of the way. He won by a neck in a career-best time of 1:53 2/5. Classic Photo, also sired by S J’S Photo, won the second division by an easy three lengths in a time of 1:53 3/5 at odds of 4-5. He had upped his consecutive win streak to five, including victories in the Goodtimes Stakes and Stanley Dancer. He had experience against tough competition and had raced over the track several times. The Hambletonian looked to be his next big win.
With $1.5 million on the line, few expected Vivid Photo to have his own way on the front end. He would have to earn it the hard way. What they didn’t know was that Hammer wasn’t going to gun the horse to get the early lead. He planned to take Vivid Photo back, follow Classic Photo and make a late charge. He told that to Schadel, who couldn’t believe it.
“I said, ‘yeah, okay Roger, if you believe so,’” Schadel recalls. “I never thought he’d take him (back) off the gate. I thought he was completely full of it right off the bat.”
Hammer thought his horse could finish strongly coming from behind and knew the other drivers in the race would expect him to go to the front end because that’s the way he raced. But Hammer felt the horse, who didn’t pull, could handle the change in strategy.
“You could drive him with two fingers,” Hammer says.
The bettors still had their doubts about Vivid Photo, who went postward at almost 8-1. Classic Photo, driven by Ron Pierce, was the 1-2 favorite. When the wings collapsed to start the race, Hammer did exactly what he told Schadel he would do, taking the horse well off of the pace. After the opening quarter mile, Vivid Photo was seventh in the field of 10 by 12¾ lengths, and Hammer was thinking he had a lot of ground to cover to pick up a piece of the purse. The horses were racing in single file with none of the drivers willing to make a bold move. After a half mile, Vivid Photo was still seventh, this time by 7½ lengths and parked out. After three quarters of a mile, he was sixth by four lengths and double parked, but Hammer knew he had a ton of horse left.
At the top of the stretch, Vivid Photo was fourth, only 1¼ lengths off the lead of Strong Yankee, but Classic Photo was third, only a half length behind. Hammer swung his horse out four wide around the turn and Vivid Photo, full of trot, started to gobble up ground and took the lead in deep stretch. Hammer, sensing victory was his, raised his whip and started to shake it in celebration, knowing Vivid Photo was a “safe horse” who wouldn’t break stride.
Indeed, this would be Hammer time. Vivid Photo won by 2¾ lengths in 1:52 3/5.
Race-caller Ken Warkentin summed it up perfectly at the end when he noted Vivid Photo had come all the way “from the Pennsylvania fair to the Hambletonian winner’s circle.”
“It worked out perfectly,” Hammer says. “I had a good trip the way it worked out, except after a quarter mile I looked up and said, ‘Geez, I’m a long ways back there.’”
Hammer had long ago been coined the “King of the County Fairs”, and winning the race with a horse purchased for $30,000 underlined that.
“I’ll probably never have another one like that again, but there’s people who wait their lifetime and never have a horse win the Hambletonian,” Hammer says. “That’s one thing we do have.”
“It’s a day you’ll never, ever forget winning that race,” says Schadel. “You just never expect to get a horse that good. The Hambletonian is a hard race to win. It was unbelievable.”
The winner collected $750,000, and to Hammer and Schadel it was like winning the lottery.
“Neither one of us gamble,” Schadel says. “We gamble on colts. Between me and Roger we have made a lot of money with horses we have owned together.”
Hammer and Schadel used some of the money from the Hambletonian to supplement to some major races, including the $525,000 World Trotting Derby, which saw Vivid Photo win his elimination and come back later that day to win the final, and the $175,900 Kentucky Futurity, which also had a qualifier and final the same day. They also supplemented the horse to the $610,000 Breeders Crown, in which he placed second in his division.
He ended the season finishing third in the $199,013 Matron Stakes. Overall, he won 16 of 21 races that year and more than $1.2 million and was voted Three-Year-Old Colt Trotter of the Year. Hammer was also presented with the Billy Houghton Good Guy Award because he was a “superb ambassador for harness racing,” according to Hoof Beats magazine.
Vivid Photo was voted Horse of the Year at the Meadows and Trotter of the Year at Pocono Downs. His path to glory began in Pennsylvania and took him on a tour of some of the biggest racetracks and major races in 2005. He proved that even the guys that come from the small fairs can still accomplish big things.
Vivid Photo continued to race and the following year set a speed mark of 1:50 2/5. The year after that he was voted Canadian Older Male Trotter of the Year. He was retired in May, 2012 at the age of 10 with 49 wins in 178 starts and earnings of more than $3 million. He was an ironhorse.
He was honored at Pocono Downs with a special retirement ceremony. Schadel and Hammer led Vivid Photo down the stretch and into the winner’s circle. It was a fond farewell for a gallant gelding that had made history many years before and etched his place in harness racing history.