Chutes and Ladders

by Dean A. Hoffman

IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES

Charles Dickens wrote those lines in A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, but he might well have been describing the state of harness racing in America in 1968 and the state of the nation itself.

For harness racing, it was the best of times: a landmark year with Triple Crown winners on both gaits—the trotter Nevele Pride and pacer Rum Customer—the only time this has occurred since the Triple Crowns were formed more than six decades ago.

Nevele Pride’s Triple Crown wins were unique in horse racing history because all three came in non-betting events.

In 1968, all the business indicator arrows in harness racing pointed straight up. Handle and attendance were on a long upward trend. Purses were $71 million, up 18 percent from $61.8 million the previous year. Total   handle on harness races was $1.6 billion. Everything was coming up roses.

In America, it was the worst of times: Harness racing’s prosperity and optimism took place in a nation rocked and recoiled by violence.

1968 was an “annus horribilus” for America. In April, civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet. Widespread protest riots broke out in cities across America. Senator Robert Kennedy helped restore calm after riots in Indianapolis, but two weeks after King was killed, he himself was gunned down in Los Angeles. America was in turmoil.

Looking back on 1968 from the perspective of a half-century, we can glimpse a very different America and a very different harness racing sport.

America experienced many upheavals during the 1960s. The decade began with the narrow victory of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential race.

Three years later, the president was assassinated while riding in a Dallas motorcade. Lyndon Johnson inherited the presidency from Kennedy and he ambitiously set about creating the Great Society, with noteworthy achievements such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act to give black Americans a chance to participate in democracy.

But Johnson also inherited the Vietnam War from Kennedy and by 1968 Americans were losing patience with a war that could not be won and apparently could not be ended. Facing opposition within his own party, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election.

The Democratic Party held its convention that summer in Chicago, and it devolved into a disaster of dissension and street riots. While iron-fisted politicians like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tried to present a fantasyland image of the Windy City to the world, angry protesters in the streets chanted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey gained the party’s nomination, but he was seen as little more than a puppet for the ventriloquists in party leadership.

Adding drama and uncertainty to the 1968 presidential election was the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, an Alabama governor who had famously proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Wallace’s racism resonated in many Southern states and his presence on the ballot complicated the electoral math for both Humphrey and the Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Nixon won the election and took the oath of office as president of a nation in chaos.

While America was clearly in turmoil, harness racing sailed along serenely, riding a wave of optimism and increasing support wherever you looked.

The USTA unveiled a new format for Hoof Beats with its February 1968 issue, which featured spectacular color photographs for the first time. Harness  publications had always been limited to black-and-white and spot-color printing because of costs, but visionary Stan Bergstein pioneered full-color printing in Standardbred literature.

The sport’s weekly journals, The Harness Horse and The Horseman & Fair World, brought race results and news to subscribers for the price of $12 for 52 issues.

Harness racing’s flagship track was Roosevelt Raceway, which would close its gates forever 20 years later. Its crosstown rival, Yonkers Raceway, averaged more than 20,000 fans per night in 1968 on a schedule that generally raced Monday through Saturday.

The average handle at Yonkers that year was $2,050,869, or about $14.5 million in current dollars. Remember, that handle at Yonkers was all bet ontrack and generally over only eight or nine races.

The highest-priced yearling of 1968 was Romunda Hanover at $115,000. The brother to Triple Crown winner Romeo Hanover was later renamed Nevele Bigshot and accomplished little on the track or in the stud. The toppriced trotter was the Hickory Smoke colt Gil Hanover at $95,000.

The two major yearling sales were held in Harrisburg and Lexington. In Pennsylvania, 557 yearlings sold for an average of $9,282, while Tattersalls in Kentucky hammered down 400 yearlings with an average price tag of $8,343.

To compare, these yearling averages were more than a year’s income for most Americans. The average American household annual income in 1968 was $7,743 and a new home cost $26,600. The price of a first-class postage stamp went from 5 cents to 6 cents in January 1968.

County fair racing was still popular and prevalent in 1968 and harness racing was found in the usual Midwest hotbeds, but also at fairs in California, Kansas, both Dakotas, and even the state of Washington.

While the fairs were fun, racing’s real business was at the pari-mutuel tracks. Looking back on the active tracks of that era, many have vanished for various reasons.

When voting for Horse of the Year took place, it was no contest, as Nevele Pride dwarfed all others.

Nevele Major won freshman trotting honors over Lindy’s Pride while Laverne Hanover was the best freshman side-wheeler. (There were no separate categories for fillies in 1968.)

Among the best older trotters that season were Carlisle, Earl Laird, Flamboyant, and the French invader Roquepine.

The 4-Year-Old Pacer of the Year  honors fell to Best Of All, who retired after three seasons at the races with more 2:00 race miles than any Standardbred in history. His rivals in the older pacing ranks were Romulus Hanover, Overcall, and Cardigan Bay.

Billy Haughton and Stanley Dancer, the dominant horsemen of that era, led all drivers in earnings in 1968 as Haughton drove the winners of $1.6 million and Dancer’s horses earned $1.4 million.

A new face emerged on the top of the dash winners list. Bob Farrington of Ohio had been the leading driver through the mid-1960s, gaining the crown with win totals ranging from 201-312.

In 1968, everything changed when a sulky magician from Quebec named Herve Filion left all other harness drivers up the track with an amazing 407 wins.

The diminutive Good Time led the overall sires list in 1968, and he was followed by Gene Abbe, Tar Heel, Star’s Pride, and Bye Bye Byrd. No one could possibly know it, of course, but two colts foaled in 1968 would achieve remarkable success on the track and later in the stud barn. They were the pacer Albatross and the trotter Speedy Crown. Harness racing was perhaps at the zenith of its popularity in 1968, but an ominous change was looming in New York, where off-track betting would change the face of horse racing forever. Traditionally, betting horses required a trip to the track itself. That entailed paying for parking, admission, a program, and food and drink. And betting, of course.

Traditionally, betting fueled the purse account. The more money bet, the higher the purses. Today, purse accounts in many states are fueled primarily from racino revenues and   betting contributes only a negligible percentage.

Few in harness racing could envision how fortunate racing was in 1968 and how soon the business model would begin to shift. Off-track betting changed the business paradigm and that led to simulcasting and ultimately to slots at tracks. Horse racing would never be quite the same again.

Dean A. Hoffman, a former executive editor of Hoof Beats, is currently serving as an editorial consultant for the magazine. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ ustrotting.com.

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