by Nicole Kraft for Hoof Beats
photo by Mark Hall
There are those who may have considered Roger Hammer an interloper in the 80th Hambletonian.
He was a county fair guy, after all—gallivanting about the highways and byways of Pennsylvania and Ohio, horse trailer married to truck, racing his horses a couple times a day, many two or three times a week. To be a horse in the Hammer barn, you had to be tough to survive.
Hammer had never, after all, started a horse in trotting’s greatest race. He had never even made the 3-year-old payment for one.
Instead of attending the Hambletonian press conference four days before the $1.5 million race, he was where he always seems to be—at the Pennsylvania fairs, dressed in his red-and-blue colors with the life-sized hammer on his back, competing six times and winning three races.
But those who doubted Hammer, or questioned his place among racing’s elite, forgot a few things.
Long before The Meadowlands and Maywood Park, Pompano Park and Plainridge Racecourse, a horseman’s home was the county fairs. Back then, trainers were drivers, and owners were both, and only real horsemen found the winner’s circle very often.
And Hammer is a real horseman.
That’s how he won 3,183 races and over $14.8 million, while racing for purses that often hovered between $700 and $1,000.
That’s how he has become one of the most respected reinsmen at tracks from Ohio to Delaware to Pennsylvania and beyond, where those who face a Hammer-handled horse know they have a formidable foe.
And that is how, on Aug. 6, Roger Hammer overcame all those who doubted that a fair-racing horseman from Pennsylvania could find success in the bright lights of The Meadowlands. With whip waving jubilantly in the air, he steered Vivid Photo, the gelding he trains and owns in partnership with fellow Keystone Stater Todd Schadel, to a 23/4 length victory in the richest-ever Hambletonian.
“Everybody talks about how much we race at the fairs, but the fairs are just where we get ’em ready,” Hammer said, chewing tobacco in his teeth, specks of dirt on his weather-lined cheeks, and a grin locked on his face. “Some of them come around, and some of them don’t. This one did.
It was the Tuesday before the Hambletonian, and The Meadowlands was gearing up for its biggest day. The afternoon brought the world’s best reinsmen and trainers to the track for the Hambletonian press conference, a catered and teleconferenced affair that allows the sport’s elite a carefree moment of camaraderie before the big day. Owners and horsemen break bread and swap stories.
There was, however, one conspicuous absence from the affair.
One state away, Roger Hammer and Todd Schadel were hard at work.
The pair had become partners seven years earlier when they went in on $125,000 winner Keystone Wesley, and had maintained a strong working bond ever since. They shipped three horses from Hammer’s Bedford base to Pennsylvania’s Clearfield Fair, harnessed them, and warmed them up. Hammer then drove them in the fifth, ninth and 10th races, winning a $1,301 2-year-old colt race with JT Luther, and an $851 sophomore filly event with Rhiannon’s Artist. Hammer also picked up three catch-drives, winning once and coming in third twice.
And they weren’t done. In the days leading up to the Hambletonian, while elimination winner Vivid Photo jogged and trained at the Hammer farm, Hammer drove in 17 races at Clearfield and Schadel 11 (along with a fourth-place finish at The Meadows), winning 13 races between them and only missing one check. Their highest purse at the fair: $2,090. The lowest: $702.
Those at the press conference may have wondered why Hammer and Schadel would even have worried about such piddly purses when a far bigger prized loomed, but that just meant they didn’t know Hammer that well. Called by Winbak Farms’ Joe Thomson “the King of the County Fairs,” Hammer has made his name and his money the hard way at those fairs.
And it was a desire to succeed at those fairs with a good, sound, Pennsylvania-bred trotter that brought Vivid Photo, a Winbak-bred son of S J’s Photo, into Hammer’s focus at the 2003 Standardbred Horse Sale Company’s Harrisburg sale.
“Roger said he saw a colt at the sale that would probably bring $20,000 or $25,000 that would probably be good for the fairs,” Schadel said. “I said, ‘Whatever you want to do, we’ll do.’”
The colt ended up being hammered down for $30,000, and he was quickly on a truck to Bedford.
“I liked S J’s Photo, and he was a good-made colt,” Hammer recalled of Vivid Photo. “He was out of a Garland Lobell mare, and they put strong horses together. We bought him for something to play with. I figured for what we gave for him, we could make it back just racing at the county fairs. Then we could sell him.”
And early on, a quick sale may have looked like a good idea for the frisky colt.
“He showed all kinds of speed, but he would run out in the middle of the track in the stretch and run in in the turns. He climbed the walls and banged the stall screen. He screamed a lot.”
Hammer opted to bring Vivid Photo to Rosecroft for his earliest qualifying lessons, preferring the Maryland quiet to the hubbub of The Meadows. The colt finished second, qualifying in 2:04.1, and followed up with a 2:02 effort a week later. Vivid Photo’s first win came June 12, 2004, in a Pennsylvania Sires Stake event at the Bloomsberg Fair, when he trotted in 2:10.1 and earned $1,057. He tightened up with a 2:03 qualifier at Rosecroft before reeling off three straight wins at three different tracks—Rosecroft, the Butler Fair and The Meadows—the fastest in 2:02.2.
When he made a break at the gate in his next start, a division of the Reynolds Memorial Stake at Pocono Downs, Hammer realized there was something wrong with his trotter. He just couldn’t find it.
“He’d get on one line at high speeds,” Hammer said. “We did all sorts of tests, but couldn’t see what it was. I thought it was colt soreness.”
Scratched from the Tompkins-Geers at Scioto Downs on July 22, Vivid Photo was second in a Pennsylvania Sires Stake at Clearfield, but then ran in two qualifiers at The Meadows. Hammer knew something was still amiss, and a bone scan finally revealed a stress fracture, likely caused by the colt’s stall-climbing antics.
Faced with an unruly colt that had already injured himself once, who was now on a forced vacation from that injury, Hammer opted to deal with two problems at once. He castrated Vivid Photo and turned him out for two months of recuperation.
“I didn’t want to chance ruining him,” said Hammer. “He had endurance. He could go a long way at high speed. We put him on the shelf hoping he would come back good.”
The horse he got back was far different than the one he had sent out.
“He was good right off, trotting flat and fast,” said Hammer. “I knew he was going to be a good one then.”
Vivid Photo still had a tendency to bear in on the turns, so Hammer outfitted him in a pair of burr head poles—plastic on the outside and metal on the inside. The more the gelding trotted, the faster he went, to the point that Hammer was ready to do something he never had before: make the 3-year-old sustaining payment to the Hambletonian.
“I always nominate trotters with the first payment in February as 2-year-olds, but never as 3-year-olds,” he said. “Once I test them out, they’re usually not good enough for it. He’s the first one. I thought he had a shot. He’d been good the whole time, and I knew he could trot more than he showed.”
Vivid Photo, however, had problems getting to the races to show his 3-year-old speed to the rest of the world.
After a 2:04.1 qualifying mile at The Meadows, Vivid Photo’s first pari-mutuel attempt of 2005 was aborted at Pocono Downs when the trotter’s rabies test was not on file. Hammer said the gelding was scratched the next week from a conditioned event at The Meadows for being ineligible to the race in which he was entered.
When he finally went postward in a Meadows conditioned race on April 21, Hammer was busy winning two races at Dover Downs and could not be there to drive. He put up Ray Paver with the instructions to “race this colt careful his first time.” Vivid Photo sat last in the eight-horse field for much of the mile before making a tepid move in the stretch. He finished seventh, beaten nearly nine lengths.
“I said to race him easy, but not that easy!” Hammer said with a hearty laugh. “He was ready to go, but I didn’t want to ask too much of him as a first-time starter. Ray said he had a lot of trot with him.”
Hammer was back at the lines a week later at Pocono Downs, and Vivid Photo was ready for him. Leaving from post six, the trotter made his move toward the half and drew away. He won by 8 1/2 widening lengths in 1:57.1.
Now Hammer was feeling pretty confident in his young trotter, so he opted to take off one head pole in a conditioned race at Pocono. As a result, Vivid Photo locked on one line and finished second. With the head pole back on, he reeled off seven straight wins, including a 1:54.4 world record for his age and sex on June 25 at Pocono.
“That night I told Todd I can’t keep letting him loaf,” Hammer said. “I gotta let him trot a little bit. When he won [May 28] in 1:56.4, I was taking him back at the wire. Every start I was taking him back. I said to Todd, ‘He’s gonna get used to me taking him back, so I’m gonna let him trot and keep on trotting.’”
Hammer and his charge left from the rail, but the veteran reinsman was content to let the field flow off the gate before making his move. By the first quarter Vivid Photo was fourth and moving. By the stretch he had more than six lengths on the field.
By this time Hammer had the Hambletonian clear in his sights, but few outside of Pennsylvania even knew there was a horse named Vivid Photo. Though the trainer thought maybe he should ship the trotter to The Meadowlands to get on racing’s map before the Hambletonian, he was quickly dissuaded.
“Cat Manzi told me to keep out of The Meadowlands,” Hammer recalled. “No one would know about [my horse], and I could keep him brave and sharp. He said he would get tore up in New Jersey. Everyone would get a look at him, and they’d be able to tell if he had any flaws before the race.
“Cat said, ‘Can he go over a five-eighths [mile track]? Then don’t worry. He can do two turns if he can do three.’”
While Classic Photo was stamping himself the cream of the 2005 sophomore trotting crop with his win in the Stanley Dancer Trot, Vivid Photo was waking up the Buckeye State with a 1:55.4 win in the Tompkins-Geers at Scioto Downs. Hammer shipped him to New Jersey in time for detention for the July 30 Hambletonian eliminations. He had drawn into what was seen as the tougher division, since it contained reigning 2-year-old trotting champion Ken Warkentin.
Leaving from post 3, Vivid Photo was sent off at 8-1, and Hammer was looking more to simply make the final than to make any statement of speed with his trotter.
“I planned that night to take him back,” he said of his thoughts for the start. “He was the best in them other races. When you’re the best, you stay out of everybody’s way. If you get beat, you get beat. I didn’t know if he was the best in here. I was just going to duck behind Paul MacDonell [in post 2 with Gettindownanddirty].
“But then John Campbell was not on the gate [from the rail with Mr Dream OM] when the starter said ‘Go.’ I tried to duck after Paul, but then Campbell came up. My horse grabbed me. Ron Pierce was in behind me, and I knew there was no way they were going to give a guy like me a hole. I had his burr off again, and he locked on his line. I had to sit there with him parked out until we got around the turn. Once we were around I shook his head, and he went off.”
Vivid Photo took the field by the half in 55.2 and was looking pretty comfortable in the lead spot by the three-quarters when David Miller ranged alongside first-over with Ken Warkentin. Hammer again shook the lines and crossed his whip from left to right over Vivid Photo’s hindquarters as the field came to the top of the stretch. Vivid Photo dug in—just as Ken Warkentin shocked the crowd and jumped offstride.
Vivid Photo went on to win by a neck in 1:53.2, though place-finisher South-fork was disqualified for pacing down the stretch.
Pundits said Hammer’s horse was beaten without Ken Warkentin’s miscue. Hammer saw it differently.
“He never got his head closer than my wheel,” he said. “My horse wasn’t stopping. People said my horse got tired, but I just wasn’t driving him. I had the race won. Why win by five or six when you can coast home?
“[Some drivers] said I didn’t have a strong-finishing horse. That’s goofy. I knew next week they would know a different horse. He would be coming home, all right.”
And Hammer didn’t give anyone the chance to get to know Vivid Photo in the week between the elimination and final. The July 30 race card had barely finished when he and groom Vicki Fair had Vivid Photo back on the trailer and headed back to Pennsylvania.
“Let all them guys who like to talk to the media do the interviewing,” Hammer said. “I had work to do.”
On the day of the draw, Hammer found out via phone call that he had post 6. He knew immediately what his driving strategy would be.
“People didn’t think I’d take him back, but I knew he comes out of a hole like a hobbled pacer,” said Hammer. “I figured I’d follow Classic Photo [who drew post 5]. If he was in my sights by the head of the stretch, I knew I’d go right by them.”
The strategy might work, provided Hammer was driving, but the rampant rumor around The Meadowlands was that Hammer would wise up after the eliminations and realize a Meadowlands veteran might give his trotter the best shot at victory. Hammer almost bought it, too, until he got advice from someone who had been there before—1997 winner Mal Burroughs, who captured the race as an amateur with his homebred Malabar Man.
“Mal said, ‘I heard you’re not going to drive him—don’t do it,’” Hammer recalled. “‘It doesn’t matter where you finish. You will never have that same feeling as you will racing him in that race. Don’t let nobody drive that horse but you.’”
After similar calls came in from horsemen like Pennsylvania’s Dick Stillings and Rodney Bolon, Hammer realized only he would know what to do if Vivid Photo again locked on one line, so he decided the leather would be in his hands when the Hambletonian gate swung open.
Vivid Photo was shipped back to The Meadowlands Friday in time for detention, and a calm Hammer finally entered the Hambletonian fray—but he remained the same fair-racing horseman from Pennsylvania. That night, with grandson Nathaniel cradled in his arms, the short-sleeved Hammer drank his favorite Coke, as he mingled with the champagne-sipping crowd dressed in suits and cocktail dresses at the pre-race party.
He looked far more comfortable on race day back in his red-and-blue colors, but admitted the stress started to get to him in the moments before the post parade. While Schadel and Fair adjusted Vivid Photo’s equipment and secured his sulky, Hammer strolled to the other end of the Meadowlands front paddock and took a deep breath.
“I had to walk away from the horse to stay calm,” he said. “I had to keep my thoughts away from anything else. I knew what I was going to do on the track. I just had to get out there and do it.”
Hammer’s confidence in Vivid Photo was not shared as much by the betting public, who sent him off at 7-1, second choice behind odds-on favorite Classic Photo. As the gate swung open, Mr Dream OM was offstride and Self Professed shot out for the lead, followed by Muscle Memory. Announcer Ken Warkentin made note, “In a surprise move, Vivid Photo is seventh near the back of the pack,” as a horseman in the paddock asked incredulously, “It’s the Hambletonian, and Roger Hammer decides to grab leather?”
But Hammer was sitting comfortably behind Classic Photo while Brian Sears and Strong Yankee made the first move and took the lead by the half in 55 seconds. Northern Ensign was next to pull around the final turn, followed by Classic Photo and a third-over Vivid Photo who had, in the words of Warkentin, “a long way to come.”
“I was going then regardless of whether Ronnie [Pierce] came out or not,” said Hammer.
Classic Photo moved three-wide as the field entered the stretch, the crowd on its feet as the favorite made his move on the leader. But Hammer was right on his back with a ton of horse and Warkentin had the call:
“Here comes Classic Photo with Ron Pierce, and he’s tracked all the way by Vivid Photo! Roger Hammer is stalking Ron Pierce and fans to the outside full of trot!”
“Ronnie wasn’t going anywhere, so I whipped four-wide,” Hammer added.
Hammer had said if his colt was in gear he could not be stopped, and Vivid Photo proved his driver was no liar. Vivid Photo trotted home in the middle of the track. By mid-stretch he was home free, drawing away while Hammer waved his whip joyously in the air, crossing the wire in a world-record time of 1:52.3.
“From the Pennsylvania fairs to the Hambletonian winner’s circle!” shouted Warkentin. “It’s Vivid Photo!”
From the Meadowlands back paddock to the grandstand of The Meadows, screams of support reverberated as Vivid Photo thundered down the lane. Pandemonium reigned from New Jersey to Pennsylvania as Hammer made his way back to the winner’s circle. Dozens of fans, family and supporters had made the trek from Bedford, Pa.—and Schadel’s nearby home of Gratz—to witness the partners’ quest for history.
Schadel’s uncle Rick held aloft a homemade sign written on a bed sheet: “Vivid Photo, Bedford—Gratz, Pa.”
“We’re from Small Town, U.S.A.,” he said. “We’re the people who still drive ’72 Fords. We don’t have a lot of luxuries. This is once-in-a-lifetime—a dream come true.”
Hammer, true to his roots, did all his post-race interviews—from the New York papers to the Associated Press to CBS television—with chewing tobacco remnants still in his mouth. He was rushed through the Meadowlands grandstand on his way to his post-race press conference, accepting congratulations along the way—yet stopped for a little girl’s tug on his colors. She couldn’t speak once the Hambletonian winner looked down upon her—her eyes as wide as trophy plates—but Hammer just leaned down and hugged her, whispering in her ear, “Thank you, honey.”
The sun set softly amid the post-Hambletonian glow, as the 2005 Meadowlands Championship meet came to an end, and the day’s card became part of history.
Schadel and Fair had taken Vivid Photo back to the paddock and each one, away from the fanfare and well-wishers, had broken down and cried, overwhelmed by the emotion of a dream coming true. Hammer joined them three races later, his right hand sore from so much shaking.
With Vivid Photo cooled out and munching hay, they all made the trip to the post-race champagne reception, mingling with the sport’s elite on a night they were the toast of the racing town.
The summer night had fallen when Hammer, Schadel and their respective families loaded their Hambletonian winner onto the trailer for their three-hour drive home. They followed each other west on Highway 80 before splitting up at I-81—Schadel and the trotter heading north to Gratz, Hammer heading south to Bedford and his waiting bed.
The next day offered not champagne and roses, but horses to jog. There were more fairs to visit and races to be won.
“When you own all these suckers yourself, they’re your payroll,” Hammer said, laughing. “I’m not going to take off three or four days and take a cruise.”
And as for those other small-time horsemen at the fairs, many of whom have long knocked heads with Hammer and come up on the losing end at the finish line, the latest Hambletonian winner said he hopes they all celebrate a piece of this incredible victory, and remember this: “There is always a good one out there somewhere. You just hope you’re the one who finds him.”
Tune in to this year’s 90th anniversary Hambletonian on CBS Sports Network, August 8th.