by Dean Hoffman
The Hambletonian was the brainchild of Harry Reno, a trotting fancier from Chicago who decided in the early 1920s that there should be a grand stake for 3-year-old trotters to showcase harness racing. When Reno got an idea, it was advisable to step aside and let him have his way.
He found supporters for his grand plan for this new race and soon his dream seemed like it might come true. One thing he didn’t have was a name. At a meeting in Chicago, John Bauer, publisher of The Horse Review, was seated in front of a portrait of Hambletonian and said, “Let’s call it the Hambletonian.” And so it was.
Reno didn’t know how well his idea would be supported by breeders and owners. They would have to pay in money—-lots of money—-to build the purse for the new race. They had no assurance of getting any money back.
The purse of the inaugural Hambletonian reached $73,451, surpassing Reno’s expectations. (He had also started the richest race for pacers but its purse was only $25,000.) Earlier that year, the Kentucky Derby carried a purse of only $60,075. The huge Hambletonian purse got the attention of the nation’s sports reporters. Surely any horse race offering that much money (comparable to $930,000 today) was newsworthy. No pacing event even came close to the Hambletonian’s purse. The winning trotter Guy McKinney took home $45,816 for his owner and the Hambletonian was an instant classic with immediate prestige.
The Depression and World War II years took a toll on harness racing and it wasn’t until 1950 that the Hambletonian purse surpassed what was offered in 1926.
Catch this year’s Hambletonian on August 2nd on CBS Sports Network (check here for channel and availability in your area). A live streaming broadcast can also be view here and all the pre-, during, and post-race action can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.