The man who made the Little Brown Jug a classic
by Dean A. Hoffman
Joe Neville was a big man—and he had big dreams. He didn’t bother with small ones.
During the dark years of World War II, when American soldiers were fighting bitterly in the Pacific and across the Atlantic, Joe Neville was dreaming of horse racing.
Specifically, he was envisioning a new race to be contested in his hometown of Delaware, Ohio, where he was born in 1910. Neville’s father had owned a livery stable and also worked as a blacksmith. Horses were in Neville’s blood.
A lawyer by trade, Neville graduated from the University of Dayton (Ohio) and Western Reserve Law School. It was said that “Joe didn’t practice much law.” He was too busy with other interests, specifically harness racing.
Law was his profession; harness racing was his passion. He was a member of the Hambletonian Society, a Grand Circuit steward. He had also served as the president of the Delaware County Fair Board and as the speed superintendent to organize the fair’s harness racing program.
Harness racing’s best 3-year-old trotters had a shining target each year in the great Hambletonian. Neville, in fact, sampled some Hambletonian magic at age 30 when his trotter Milestone, driven by Delaware’s T. Wayne “Curly” Smart, finished sixth and fifth in the two-heat 1940 Hambletonian. At the time, many in the sport considered pacers to be second-class citizens, but Neville didn’t feel that way. Pacers deserved their day in the sun, too, and it might as well be on the new half-mile track at the Delaware County Fairgrounds.
Neville had been instrumental in moving the Delaware County Fair from Powell to Delaware—yet he didn’t stop there. The new Delaware track certainly wasn’t like a typical county fair bullring. It had well banked turns and short straightaways. It was built for speed—Standardbred speed.
Neville enlisted allies in his quest to make the new Delaware event an instant classic and made wise selections. He picked Hank Thomson, whose family owned the Delaware Gazette. Having the local newspaper publisher on board would be of immeasurable value in the pre-TV era. Neville also enlisted Smart, a hard-nosed horseman who had demonstrated his mettle on the Grand Circuit and whose contacts with owners and trainers would make certain everyone knew about the new race.
But what would the new race be called? Why not have a contest? Organizers solicited ideas from near and far. The winning entry was submitted by a man from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, just about 30 miles east of Delaware. He thought the race should pay tribute to the famed Ohio pacer Little Brown Jug, a speed sensation in the late 1800s.
When that name was selected, the Jug immediately had both a symbol and a song.
The symbol was the brown jug that many Americans in rural areas kept handy so they could take “just a nip or two” of corn liquor when the mood struck them.
The song of the same name, written in 1869, was made wildly popular during World War II by the famed Glenn Miller Orchestra: “Ho! Ho! Ho! Hee! Hee! Hee! Little Brown Jug, how I love thee….”
The first Jug was slated to be held in 1946, and a payment system was set up to assure a commensurate purse. As World War II had just ended the year before, Americans were ready to celebrate. And, if you lived in the Buckeye State—or anywhere near—the place to celebrate in September 1946 was the Delaware County Fairgrounds.
When the entry box was opened for the first Jug, there were nine entries, headed by the Castleton Farm star Ensign Hanover, a chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail. He was slated to be steered by his trainer, Sep Palin, but as the aging Hoosier horseman was on the sick list, Delaware native Smart was named to replace him in the bike.
The purse was $35,358—over a half-million dollars in today’s currency. Royal Chief won the first heat ever in 2:02¾ with Ensign Hanover second. Ensign Hanover got revenge in the second heat, followed by the filly His Lady scoring an upset in the third heat.
That meant a decisive fourth-heat race-off, which Smart controlled before standing next to Ensign Hanover during the victory ceremony.
With an announced crowd estimated at 27,000, the Jug was an instant classic. “Jugger Joe” was understandably ecstatic, but the Jug was just getting started. Five years later, the Jug purse was $66,280, or about $750,000 in current dollars.
That 1951 Jug was controversial because it was dominated by a three-horse entry from the W.N. Reynolds Stable, all trained by Delvin Miller. Alas, Reynolds, a North Carolina tobacco magnate, died about 10 days before the Jug, and Miller scratched this talented troika from the Reading Futurity.
The Reynolds entry consisted of Tar Heel, Solicitor and Direct Rhythm. Miller asked Del Cameron to drive Tar Heel while Miller himself would handle the headstrong Solicitor. Benny Schue drove Direct Rhythm.
Tar Heel won the first heat in 2:01 as Solicitor was hard to handle and finished fourth.
In the second heat, Solicitor was perfectly mannered, and Miller sent him to the front. When stablemate Tar Heel loomed, Miller only mildly urged Solicitor and Tar Heel won in a record time of 2:00.
But the sharpies claimed that Miller hadn’t truly tried to win with Solicitor.
“Solicitor was the first horse ever to pace in 2:00 on a half-mile track and get stiffed,” an old horseman once admitted.
Miller, however, set the record straight.
“I really needed that Reading Futurity race to get them tight for the Jug, but I wasn’t going to race Mr. Reynolds’ horses when he was being laid out,” he said. “I think Solicitor could have won the second heat, but then we’d have a third heat, and there was no guarantee that one of my colts would win. Then we’d have to go a fourth heat, and my colts weren’t tight enough for that.”
Miller also pointed out the Reynolds pacers were all coupled in the wagering, so no bettors were hurt.
Harness racing exploded in the 1950s, and the Jug exploded with it. Purses paid out in the Jug soared—and so did the crowds. Behind it all was Neville, endlessly promoting his beloved race. The Jug became the pacing counterpart of the famed Hambletonian, and horsepeople and racing fans have beaten a path to Delaware, Ohio, each September ever since.
When the pacing Triple Crown was established in the mid-1950s, the Jug was the prime jewel alongside the Messenger Stakes and Cane Pace. Those latter two races were contested in the New York metropolitan area, while the Jug remained pure Americana—harness racing in the heartland.
Neville had every reason to be immensely proud of what he had created. The Jug was always the main event at Delaware, but the supporting card was superlative each season and world records were expected every time the Grand Circuit stars came to Delaware.
But while Neville was taking care of Jug promotion, he wasn’t taking care of himself. He was overweight—reportedly weighing 300 pounds. He lived, worked and played hard. Friends described him as a “jolly giant” who favored checkered suits and bow ties.
He didn’t marry until 1953—when he was already in his early 40s. He and his bride married in New Orleans, but the newlyweds returned to Ohio before immediately heading to Detroit to watch harness racing at Hazel Park Raceway. The couple’s only child, a boy, was born blind five months later.
Neville’s lifestyle ultimately caught up with him. He suffered a heart attack at home in 1960. By the time medical assistance arrived, it was too late. Neville was dead at age 50.
If there is any consolation in death, it was that Joe Neville lived long enough to see the Jug become a classic and for the Delaware racing program to become an annual highlight of the Grand Circuit. Neville lives on in his beloved legacy of the Little Brown Jug, and when the band plays the famous song in September, “Jugger Joe” will surely be smiling. HB
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.