Three-time Hambletonian winner Per Eriksson enters the Hall
by Kathy Parker
More time has passed than he expected, but Swedish-born horseman Per Eriksson had faith that one day he would become a member of the United States Harness Racing Hall of Fame, in Goshen, N.Y.
Eriksson was just 24 years old in 1985 when he trained his first Hambletonian champion, Prakas. In a span of seven years, he trained two more Hambletonian winners: Giant Victory and Alf Palema. In those and later years, he trained the winners of virtually every major trotting stakes in the sport.
In 2001, Eriksson left the U.S. and returned to Sweden. He and his wife, Tina—also a Swede—decided they wanted their four children to grow up in their native country, so in 2000, they began preparations to move. In 2001, they sold their spacious home in an upscale community in south Florida, and shortly after Per sent out his last North American starter—in the Bluegrass Stakes at the Red Mile, no less—the family left the States.
Eriksson wasn’t the first Swede to achieve success in America and leave: Swedish trailblazer Hakan Wallner left his Continental Farms operation in the States and relocated to Italy. But since Eriksson was just days shy of his 41st birthday and still winning major stakes, his choice to desert a successful career in North America was one not many would embrace.
In Sweden, Eriksson continued his work as a trotting horse trainer, albeit with nowhere near the success he enjoyed in North America. His lifestyle changed as he trained horses on a rural farm. And he wondered if he would ever be elected to the U.S. Hall of Fame.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Eriksson said of the almost 21 years that elapsed between his last training start in America and the call he received last fall that he was voted into the Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t think they would forget; in America, they never forget,” he laughed. “But it doesn’t matter that it took so long. I’m still alive!”
Eriksson’s journey to Goshen began as it does for many: with a family connection to the trotting sport.
“My father was a dentist, and he had horses in training with Soren (Nordin),” Eriksson related. “During summer breaks from school, I worked for Soren and then Ulf Nordin (Soren’s brother).”
In 1981, at age 21, Per decided to travel to the U.S. to work for Soren and Jan Nordin’s Team Nordin Stable.
“Everybody knows Soren was a fantastic horseman,” Eriksson said of the man many considered an unparalleled trainer of trotting horses and a Swedish Hall of Famer. “Without him, I never would have won my first Hambletonian, that’s for sure.”
Eriksson’s work ethic and responsible nature were noticed, and in 1982 he was assigned the role of second trainer for the Nordins’ large operation. It wasn’t long before Eriksson and a colleague, fellow Swede Ingvar Grahn (who recently died), left Team Nordin to start their own venture. Eriksson walked around yearling sales using a measuring stick, adopting a tool used by Soren Nordin, to evaluate horses.
While Eriksson learned horsemanship from the Nordins, he was fortunate that a client of Team Nordin helped with the business aspect of operating a stable.
“The fellow who started with us was Carl Dugan,” said Eriksson. “He helped me with absolutely everything. Ingvar and I had 15 horses; we had a good start.”
Dugan also owned Desert Night, a member of Eriksson’s first stable. Desert Night started in the 1983 Hambletonian and finished seventh in the heat won by eventual winner Duenna.
That fall, Eriksson acquired his first Hambletonian champion, Prakas.
“Hans Enggren bred him, and the horse was in the Lexington sale and we bought him back,” Eriksson recalled. “He finished fifth in the Peter Haughton as a 2-year-old, but he was sore.”
Eriksson says Swedish horsemen have always had open minds when it comes to working with horses, so when Prakas could no longer improve because of his soreness, Eriksson didn’t hesitate to try something very different—at least by American norms. He had once seen a Swedish horse trained while hitched to a cart that had a device which created resistance, and he decided it might help Prakas become a top horse.
“Had we trained him in a regular way, his knees would have never held up,” he said. “We trained him using the brakes—1½ hours in the morning and 1½ hours in the afternoon. Tina took care of him, and she did this three hours every day. We never trained him between races. He became strong—really strong. He had natural talent and speed, so we didn’t have to do any speed training.”
As the summer of his 3-year-old season ramped up, Prakas won the Founders Gold Cup at Vernon Downs and set a track record. He was made the 1-5 favorite to win his Hambletonian elimination, and Eriksson—then just 24 years old—says he felt the pressure as multi-million-dollar syndication offers became topics of discussion.
He still remembers how he felt on Aug. 3, 1985, at the Meadowlands: “I was nervous. I was throwing up in the restroom before he raced.”
On the other hand, Eriksson knew he had one of the coolest drivers around in the sulky behind Prakas: “We had Bill O’Donnell driving, and he was always cool and confident.”
Despite his nerves, Eriksson said the team around Prakas “knew if he didn’t get boxed in, he should win.”
Prakas made winning the Hambletonian look easy. He captured his elimination heat by 3½ lengths and won the final by two lengths in a stakes record 1:54.3. A month later, the colt lowered the world record for sophomore trotters to 1:53.2 when he won the World Trotting Derby, in Du Quoin, Ill.
While Eriksson was without a top colt in the next several Hambletonians, he was busy winning other stakes and had the clients that made it possible for him to continue scouting for yearlings at the annual sales. He said he always started the winter training season with 20 to 25 yearlings.
In 1991, the Hambletonian was considered a wide-open race, but Eriksson landed in the winner’s circle with Giant Victory. The colt failed to make the final of the Beacon Course Trot (now known as the Stanley Dancer Memorial) a few weeks before the Hambo, but when he won the Beacon Course consolation, his owners gave Eriksson the nod to enter him in the big race. It was a pleasant surprise for Eriksson when Giant Victory won his Hambletonian elimination heat and the final, and the horse was voted Trotter of the Year after rolling to more major victories later in the season.
The following year, Eriksson had much higher hopes for another Hambletonian triumph with the colt King Conch, whose win in the 1991 Breeders Crown 2-Year-Old Colt Trot also helped Eriksson earn Trainer of the Year honors.
Just after King Conch won the second of three Hambletonian elimination heats, stablemate Alf Palema likewise advanced to the final after finishing second in the third elimination.
“I was more nervous about King Conch, because he should win the race,” said Eriksson.
Although he was focused on King Conch’s potential to win the Hambletonian, he nevertheless pulled the shoes on Alf Palema, hoping that racing the colt barefoot might give him the speed to be more competitive. In the second and final heat, King Conch had the lead midway through the homestretch while a colt named Herschel Walker rallied to engage him in battle and Alf Palema took aim along the rail. With his position on the inside of the dueling colts, Alf Palema’s late burst of speed was easy to miss, but he won by a head over King Conch.
After the race, Eriksson shared that he was focused on King Conch:
“I watched the race on the monitor in the driver’s room, and I was watching King Conch as he trotted down the stretch. He was the only horse I saw. Then I saw a horse on the inside of King Conch. I didn’t know who it was. When I realized it was Alf Palema, I got so excited I kicked a filing cabinet and made a big dent in it.”
Eriksson had won three Hambletonians in an eight-year span, a unique training feat. In addition, when Alf Palema won the 67th edition of the race, he made Eriksson the ninth trainer to win three or more Hambletonians.
After Alf Palema finished his racing career with just over $1.1 million in earnings and was retired to stud duty in Sweden, Per and Tina began to think about their long-range plans. Having owned 25 percent of Alf Palema, the Erikssons took their windfall and bought farm property in Sweden with the thought of one day returning home to raise a family.
Their work in the U.S. continued as they welcomed four children: Dennis, twins Nicklas and Vanessa, and Maria.
In 1993, Eriksson was back in the Hambletonian with 1992 Breeders Crown 2-Year-Old Colt Trot champion Giant Chill, but two other colts emerged atop the division: American Winner and Pine Chip. In 1994, Eriksson won an elimination heat of the Hambletonian with Bullville Victory; and in 1995, he sent out third-place finisher Giant Hit and won the Hambletonian Oaks with Lookout Victory.
In 2000, Eriksson finished second in the Hambletonian with Credit Winner, who later in the season won the Kentucky Futurity. It was Eriksson’s second Futurity victory (he previously won in 1994, with Bullville Victory), and he knew it might be his last as he and Tina had decided to move their family to Sweden after the 2001 racing season.
“We always wanted to raise our family in Sweden,” he recently reflected. “When we got Alf Palema, we bought the farm and invested in it, building a new barn with 30 stalls and a racetrack. We took the kids to the farm before we moved, so it wasn’t so new to them. But there is no comparison to living here in Sweden—where the closest town is a 30-minute drive—to living in Florida.
“It was tough at first. But there was some relief that I was in the same place 12 months a year. I started in Sweden with a 40-horse stable, but I really didn’t put any pressure on myself. Our focus was more on the family.”
Eriksson’s best horse during the Swedish portion of his career has been Royal Fighter, who finished fourth in the 2015 Elitlopp final.
When asked what kind of grade he would give himself for his career in Sweden versus his accomplishments in the U.S., Eriksson laughed and quickly said, “Terrible,” before adding, “but I’m not disappointed. When you’re racing in Sweden, you always miss the States.”
Eriksson is still training, but as he and Tina planned, their life is much more than just horses. Their children live in Sweden, and the couple is awaiting the birth of their first grandchild. Eriksson also plays guitar in a band—the same one he began playing in when he was 14 before stepping away from the craft while working in the U.S.
Looking back, he says he appreciates his career in America, especially the victories in the Hambletonian.
“You have to be lucky, have a lot of energy, but it’s a combination of everything,” he continued. “And I had Tina. I’m still a nervous person today. Tina is not. Tina is calm. It was probably not easy to be a groom for me on the good horses because even though I trusted people, I was tough.
“You don’t get to enjoy it as much as you should,” he mused. “You always look to the next race. I don’t think too many trainers enjoy the moment that much, which is a shame.” HB
Kathy Parker is the former editor of Hoof Beats and The Horseman And Fair World. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.