by Dean Hoffman
It’s a good thing there wasn’t a traffic cop at Pocono Downs last Saturday night. Surely Swedish horseman Ake Svanstedt would’ve been ticketed for breaking the speed limit with his wonder horse Sebastian K.
Sebastian K set the harness racing on fire with his astonishing 1:49 victory at Pocono, the fastest trotting mile since records began to be kept almost 170 years ago.
And Sebastian K didn’t chip away at the old record: he shattered it.
The fastest trotting mile on a mile track had been 1:50.1, a feat accomplished by Sebastian K himself and two other trotting stars. Everyone knew that sooner or later a trotter would come along and take harness racing speed into a new era, but no one knew his name. Now we do.
His name stands atop a list of past speed champions such as Donato Hanover, Pine Chip, Mack Lobell, Nevele Pride, Greyhound, Peter Manning, Lou Dillon, Nancy Hanks, Goldsmith Maid, Flora Temple and many other legends.
Sebastian K can admire himself in a mirror and ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fastest of them all?”
Now he can say, “I am.”
Technically, the trotter Enough Talk was the first sub-1:50 trotter, but his 1:49.3 record was accomplished on the 10-furlong track at Colonial Downs and was thus deemed an invalid comparison to tracks set on smaller tracks. (A comparable situation occurred in 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in one season, breaking the epic mark set at 60 by Babe Ruth. When Maris played, however, the baseball season was 162 games while Babe Ruth played when the season was 154 games.) Sebastian K had to trot three turns in his record mile at Pocono while Enough Talk trotted around only one turn.
What makes the second half of the 2014 racing season so exciting is that Sebastian K is sure to race many more times. Who’s to say that he won’t go even faster? The acceleration of Standardbred speed in recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal.
It’s particularly impressive when contrasted with the fact that Thoroughbreds seem to be stuck in neutral while Standardbreds have the pedal to the metal. Take, for instance, the Kentucky Derby victory by California Chrome. His time was more than four seconds slower than the Derby record set by Secretariat more than four decades ago.
Time over the mile has always been the yardstick which trotters and pacers are measured. It’s part of the everyday lingo of the sport. People talk about horses having “a record of 51 [1:51]” or one that “just got beat in 53 and a tick [1:53.1].
The mile distance is the standard that created the Standardbred horse. In the 1800s, when there was no such thing as a Standardbred, trotters came from a distinctly Heinz 57 background. They often had some Thoroughbred, Saddle-bred, and Morgan blood in their pedigrees and occasionally their exact lineage was unknown.
Yet harness racing fanciers saw the need to establish a breed and record pedigrees and performances. But what would be the qualifications for horses to be registered?
It was time. Before they could earn admission to the new breed registry, horses had to demonstrate their ability to meet a certain time over the one-mile distance. That was the standard for granting legitimacy to trotters with obscure or unknown pedigrees. Any horse that was able to prove its speed was known as a “standard record” performer. That was later shortened to Standardbred.
Since we are saluting the recent accomplishments of Sebastian K now, we will focus on the evolution of trotting speed and leave the same progress in pacing speed for another time. The current pacing record for the mile is 1:46.1, but it is possible (and perhaps even probable) that it will be broken this summer, too. The modern Standardbred is truly a speed marvel.
The chronicle of trotting time for the mile begins with the grey starlet Lady Suffolk, a champion that set the record for the mile distance at 2:29-1/4 in 1845. She raced for many years, but inevitably slowed as she aged, thus prompting songsters of the mid-1800s to sing, “The old grey mare….she ain’t what she used to be…..ain’t what she used to be.”
Trotters began to chip away at the mile record in ensuing decades to the point where some dreamed that a trotter might cover a mile in two minutes time.
“Impossible!” snorted some. “It just can’t be done. No horse can do that.”
No one told that to Lou Dillon, a delicate, headstrong chestnut lass with a flighty disposition and a speed capacity that no horseman had ever seen. In 1903, “Lovely Lou” made a 2:00 trotting mile a reality with a performance at Readville, Massachusetts.
The fabled gelding Greyhound was the most popular trotters of the Twentieth Century. He raced during the Depression, but he was so superior tohis foes that he simply trotted himself out of competition. No one found much glory in trying to beat an unbeatable horse.
So Greyhound often performed in exhibitions or time trials where he was tasked with breaking track record or world records. He set records that lasted for decades.
In 1938, my father was a 23-year-old bachelor who was just plumb crazy about harness racing. He was at the Lexington trotting track on a gloomy fall day when Greyhound’s trainer-driver Sep Palin brought his lanky gelding to the track for a time trial.
A time trial is when a horse’s competition is not other horses but instead the relentless tick-tick-tick of a timer. (In Greyhound’s era it was a stopwatch.) The horse is usually “prompted” by Thoroughbreds that are hitched to carts and run behind the Standardbred to simulate a race and bring out the horse’s competitive juices.
When Greyhound took to the track in 1938,he was already the fastest trotter ever. In 1937, he tied the existing record of 1:56-3/4 and then lowered it to 1:56. On that cloudy fall afternoon, Palin was hoping to coax the ultimate effort from his champion as my father looked on.
Greyhound rose to the challenge. He responded with a mile timed in 1:55-1/4, reinforcing his title as the King of Trotters. He would occupy the throne for 31 years. Other trotters got close to his time, but none could break into the sub-1:55 speed zone.
In the late 1960s, the ascent trotting star was a robust bay named Nevele Pride. He became the fastest 2-year-old trotter and the fastest 3-year-old ever. It seemed that nothing could stop him. His trainer-driver Stanley Dancer knew that there was one important goal for his champion.
In the winter of 1969, Dancer was the guest speaker at the Indiana Trotting & Pacing Horse Association banquet. He pledged to the Hoosier horsemen that he would bring Nevele Pride to the Indiana State Fair in late August and that Nevele Pride would record a 1:54.3 mile in a time trial.
The hardened Hoosier horsemen were shocked. They were wise enough to know that not even a great horseman like Dancer could predict a horse’s time six months in advance. Too many things can go wrong. The horse might get sick or sore. Rain might ruin the racing surface. It was plumb foolishness to make such a brazen prediction.
Yet it was an uncannily accurate prediction, too. Six months later, I was a college student taking care of horses in the summer, and I stood trackside at the Indiana State Fair and watched Nevele Pride break the record my father had seen set 31 years earlier. His time was 1:54.4, just one tick off Dancer’s prediction.
Once Nevele Pride broke the 1:55 barrier, the next giant step forward would be 1:50. In 1969, horsemen realistically said that was far into the future.
No horse would trot faster than Nevele Pride for the next 13 years. Then the speed reductions came with rapid regularity as the modern trotter became a much faster and more athletic animal. There were fleet-footed horses such as Arndon, Prakas, Mack Lobell and Pine Chip.
In 2007, Hall of Fame horseman Berndt Lindstedt of Sweden and I were the keynote speakers at a European Trotting Symposium which carried the theme “Two Seconds Faster.” We were asked to address if we thought the modern trotter had two more second of speed in the gas tank.
I came down strongly on the affirmative side of the question. A man in the audience rose and said, “But that’s not possible, Mr. Hoffman. How can horses possibly go faster than they are today. I just don’t believe it is possible.”
I replied, “Every person who has said that in the last 150 years has been wrong.”
It’s hard to believe that Nevele Pride’s epic time would place him almost 30 lengths behind Sebastian K, a testament to the incomprehensible improvement in the modern trotter.
And don’t be surprised if Sebastian K is thinking, “I’m not done yet.”
It’s going to be a sizzling summer at harness tracks.
cover photo by Jason Lisa