The Legend of Steamin’ Demon

by Tami Hartman

Sixty years ago, it was difficult to pick up a newspaper without seeing the name Steamin’ Demon, particularly here in Circleville. Circleville was a harness racing town and George W. Van Camp’s bay colt Steamin’ Demon was rapidly becoming a local celebrity. By the time he retired in 1961, he was a world champion, and anyone who knew anything at all about harness racing knew his name.

Steamin’ Demon’s breeder/owner George W. Van Camp was a second-generation harness horseman, his father T.D. having been brought into the business by long-time Ohio trainer and race judge Pearl McMahan. As early as 1925 a Van Camp owned horse, T.D. Van, was the track record holder at nearby Hilliards Raceway.

Over 25 years later, George Van Camp decided to send his broodmare Conchita to the newly-established Gay Acres farm whose owners had just purchased trotting sensation Demon Hanover, winner of the 1948 Hambletonian. The resulting foal of 1953 was named Steamin’ Demon, the nickname given to his sire by race fans and journalists.

Steamin’ Demon went into training right here at the Pickaway County fairgrounds and reportedly made his first competitive start in the matinee races held on this track. Later newspaper articles often reported that Steamin’ Demon was a clear winner that day, but had apparently spent much of the mile pacing, rather than trotting, so was set back to last by the judges. It was then, according to these reports that Van Camp decided to let the colt pace. This story is apparently apocryphal, however, as the newspaper accounts of the matinee entries and results for 1955 don’t list Steamin’ Demon. Contemporary newspapers do, however, show that the colt went on to make several starts that year in trotting stakes, typically driven by his owner George W. Van Camp, and ended the season with a trotting record of 2:19.4h. Despite this rather modest record, he evidently showed enough promise that Van Camp staked the colt heavily as a three-year-old, including making him eligible to the top trotting race in the country–the Hambletonian.

But Steamin’ Demon apparently had different plans, and as the Circleville Herald put it in July 1956, “the Demon refuses to trot, insists on pacing.” Fortunately for the Van Camps, he insisted on pacing fast. By July, Steamin’ Demon had already won eight straight heats at Hilliards Raceway on the pace. This included winning the Invitational Pace in which he equaled the track record set by T.D. Van back in 1925. He would go on to win 22 heats that season, ranking him nationally, and earning him top awards from both the Ohio Colt Racing Association and the Home Talent Colt Stakes circuits. He would also become one of the first Pickaway county horses to enter the 2-minute ranks, posting a 2:00.0 winning time at that year’s October meet in Lexington, Kentucky.

Trained and driven by Ohio native Eddie Boyer, Steamin’ Demon continued his winning ways as a four-year-old, campaigning against some of the sport’s top pacers at tracks across the country. By the end of the year, he had lowered his lifetime mark to 1:58.4m, and had amassed earnings of over $43,000 on the pace. His performances earned him the title of Ohio Aged Pacer of the Year. Following these successes, the off-season was spent as usual, right here in Circleville where he took up residence in Barn 1 under the watchful eye of Circleville native and well-known Ohio horseman Forrest Short.

When matinee season rolled around in the spring of 1958, George Van Camp was once again driving Steamin’ Demon who was once again trotting. He won in 2:09.4. It was the beginning of a meteoric rise to the top of the nation’s trotting ranks. In just one short summer, he moved through the classification system from Class C to Class AA. A win at Yonker’s Raceway that September gave him the double-gaited world record for stallions on a half-mile track. A few weeks later he would earn the double-gaited world record for stallions on a mile track.

Steamin’ Demon would trot at the top levels of the sport for the next two seasons, racing and winning against the likes of Tie Silk, Senator Frost, Silver Song, Darn Safe, and Su Mac Lad. But his days as a pacer did come back to haunt him on at least one high-profile occasion. In the 1960 American Trotting Championship at Roosevelt Raceway, Steamin’ Demon switched to the pace in the last 50 yards of the race and, although only beaten by half a length, was disqualified. The Wilmington News-Journal headline said it all: “Demon Paces to $50,000 Defeat.” Overall, though, the year was another huge success, culminating in his selection by the United States Trotting Association as the Ohio Horse of the Year, and by the Ohio Harness Horsemen’s Association as the Aged Trotter of the Year.

The years of racing finally took their toll, however, and in May 1961, newspapers were reporting that an “ouchy ankle” had forced the horse off the track and back to Circleville to recuperate. It was, in fact, the end of his racing career. The next year saw Steamin’ Demon spend his first full season at stud, and by 1963, the Van Camp family had created a beautiful Standardbred breeding and training facility just north of Circleville to house their world champion and other fine horses.

While he didn’t have a lasting impact on Standardbred breeding, Steamin’ Demon certainly had an impact on this community and on its ongoing relationship with the sport of harness racing. It is for this reason that the Steamin’ Demon Open Pace was created, and it is our hope that a Steamin’ Demon Open Trot will join it in upcoming years. Perhaps one day a new double-gaited wonder will win both!

828 More posts in Share category
Recommended for you
Gliding to Glory

For his impact as a stallion,Yankee Glide has entered the Living Horse Hall of Fame...