When the harness racing world was turned upside down
story by Dean A. Hoffman
Favorites win almost half the races at some harness tracks. Those races are often predictable and the payoffs paltry.
On the other end of the spectrum are the upsets, in which an unbeatable horse suddenly proves to be beatable. And when that happens on the sport’s biggest stages, those moments are memorable.
Here are five upsets that prove that there is no such thing in racing as a sure thing.
1971 Little Brown Jug
“Would it have made any difference if you’d pulled earlier?” driver Stanley Dancer was asked. “No, he just got the jump on me and outpaced me,” Dancer tersely replied.
This was how Dancer’s dream of winning the 1971 Little Brown Jug with Albatross ended after a third-heat race-off defeat by Nansemond.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. After all, Albatross was virtually unbeatable that season and never lost another race after the Jug that year. But on Jug Day in 1971, the world turned upside down: Albatross proved mortal after all.
Albatross was such an overwhelming favorite in the 1971 Jug that he was actually barred in the wagering by the Delaware County fair officials. The county fair in the small town in central Ohio could ill afford a minus pool and lose money on the betting in the Jug.
Everyone assumed an Albatross victory in the Jug was a fait accompli. Everyone, that is, except for one gifted French-Canadian driver who had a colt named Nansemond in the race. That driver’s name was Herve Filion. He had come to America in the 1960s and, in the words of Hall of Fame racing official Walter Russell, “made our best drivers look like monkeys.” When he sat in a sulky, Herve Filion had rare skills and self-confidence.
But Stanley Dancer had Albatross. Even Filion’s finesse wasn’t good enough to stop Albatross. At least that’s what everyone thought. But Albatross went back to the barn without the trophy.
Dancer later called the Jug loss “the biggest disappointment of my career,” but took the blame himself.
Dancer had made commitments to race Albatross in the Jug Preview at Scioto Downs and the Jug Trial at Hazel Park.
“I just couldn’t live with myself if I had backed out of those commitments,” he said. “It rained at both Scioto and Hazel and those races took a lot out of Albatross.”
So Dancer didn’t realize until Jug Day that the normal overdrive that Albatross had was missing-in-action. And that led to a disappointment that would haunt Dancer for the rest of his life.
The 1971 Jug was not the only time that Stanley Dancer brought a superstar colt into a classic and came up a cropper. He’d endured that same disappointment in the 1965 Hambletonian.
Dancer had been involved in racing long enough to know that nothing about it is guaranteed, but his fierce pride and perfectionism made disappointments into a disaster. He was not the type to hand the lines to the groom and shrug it off easily.
There was seemingly no way that Noble Victory could lose the 1965 Hambletonian.
There was also seemingly no way that the 1965 Hambletonian could be raced when the appointed day arrived. It rained and rained, then rained some more, in southern Illinois. The mile track at Du Quoin turned into a quagmire. Its clay surface was as thick as gumbo.
Fair officials took desperate measures to salvage the day and get their prize race contested since a large crowd had ventured to the southern hamlet for harness racing’s major event.
While it was questionable if the race would be contested on the scheduled day, there wasn’t much question about the pre-ordained winner. It was Noble Victory, who came into the Hambletonian with a 20-race winning streak and only one loss in his career. His only loss came when he hit the sulky and skipped offstride as a 2-year-old. Ominously, however, that defeat was at Du Quoin.
Noble Victory’s mother, Emily’s Pride, had won the Hambletonian over the very same track just seven years earlier and now her first-born son was on a path to join her.
Noble Victory didn’t have much heel on his front feet, so Dancer shod him in bar shoes to support his hoof. When the track was so muddy, Dancer contemplated pulling the bar shoes, but decided not to fiddle with an unbeatable colt.
“I could have kicked myself for not taking those bar shoes off before the race,” said Dancer later. “But I didn’t know. If I had pulled his bar shoes and he had made a break or something, I would have kicked myself then, too.”
The track crew desperately tried to make the best of the muddy oval, but the first heat of the Hambletonian didn’t parade to the post until 4 p.m.
The surface still wasn’t to Noble Victory’s liking and he wound up a shocking ninth in the first heat, then seventh in the second heat. If he didn’t win the third heat, Noble Victory would fail in his biggest test.
“In the third heat, I’m confident I would have won if I could have gotten through at the rail,” Dancer said. He added that he was confident he then would have won the fourth heat race-off.
Alas, no clearance existed for Noble Victory in the third heat. He went back to the barn a tired and beaten horse and without the trophy for the first time in his life.
Ironically, the Hambletonian was won by Egyptian Candor, also trained by Dancer and owned by his wife Rachel. Del Cameron did the driving. Dancer was expecting to wind up in the winner’s circle that day, but not with Egyptian Candor. Trophy presentation photos taken in the darkness of the evening show Dancer looking absolutely stunned.
1984 Breeders Crown 2-Year-Old Colt Pace
A lot of people were wrong. But Jeff Mallet, Dragon’s Lair’s trainer and driver, was right.
Beating Nihilator seemed like mission impossible for certain. The wunder-
kind colt from the first crop by Niatross had whirled through all 11 starts coming into the race at The Meadows in the first season of the Breeders Crown series.
Nihilator won the $2.1 million Woodrow Wilson that summer in a stunning world record of 1:52.4 despite ducking in late in the stretch to get away from some tenderness in his front feet.
His next big test came at Lexington when he came face-to-face with Niafirst, another colt from the first crop by Niatross, trained and driven by Clint Galbraith, developer of Niatross.
Red Mile general manager Curt Greene filled in that day as the track announcer and he could scarcely believe what he was witnessing as Nihilator wore down Niafirst in deep stretch.
“Nihilator’s gonna be hung the mile and still win,” Greene shouted in disbelief into the microphone.
While Nihilator was making headlines nationally, Dragon’s Lair was impressing Pennsylvania horsemen. But the Breeders Crown seemed to be a match between the state hero and a national hero. Dragon’s Lair was dominant in the Keystone State, but could he handle the big, bad wolf Nihilator?
Certainly, in the first elimination heat, he couldn’t. Nihilator broke the world record (held by Dragon’s Lair)when he scored in 1:54.3. Dragon’s Lair was runner-up. Nihilator’s stablemate (and also a son of Niatross), Pershing Square, won the second elimination.
The final seemed a foregone conclusion. Nihilator headed a three-horse entry that was bet down to 1-5. Dragon’s Lair was sent off at 2-1 by the western Pennsylvania faithful. Witsend’s Wizard was also at 2-1, while the other three finalists were longshots.
Jeff Mallet shot Dragon’s Lair screaming out of the gate, with Pershing Square inside of him. The first quarter was paced in a stunning :26.3. Tommy Haughton took back with Pershing Square and let Dragon’s Lair take control.
Mallet eased through a second quarter in 30 seconds. Then Nihilator came calling on the outside, but Dragon’s Lair would not be denied. He fought off the big bay in the final quarter, and the nearly 50-1 shot Broadway Express edged Nihilator for second place.
In the winner’s circle interview, Jeff Mallet uttered the infamous line thanking Nihilator’s primary owner, Lou Guida, for bringing the colt to The Meadows so that Dragon’s Lair could beat him.
Nihilator dominated the sport in 1985 and earned Horse of the Year honors, while Dragon’s Lair encountered problems that kept him out of the headlines.
1992 Little Brown Jug
Coming into the Jug in 1992, it seemed as if Gene Riegle’s career goal was about to be realized. Riegle was a widely respected Buckeye horseman and his most sacred goal was to win the Little Brown Jug, then the most coveted race in pacing and contested in Riegle’s home state of Ohio.
It looked as if everything was coming up roses for the remarkably consistent Western Hanover. He’d encountered some bad luck when he’d gone off at 9-5 in the Meadowlands Pace and Shipps Purser’s break in the early stages on the first turn had knocked him out of contention.
But he won the Cleveland Classic, the Cane Pace and the James Dancer Memorial final before annexing the Messenger Stake, contested that year at Rosecroft Raceway, by more than two lengths. He went off as the 1-20 favorite and won as he liked.
All that seemingly stood between Western Hanover and the Triple Crown was a bad post draw in the Jug. His connections surely breathed a big sigh of relief when he drew post two in his elimination. Bettors recognized the obvious and made Western Hanover the 1-5 favorite.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line in that first heat. Fake Left, sent off at 9-1 odds, went to the front and then refused to yield when Western Hanover came calling. It was a gritty fight to the wire, but Fake Left held firm by a neck. What promised to be a predictable outcome suddenly seemed in doubt.
The other elimination heats had been won by Gamma Ray and Crouch.
In the second heat, Western Hanover had post five and was outside during the mile, but reversed the decision by sticking his neck in front of Fake Left at the finish.
This mandated a race-off between the four heat winners: Western Hanover plus stablemate Gamma Ray, Fake Left, and Crouch. Western Hanover had the rail and the confidence of bettors at 3-10 odds.
Ron Waples sent Fake Left to the front once again with Western Han-over settling in second initially, then being shuffled back to third by a first-over Gamma Ray. Everyone waited for the duel. In the stretch, the two colts hooked up in a fierce struggle and hit the wire together.
While the judges waited for a photo, Jug announcer Roger Huston asked the spectators, “How many think Fake Left won?” Applause rang out. “How many think Western Hanover won?” The Buckeye partisans raised a noisy cheer.
But the photo finish told the tale that Fake Left had won by a nose. No Jug for Gene Riegle, no Triple Crown for Western Hanover.
Afterward, Fake Left’s trainer, George Sholty, was stunned. He’d won the Jug 26 years earlier driving Romeo Hanover, but he confessed his emotions were such this time that “I’m afraid I’m gonna start bawlin’ like a baby.”
The disappointment in 1992 for Gene Riegle was palpable, but 12 months later he would gain his own measure of immortality as Life Sign overcame an impossible trip to give Riegle his coveted victory in the Jug.
2008 Meadowlands Pace
In 2007, a colt came out of Canada’s Maritime provinces and paced his way into harness racing history. He was bred by Stephanie Smith-Rothaug and foaled in Ohio, but sired by the Ontario stallion Mach Three, and after a prep race in Truro, Nova Scotia, he shipped to Ontario. He asserted his dominance every time he faced the starter and ended his season unbeaten in six starts.
Trainer Brent MacGrath brought Somebeachsomewhere back to the racing wars as a sophomore and the colt once again destroyed his rivals easily, winning a qualifier in 1:51.1 by 10¾ lengths in early May. From there, it was easy pickings in some prep races for the North America Cup. Somebeachsomewhere won his elimination and the final for that event by open lengths in identical times of 1:49.
He had almost a month off before the Meadowlands Pace, but he was just as devastating in his elimination for that rich event with a 4½-length win over Art Official in 1:48.3, final panel in :26.2.
Could anybody beat this horse?
It certainly didn’t look that way and bettors sent Somebeachsomewhere off at 1-9 from post two in the $1.1 million Meadowlands Pace.
As always, other drivers were hoping to score an upset. One of them was Ron Pierce.
“(Trainer) Joe Seekman told me that Art Official couldn’t leave,” said Pierce years later. “So, we ended up chasing [Somebeachsomewhere] in the elimination, and you’re not going to beat that horse by chasing him. We drew outside of him in the final, and the only shot had I had at beating him or even being second was if I got close to him.
“I didn’t understand why Art Official couldn’t leave and I shook him up a little bit scoring down and got his attention. I think it was the first time the horse had anyone shake him up a little bit. He left out of there at 100 miles per hour.”
Art Official, sent off at nearly 12-1, left fastest to grab the front in the opening quarter in 26 seconds. Then Pierce found himself pressured by the nearly 15-1 Bullville Powerful. As expected, Somebeachsomewhere was riding on the outside second over. Suddenly, Paul MacDonell stepped on the gas and went three-wide around Bullville Powerful to seize control as the timer clicked off an astonishing half-mile time of :51.4.
After opening panels of :26 and :25.4, MacDonell gave his powerful colt a breather with a third-quarter in :27.2. But Art Official was stuck to his back like a wet shirt.
“Art Official swelled up in the two-hole in the last turn,” said Pierce later. “I really felt that I was going to get by Somebeachsomewhere in the lane.”
To the astonishment of everyone, that’s exactly what happened, as Art Official gritted his way to a most improbable victory by a neck in 1:47.
MacDonell was gracious after the stunning upset.
“I’ve got to give Art Official all the credit in the world,” he said. “He parked horses past the half in :51.4 and was still around at the wire to live and tell about it.”
It was the first and only defeat in Somebeachsomewhere’s career. He skipped the Jug that fall and won at Lexington in a world record 1:46.4 and 1:47.4 in consecutive weeks. He won the Messenger and the Breeders Crown, both over Shadow Play, to close out his career. HB
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.