Under Wraps: The Hunt for Hambo History

Four original trophies still need to be found

by Tim Bojarski

Hambletonian trophies have gone through a lot of changes through the years, but trotting’s most storied hardware can be broken down into two main eras. From 1926 to 1937, individual trophies were given to the winning owners to keep. In 1938, a perpetual trophy was introduced, and the same award has been presented every year since.

With the current trophy representing the history of the last 85 Hambletonian winners, what ever happened to the awards presented to the connections of the first 12?

Hall of Fame member Tom Charters, president of the Hambletonian Society from 1992 to 2017, is probably the most knowledgeable individual concerning the history of this race. Tracking down the old trophies has been a passion of his for years, and what he’s found—along with the stories associated with some of them—is little known history of the greatest race in the sport.

The first four trophies were large loving cups named the Onondaga Trophy. They were sponsored by the Syracuse Hotel as the Hambletonian was slated to be raced in Syracuse, N.Y., for four years, although the second and fourth were moved to Lexington, Ky.

“Guy McKinney won the first Hambletonian in 1926, and that trophy has been missing since the race,” Charters said. “The winner was owned by Henry Rae, who was a prominent sports figure in the Pittsburgh area. Over the years, I asked Del Miller, who was a big memorabilia fan, and Pittsburgh publicist Tom Rooney (Tim Rooney’s cousin) if there were any members of the Rae family left, and neither knew of any. So, I’d have to assume it was lost, and it’s frustrating that it has been for so long.

“I came upon the 1927 trophy in a serendipitous manner. A friend of mine in Columbus, Ohio, introduced me to Mark Merkle, whose grandfather (E.J. Merkle) owned the second Hambletonian winner, Isola’s Worthy. Mark told me they still had the trophy, and I asked him if he would lend it to the Hambletonian Society to display at the 75th anniversary celebration, which he did. It has since been on display at the Harness Racing Museum for some time now.”

The 1927 trophy was at one time stolen. On Little Brown Jug Day in 1979, while the Merkle family was attending the races at the Delaware County Fair, their home, in nearby Granville, Ohio, was burglarized and a number of valuable items were stolen, among them the Hambletonian trophy. After two arrests were made, items that were stolen were found in the Ohio River, recovered, and returned to the family. The trophy was intact except for the top—a winged victory statue—which was gone and is still probably resting somewhere in the sediment of the river.

“The 1928 trophy, won by Spencer, was donated by Judy Johnson, stepdaughter of Castleton Farm’s Frances Dodge, to the Round Barn in Kentucky and can be seen on display there,” Charters explained. “And, oddly enough, the winged victory top of that trophy is missing, as well.

“The fourth Hambletonian, in 1929, was won by Walter Dear, owned by William Cane,” Charters continued, “and it was the Cane estate who in essence founded the museum in the Good Time Stable that they owned. But no one knows where that trophy is, either. Walter Cox was the winning driver, and it could have gone to him and [been] relocated after his death. But it’s ironically sad that two Goshen-based horsemen were presented with the trophy and it doesn’t reside in the museum.”

In 1930, there were two changes made to the trophy. It no longer had a sponsor other than the Society, and the style went from a loving cup to a footed plate.

Hanover Shoe Farms captured their first of three Hambletonian wins in a nine-year span in 1930 with Hanover’s Bertha, followed by Shirley Hanover in 1937 and Mc Lin Hanover in 1938. The 1930 and 1937 trophies are housed at Hanover, while 1938 marked the first year the perpetual trophy was introduced.

Calumet Butler won the 1931 race, and that trophy is part of Calumet Farm’s 524-piece collection on display at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.

The whereabouts of the 1932 trophy won by The Marchioness are unknown, but her owner, Mrs. Ralph Keeler, lived in Auburn, N.Y., and it could possibly be hiding somewhere in that area.

The 1933 and 1934 Hambletonians were won by Mary Reynolds and Lord Jim, respectively, and both of those footed plates are permanently housed at the Harness Racing Museum.

“Greyhound won the 1935 Hambletonian and, unfortunately, that piece of historic hardware is also among the missing,” said Charters. “I have no idea where that trophy is, but I’d like to think it’s somewhere in the Baker Hotel, in St. Charles, Ill. But that’s just speculation on my part.

“The 1936 trophy is in the possession of Benny White, outside of Orlando, Fla. He is the grandson of Ben White, who bred, trained and drove the winner, Rosalind.”

When the perpetual trophy was introduced, it was changed to a Revere bowl. Charters pointed out a couple interesting facts about it:

“All the disks on the trophy from 1938 to 1980 are a different style because the individual winners were responsible for getting them inscribed. Once the race moved to the Meadowlands, the track took over that responsibility. And when the wooden base needed to be expanded to a fourth tier to accommodate future winners, 1953 Hambletonian-winning driver Harry Harvey was the one who made it.

“The trophy is a remarkable piece of racing memorabilia that I hope people appreciate,” Charters concluded. HB

Tim Bojarski, past president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, is a freelance writer living in New York. The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.


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