Sensational Sylvia

Two-time divisional winner kept her connections on their toes in 2023

By Kathy Parker

If only horses could talk, right? Would yearling shoppers have believed Somebeachsomewhere if he had bragged about being a future world champion while posing for review at a yearling auction in the fall of 2006?

The absurdity of the idea of horses talking was famously portrayed by the TV character Mister Ed—yes, a horse—in the eponymous 1960s sitcom. And if ever we wished a horse could talk, pacing filly Sylvia Hanover would surely make the list.

Driver Bob McClure sure wishes the two-time Dan Patch divisional champion could.

“In the Fan Hanover elimination, she literally took herself out of the hole and brushed to the lead and won by open lengths (in 1:49.2, with a :26.3 last quarter). I wish I could ask her what happened and get an answer,” said McClure recently from his home in Ontario (while recovering from a broken femur sustained in a non-racing accident).

Sylvia Hanover turned in another head-scratching race in her first start away from her home turf of Woodbine Mohawk Park. In the Mistletoe Shalee, at the Meadowlands, she lingered on the outside and refused to brush to the lead despite an extremely slow :28.3 second quarter. McClure kept his cool, but everyone watching was incredulous.

McClure was candid in the post-race interview, quipping, “I was terrified. I thought I’d just follow Dexter (Dunn, driving Twin B Joe Fresh) after he made the lead and go right by, but that didn’t happen. And then two horses looping past the half…

“Actually, I felt a lot better at the five-eighths because I had live cover and my filly still had pace—she has great endurance.”

When asked to relive the Mistletoe Shalee, Sylvia Hanover’s trainer, Shawn Steacy, acknowledged, “There were a lot of question marks with Sylvia leaving her home turf. She shipped to New Jersey and everything was going well, but she gets caught on the outside in the race and won’t go. What was going through my mind was, ‘Well, she can’t travel, or maybe she tied up.’”


While Sylvia Hanover’s quirky style of racing attracted quite a bit of attention, her two Dan Patch titles have put her in elite company. She is one of the few pacing fillies to achieve Dan Patch divisional honors at both ages 2 and 3. Since 1978, when fillies were first given their separate honors, only eight have won divisional honors at both ages, and it is a list of greats: Three Diamonds, Town Pro, Miss Easy, Worldly Beauty, See You At Peelers, Pure Country, Warrawee Ubeaut and now Sylvia Hanover.

McClure believes Sylvia Hanover’s headstrong ways while racing are now behind her, but she’s been known as a filly with her own mind since the day she arrived in the Steacy stable. While Steacy is her official trainer, he said virtually his entire family has been involved with the filly’s life since Tony and Betty Infilise’s Hudson Standardbred Stable bought her as a yearling for $135,000. The Steacy stable operation includes Shawn’s father, Mark—a veteran who has trained such notables as Breeders Crown champion Majestic Son and Crown runner-up Sunshine Beach, who was also co-owned by Hudson Standardbred Stable—and other family members.

Shawn’s wife, Natasha, has taken care of Sylvia Hanover since the filly arrived in the Steacy stable.

“When we first got her, we had to be very careful,” said Natasha. “She would lay down when we tried to hitch her. It still usually takes both Shawn and I to get a harness on her.

“As she got a little older, she mellowed out a little, but she’s still her devilish self on the track. [Her trainers and drivers] think they have a choice when they sit behind her, but she does what she wants.”

Natasha admits she can’t watch any of Sylvia Hanover’s races as they are happening.

“Replays are OK, but I just physically can’t watch her race live. It’s too stressful. My heart can’t take it,” she said.

McClure said he can’t specifically recall when Sylvia Hanover first showed she wasn’t about to follow any instructions when racing.

“In her first starts, she did everything right,” he said.


Even when she’s not in a race, Sylvia Hanover has her own way of doing her work. Natasha said that includes taking 45 minutes to jog five miles.

“She only moves when it’s game time,” she said.

When she’s not on the racetrack, Sylvia Hanover is most certainly the star of the Steacy stable but not overly coddled, although it may not seem that way if you see her stall at First Line Training Centre, near Woodbine Mohawk Park.

“She’s in a double stall; we call it the Penthouse,” said Natasha. “She has three big windows and two (stall door) gates, and it’s the first stall on the right in the barn. It wasn’t created just for her, though. It was a large stall before she was there because one side of it has a low ceiling. We had just stored stuff there. So, that’s why she has a double stall.”

As one might imagine, Sylvia Han-over does not call all the shots when going about her days without racing.

“She goes out first thing in the morning, at 6:30 a.m., for three hours. She double-jogs every day, to try to avoid any tie up,” Natasha said.

As for training, “We’re a little old-school; we go a lot of slow training miles and doubleheaders,” said Shawn. “We put a lot of foundation in our horses.”

With the slow training miles, Shawn said he wasn’t sure how much speed Sylvia Hanover was capable of until her first qualifying race.

“About two weeks before she made her first (purse) race, she was in a qualifier at Mohawk, and we wanted to go a mile in 2:00. I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.’ (She won the qualifier by a head in 2:00.1.) Then she qualified in 1:56.2. Then we put her in to race, in the Whenuwishuponastar Series. She won in 1:51(.2) in her first start, but I was worried that we kinked her. She dropped from a very average 1:56 to winning impressively in 1:51. I thought, ‘No 2-year-old drops like that and survives.’”

The 1:51.2 victory was the beginning of Sylvia Hanover’s displays of speed, which as a 3-year-old included her lifetime mark of 1:48.1 and :25-and-change last quarters. The Steacys, however, did not focus on training her for speed; it came naturally to the filly.

“She always has worked better in groups, with others,” said Shawn. “We wanted to make sure she was mentally strong, so she was always following in training. We always wanted her passing horses to keep her confidence. That was our focus—not so much speed.”


With her natural talent and the confidence-building exercises of training, Sylvia Hanover overcame her quirk of occasionally lagging and putting herself at a disadvantage. She has made it to the winner’s circle in all but four career starts and missed the board only once. That lone finish farther back than third came in her sophomore season, when she broke stride shortly after taking the lead in the James Lynch Memorial, at Pocono. Even with her talent, she couldn’t recover from the miscue and finished last.

McClure reported that the mistake happened when Sylvia Hanover hit a knee, which prompted Steacy to add knee boots to her equipment.

Following the Lynch Memorial, Sylvia Hanover went back home to Ontario, where she won the Simcoe, at Woodbine Mohawk Park, and finished second to older foes in an overnight for fillies and mares (she was still 6½ lengths behind the leader at the top of the homestretch but rallied with a :25.3 last quarter). Then came wins in the Bluegrass and Garnsey Memorial in Lexington before the Breeders Crown.

McClure has driven Sylvia Hanover in all 22 of her purse starts and believes that, by the last five or six starts of her 3-year-old campaign, she had settled into the routine of racing.

“On Hambletonian Day (the filly’s third start at the Meadowlands), she was bionic,” he said of Sylvia Hanover spotting the leader 3¾ lengths at the three-quarter mark and pacing home in :26 to win by a head. “In Lexington, she was bionic. And by the time we got to the Breeders Crown, I think she was ready to face older mares.

“The other drivers have tried to turn her races into a sprint, but we’ve learned she can sprint,” he added.


Even if McClure thinks Sylvia Hanover has matured into a seasoned racehorse, she still has one more quirk to overcome that involves racing.

“As a 2-year-old, she developed a fear of being blanketed that still remains a part of her,” said Natasha. “The first time with a blanket (when Sylvia won the Whenuwishuponastar final), they came up quick (to put the blanket on her) and it scared her. So, then, they couldn’t get near her with the blanket. We still make sure we take the bike off because you don’t know which way she’s going to go.”

After winning the Breeders Crown at Harrah’s Hoosier Park last fall, Sylvia Hanover spent time turned out at the Steacy family’s farm, but she is now back in her usual routine at First Line Training Centre, prepping for her 4-year-old season.

Shawn Steacy is realistic about Sylvia Hanover’s upcoming campaign, which will include the challenge of being a younger mare facing older

“I believe she’s matured and become more willing (to move) when asked,” said Steacy, “but she’s going to have to be able to do it when she’s racing against these older mares.

“Sprinting is such an important thing at the highest level, so you have to be in position,” he continued. “You can’t count on coming home in :24 and change. So, she’ll have to be within striking distance.”

With the first major stakes for pacing mares months away, the Steacys are enjoying reflecting on Sylvia Hanover’s 3-year-old season while they work with a stable of about 60 horses.

As Natasha posted on her Facebook page following the Breeders Crown: “I really don’t know how to explain how amazing this year has been. This very special filly has taken me on one of the greatest adventures you could ask for. Not only has she been nothing but amazing, but this trip to all these amazing tracks and getting to experience them for the first time with her—and, not to mention all the amazing new (people) and friends we have made along this ride . . . Sylvia Hanover, you have no idea what you mean to me.” HB


Kathy Parker is the former editor of Hoof Beats and The Horseman And Fair World. To comment on this story, email us at


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