On Saturday, August 3 at the Meadowlands could well be the “Pace of he Century” as the best pacers in perhaps the world will go head and head in the $250,000 final of the US Pacing Championship.
Household names in harness racing, Sweet Lou, Warrawee Needy, Foiled Again, Golden Receiver, Bolt The Duer, A Rocknroll Dance, Modern Legend, Hurrikane Kingcole, Pet Rock and Thinking Out Loud will all battle it out in the big race.
In 2013 these and other superb older pacers have brought back to those who can remember and to those who have studied harness racing history, memories of what use to be a weekly occurrence in harness racing, great match-ups that you looked forward to seeing and reading about.
Week in and week out these top pacers do battle and each week it seems that another “star” emerges in the limelight and will they be able to repeat their herculean efforts from the prior week.
But this is nothing new for harness racing. It happened every week across the nation in the 1960’s and I for one am glad that history is repeating itself.
After last night’s classic battles in the eliminations for the US Pacing Championship I pulled out my treasured scrap books from two of the greatest years in harness racing history for older pacers, 1965 and 1966. And low and behold this is what I found.
The exact same scenarios we are witnessing today. The best pacers in the world battling weekly across the nation, only back then there was no simulcasting, no viewing races online or from your cell phone, no National Raceline allowing you to hear the all of the race within minutes of it happening. There were no fax machines, only teletype, telephone and the radio! Television was barely in existence.
On May 20, 1966, Yonkers Raceway boasted that they had the “Pace of the Century” and at the time they were right. They had the first of many battles between what was deemed the two best harness horses in the sport meeting for the first time.
It was the ten-year-old Cardigan Bay taking on the four-year-old Bret Hanover against three other rivals in a win betting only race for a purse of $65,000! Cardigan Bay had been racing every week against the best older pacers in racing. Bret Hanover had but two starts that year and won them both and was on a seven race winning streak at the time.
And what a race it was!
Sweet Luck and driver/trainer Joe Cardana were the speed demons and they cut the mile with Firesweep (Lucien Fontaine) getting the two-hole spot. They led to the half mile until Stanley Dancer came first-over with Cardigan Bay and Frank Ervin followed their outside flow with Bret Hanover and Adios Marches (Charles King) could see them all.
As they came down the stretch Cardigan Bay had the lead with Ervin and Bret Hanover hot on their heels but to no avail as Cardigan Bay and Dancer won by two lengths in 2:00 with Bret Hanover second and Adios Marches closing well for third place.
And if you don’t think the drivers back then had fun with each other than just look at the photo finish of the race (yes, I got lots of them from the 1960’s) and you will see Stanley Dancer turning and smiling back at Frank Ervin as Cardigan Bay won the race.
Every newspaper in North America and around the world covered these races. The sports pages had cartoonists with images of the top horses, taunting who would win the following week. Harness racing was the king of sports during this era.
Bret Hanover won the next meeting, the purse was $50,000. Rex Pick was second and Cardigan Bay third. Bret won the next matchup, then Cardigan Bay won two straight. They raced at Brandywine and Liberty Bell and then off to Hollywood Park in California where True Duane beat them both.
The greatest horses were going every week, Romulus Hanover, Overcall, Glad Rags, Adios Vic, Rivaltime, Smokeover N, Poconomoonshine, Harry’s Bride and the great Romeo Hanover, who had won 18 of 19 starts at age 3 joined the group and beat them all in his first try for trainer Jerry Silverman and driver George Sholty. Even the great mare, Meadow Elva, tried her luck against the boys.
Also remember that back then at Yonker’s dining room in 1968, a shrimp cocktail was $2.00, the prime rib Empire Cut was $4.95, a filet mignon or sirloin steak was $7.50 and a slice of cheesecake was $0.85 cents!
But yet these war horses could race every week or two for $25,000 to $50,000 purses and higher.
Lucien Fontaine remembers those days very well.
“I remembered Jerry Silverman would get so nervous before his horse (Romeo Hanover) would race he would turn his back and not watch,” Fontaine recalled. “It was so great to have these world champion race every week, just like they are doing today. It’s an incredible bunch of horses going today. They are racing like you use a car. They go first over and don’t quit.
“I don’t think back in the 1960’s that those horses could race first-over like they do today.” Fontaine said. “Adios Butler in 1961 once paced an eighth of a mile in :11.2 in the last quarter at Hollywood Park and that was faster than the Thoroughbreds could run!”
“I chased those good horses with Poconomoonshine,” Fontaine said, “But was never able to beat them. We finished second a few times. I always hoped the pace was slow up front and that way we had a chance to come on late and get a good check.
“What impressed me most during that era was the crowds and fan support,” Fontaine said. “The crowds would follow harness racing as much as a football and baseball. The stands every Friday and Saturday night at Yonkers or Roosevelt were packed and people would yell and cheer for their favorites and it was great. Every day the newspapers had stories and photographs on the races to keep everyone informed on what was going on.
“But today we are seeing the same with the older pacers,” Fontaine said. “I know the crowds are not so great and the coverage in the newspaper is never enough, but with the internet and simulcasting race fans get to see everything. Back in the day you heard about big races from others and never got to see them. Now you can see video replays, read stories an hour after the race is over, hear interviews live after the race. It is all so great.”
So it may not be Cardigan Bay, Bret Hanover, Adios Vic and Romeo Hanover going head and head this Saturday at the Meadowlands, but today’s speedsters, most of who are million dollar plus winners, will put on quite a show in the US Pacing Championship Final.
Whether it be Foiled Again or Warrawee Needy or Sweet Lou or whomever of the top horses in the field, it is great to see that history does repeat itself. This Saturday could truly be the “Pace of the Century" or at least the dedcade.
By Steve Wolf