Day At The Track

26 years ago today; March of Dimes Trot

05:36 AM 18 Nov 2014 NZDT
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Sugarcane Hanover, harness racing
Sugarcane Hanover and driver Gunner Eggen on the outside edge Ourasi and Mack Lobell
March of Dimes Trot
With the resurgence of elite world-wide trotting highlighted by top of the line European contenders coming across the Atlantic to race in major contests in the U.S. and Canada along with the rejuvenated Yonkers Trot, the Breeders Crown classic, and the Maple Leaf Trot have become international spectacles to go with the Elitlopp and Prix d',Amerique in Europe.

Looking back 26 years ago to the day in 1988, the March of Dimes Trot at Garden State Park had the attention of of the trotting world and the near soap-box behind-the-scenes saga of how the race was saved, was the story of the time.

Despite a country-wide airstrike enveloping France, a weeklong rain and a major money short-fall, the March of Dimes Trot went on as scheduled.

A race, destined to be the greatest trot of the 20th century, overcame all obstacles. It matched four of America's top trotters, led by the legendary Mack Lobell, along with Go Get Lost, Scenic Regal and Canada's No Sex Please, a three-year-old, meeting four of Europe's stars headed by famed European champion Ourasi, and the renown Napolitano, Callit and Sugarcane Hanover.

The trotting world anticipated the one- mile test to wind-up as a match race between arguably the greatest trotters of the era - America's superstar Mack Lobell, winner of the 1988 Elitlopp and the great French standout Ourasi, four -time Prix d'Amerique champion - squaring off in the $600,000 March of Dimes Trot at the late Garden State Park.

Originally billed as a $1,000,000 International clash, between the foreign trotting stars and North America's champions of-the-day, the event became a contest in serious jeopardy.

Nine days before the event, with European trotters already on their way to the United States, only $80,000 of the $1-million purse was in place. At the Harrisburg sale, Paul Spears, of Hanover Shoe Farms, is said to have helped raise $300,000. Among other contributors were prominent owners Joe Thomson, Ed Gold and George Segal. Fellow amateur driver and benefactor Peter Gerry "guaranteed" the rest as the final purse was re-established at $600,000.

In fact, circumstances even prevented the track from advertising a $1-million contest for racegoers. The contest did go on with the fan predicting the race-winner receiving $500,000. Selecting the second-place finisher was good for a $250,000 payoff. The fan picking the third-place finisher got $125,000 with fourth- and fifth-place finishers receiving $8,000 and $5,000 respectively.

The ill-fated, ultra-modern Garden State Park racetrack was located a short distance from Philadelphia, across the Delaware River, in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Early in the race week, the March of Dimes Trot appeared destined to be 'dead in the water.' Track officials, publicist Bill Fidati and track race-caller Alex Kraszewski were inundated with countless telephone calls.

Conceived by Pennsylvania harness racing enthusiast Gordon Dickinson, as a major international trotting test in the tradition of the International Trot then held at New York tracks, originally at Roosevelt and later Yonkers. Profits of the much-anticipated event were targeted to the March of Dimes charity, but as raceday approached, the heralded trot seemed deep in financial trouble.

The original concept envisioned the world's finest trotters meeting for a $5-million purse and with the March of Dimes charity as its sponsor.

As the 1988 harness year progressed, Mack Lobell was, as expected, the dominant trotter in North America, while Ourasi was at the top of his game in Europe beating the best trotters on the continent. Both owners were not afraid to boast of their horses. Each challenged the other all Summer long.

Lou Guida wasn't aware of the prominence of the Elittlop until HTA Executive Director, Stanley Bergstein, called and recommended that he send Mack Lobell to the classic race.

"He destroyed the field to become the first four-year-old to win the race always won by older horses," recalls Guida." He also was the first American horse to win since Delmonica Hanover.

"The next day,' remembers Guida," a manager for Ourasi's owner, introduced me to the French Racing Association president who argued that French horses were far and above American trotters. He challenged me to race Mack Lobell at one of France's 'up and down racetracks.'"

"I invited them to come to American for a race," Guida stated. "They decided not to come." He continued, "The next day I was interviewed on French TV and I said they were chicken as I lifted my arms [with my hands in my armpits] to simulate chicken wings. That's where the heated rivalry began."

At the time in the late 1980s, there was a monumental two-continent rivalry regarding which was the world's greatest trotter. Mack Lobell was the toast of North America while Ourasi, owned by enthusiastic Raul Ostheimer, was acknowledged European continent champion. The two owners continued a season-long ongoing debate about which of the two trotters was best.

"Talk about the race started during the summer at the Meadowlands," remembers Joe DeFrank, who was also director of racing at Garden State Park. "Everything seemed to be going alright until about the time of the Harrisburg sale, a few weeks before. Things began to look so bad financially, that I thought it would never happen.

"Then, Del Miller called me and said that I should 'hold on,''' continued DeFrank, "And, almost until race time there were growing rumors spread throughout the harness racing world that the race would not happen.

"The industry itself didn't do anything," recalls DeFrank. "But Delvin (Miller), Paul Spears, the Gerrys (Elbridge Jr. and Peter), and a few others, went to work and raised about a million dollars from some of the sport's leading people. They went to work at the Harrisburg sale to raise money, and the on-again, off-again event was on-again," DeFrank said.

On top of everything, Garden State Park popular president Bob Quigley was hospitalized. "I was rushed to the hospital with diverticulitis,' recalls Quigley, "I didn't even get to see the race."
A crowd of 8,013 fans, and perhaps the largest contingent of worldwide sportswriters and feature columnists covering a harness race, assembled and were on hand that chilly mid-week night.

Another major complication at the time surfaced when France was mired by a strike grounding all flights. Even with the air strike, but because of the fervor in the country about the popular trotting rivalry, French officials stepped in to permit an exception, allowing Ourasi to fly out.

'Ourasi was the darling of France and a European hero,''DeFrank recalled, "Along with Ourasi, about 260 Frenchmen came with the horse. They were put up at a French hotel in New York. In lieu of staying in a nearby luxury hotel in Philadelphia or Cherry Hill, the horse's owner [Ostheimer] also chose to stay at the Meridian Hotel in New York and traveled to-and-from the track by limo.Even then, there was no certainty the race would go on," remarked DeFrank.

"I would guess, about a million dollars was raised in a short period of time. Of course there were serious expenses involved flying in the horses, hotel stays and other daily charges, and $600,000 went to the purse," DeFrank detailed.

"When I spoke to Ourasi's owner, he said he'd bring his great horse over for nothing just to be in the race," added DeFrank.

In addition to the grave pre-race financial matters, heavy rain marred the early week weather including a deluge the previous day. Garden State management brought in helicopters to help dry the racetrack and turf course.
Despite the entire pre-race furor, the big night had all the fixing of a grand night for racing. Garden State Park was owned by International Thoroughbred Breeders (ITB), and to boost the night,
in addition to the big trot, a thoroughbred race was programmed on the turf - something previously never done - runners and standardbreds racing on the same program, to help make the night extra special. Amateur driving stalwart Peter Gerry, in a show of hospitality, gave up his drive to the owner of Ourasi, who wanted to drive in the amateur race.

Also on the excellent program, NASA astronaut Jeanne Yeager, who had just circled the world in a previously unprecedented performance, drove the winning horse in a celebrity race setting the stage for the big trot.

Because of the many unexpected pre-race difficulties, but thanks to a number of harness racing supporters, the eventual race purse was finally determined to be $600,000. The first five finishers dividing the purse with $300,000 going to the winner, $150,000 for second, $72,000 to the third place horse, $60,000 for fourth and $30,000 to the fifth horse.

In the Phoenix dining room watching the trotters warm up, owner Guida was concerned as he watch Mack Lobell warming in a fractious manner. He didn't warm up the way he usually does, and that worried me," remembers Guida.

Garden State announcer Alex Kraszewski was at the microphone to start the March of Dimes Trot.

Mack Lobell, driven by John Campbell, left the gate fastest as four trotters came away in the outstanding field of international champions. The four-year-old took the top trotters in the world to the quarter in: 27.3 with Sugarcane Hanover, first to try to overtake Mack Lobell.

Driver Campbell said, "The fractions were easy." As the American champion reached the backstretch, two Swedish-owned challengers had secured up-close positions, American-bred Napolitano, owned by Ingvar Thorson and driven by famed international star Stig H. Johannson, and Callit, with Karl Johannson, driving the French-sired seven-year-old whose dam was also an American bred. The year before, Napolitano had ended Mack Lobell's bid for a Triple Crown sweep while winning the Kentucky Futurity.

Reaching the backstretch diminutive Go Get Lost rushed up to challenge with Ourasi moving three wide. The French champion, quickly moved up to seriously challenge Mack Lobell. From that point, the dynamic duo raced as a team the rest of the way. "Ourasi was trotting easily alongside then began to attack turning for home," tells Campbell.

Ourasi finally took a short lead in mid-stretch as the battling pair headed down the long homestretch on the mile track. While the front duo were slugging it out, head-to-head, Sugarcane Hanover, handled by Gunner Eggen, was enjoying a perfect trip racing behind the pair. In deep stretch, the unheralded longshot closed past the front-battlers to finish first at the wire by a neck in 1:55.1. Ourasi won the personal skirmish with Mack Lobell edging the American-bred for second by a half-length.

Driver John Campbell remembers that it had been a long season for Mack Lobell. "After coming back from the Elitlopp,' Mack' only was at his best about three times that Summer and Fall." At season's end, Mack Lobell has won 17 of his 19 starts with two third place finishes and was voted Harness Horse of the Year for the second straight campaign. Two years later, Campbell was voted into the U.S. Harness Writers Association's Hall of Fame.

Sugarcane Hanover had been a Pennsylvania Sire Stakes winning juvenile and a Breeders Crown champion at three. He was considered a contender, but not regarded as exceptional. As with other North American top trotters of the era whose stakes career ended, Sugarcane Hanover was sold overseas, to Helmer Strombo, of Norway,

Ourasi, trained and driven by renowned European horseman, Jean-Rene Gougeon, enjoyed an outstanding reputation. Gougeon had driven the French- bred to outstanding wins in major races in Europe. Years before, Gougeon drove the great French mare Une de Mai to victory defeating the American champion Nevele Pride in the 1969 Roosevelt International Trot.

While the March of Dimes Trot became a memorable and an artistic racing success, it was a financial dud with many complications, before and after. The harness sport dug deep in pockets to present a lesser purse than advertised. Even a crowd estimated at only 8,000-plus attendance, like the purse, never approached expectations.

The race was telecast, later to be re-played on American TV, ESPN's announcer missed called the finish of the race incorrectly. It necessitated the entire race to be re-recorded and therefore replayed much later than expected.

In Sweden, where the race began at 4 a.m. local time, Swedes wagered $400,000 on the race alone. In North America, ESPN was scheduled to air a delayed replay at 12 Midnight, but due to the TV Network's announcer missing the call at the wire despite onsite race caller Alex Kraszewski's accurate description. The TV finish had to be re-cut with the airing set back more than a half hour.

Today, some two-and-a-half decades later, the trials and tribulations of the March of Dimes Trot have been long forgotten. The great international event featuring the greatest international trotters and drivers of the era has earned a place in history. It also saved the American harness racing community extreme humiliation.

Despite the second-place finish, Ourasi's driver Jean-Rene Gourgeon said, "This was the greatest race I've ever seen." He stated, "It undoubtedly was the best trotting race in the history of the sport."

"A major effort by many people enabled the March of Dimes Trot to be a giant artistic success. I think it's the best trot I ever saw," exclaimed Hall of Famer DeFrank". Looking back, John Campbell quoted, "It was a hell-of-a-race."

With all the pre-race travail, the race became an all-time classic and the March of Dimes was a winner too. The charity organization received $200,000.
by Marv Bachrad for
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