Those lucky enough to have won harness racing's Meadowlands Pace or the Hambletonian, among the most prestigious Standardbred races in the world, carry with them a cherished memory for a lifetime.
Along with those memories is a replica of the Hambletonian trophy, given to the connections of the Hambletonian and Oaks winners, now made even more special by the selection of the trophies' creator, Ubaldo Vitali, as a MacArthur Fellow.
The MacArthur Fellowships, established by the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, annually awards about 20 Americans $500,000 no-strings-attached fellowships to extraordinarily talented individuals as an investment in their potential. They are referred to in the media as the "genius grants" and the individuals selected work in fields ranging from architecture to zoology. Vitali, who has created many trophies for The Meadowlands since the track opened in 1976, is among this year's fellows.
Vitali lives not far from the track, in Maplewood, New Jersey, and aside from being a silversmith, he is also a conservator of items originating in Medieval Europe or Colonial America and art scholar.
"It started with Phil Dunn, (former director of administration at the track)," he said. "Then Les Unger at the arena; for him (Unger) I designed and executed the Kickoff Classic and other designs. I am from Rome, Italy (the fourth generation of his family to work in silver) and we owned some land in the Sabine Hills, so I had a horse. I'm a little familiar with horses and I've been to the races at the Meadowlands several times."
Vitali creates replicas of the Hambletonian and Oaks trophies, as well as the silver disks added to the trophy base with each winner.
"I also do the Meadowlands Pace," said Vitali. "Those are the two major things I do for them, also the Lady Liberty trophy. The Hambletonian trophy is a reproduction of the original (first created in the 1930s), scaled down. There is no creativity, aside from trying to do a good job to make it as accurate as you can.
"I had been making the Meadowlands Pace trophy before, when it was a reproduction of an English cup. It was Chris McErlean who asked me to design a new trophy, so the current one is my design. This year I had an exhibition at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In that catalog, there is an image of the Meadowlands Pace trophy."
For the Pace trophy, Vitali drew his inspiration from the movement of the horse.
"I do hundreds of little sketches," he said. "Little doodles and things and then see if I see something that triggers my imagination. I gave Chris about ten drawings and he chose one. What I wanted to represent with the Meadowlands Pace was the horse going around the curves (in the racetrack), their speed, the wind, the movement of the horse, the driver. When you see the trophy, those are all things that went in to it. They are making a turn and the wind is blowing and the trophy itself, the base shows the curve and speed. The inspiration is the feeling you get from the horse, the driver and the sulky, a sublimation of what you see."
Vitali does not expect to abandon his work on silver trophies, but says he will be able to finish many ongoing projects because of the Mac Arthur Fellowship.
"This is a stipend for five years and they gave it to me because I guess they like what I do," he says. "I will keep doing exactly the same thing, but also finish many of the things I have started.
"Silversmithing is only one aspect of what I do. I do research on artistry, I give lectures in other fields, not just silver. Silver has been my main thing and it will continue to be, but I would like to fulfill a lot of things. I am 67 years old and a lot of things I've left unfinished and they bother me. It bothers me that time is running, the clock is running. I will continue to do designs and I'll go back on some of those sketches I have not had the opportunity to complete because I didn't have an order.
"Because of the price of the silver, everything has been cut down. Today, just the price of silver in the Meadowlands Pace trophy is probably $12,000. Those become things of the past, but I have a lot of projects in artistry that I have started that I would like to complete. Everything's connected, they're not separate, to me they are the same."
by Ellen Harvey, Harness Racing Communications