Day At The Track


02:29 AM 21 Apr 2003 NZST
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He didn't look like a Ralph. Now Stew Firlotte can't exactly say what a Ralph looks like, but examining the Meadow Skipper yearling before him, with his lovely head, striking conformation and smooth motion, Firlotte thought he deserved a name of some majesty.

Ralph Hanover, however, was the name on the catalogue, and Ralph Hanover was the yearling that Firlotte simply had to have from the 1981 Standardbred Horse Sale Company's Harrisburg sale.

The horseman considered himself lucky that he had found the colt in Harrisburg, for a colt with his breeding likely would have proved even more popular selling in Kentucky. It was in the Bluegrass state that Meadow Skipper, arguably the sport's greatest pacing sire, had proved himself the best in the breed over countless seasons. At a sale closer to his home, the colt might fetch upward of $75,000.

As it was, Firlotte feared the pacer might soar out of his price range if the bidding got strong, so he carefully scoped out his competition. His main challenge would likely come from future Hall of Famer Ron Waples, who certainly knew his way around good horses.

Firlotte decided to take the path of least resistance, and join forces with his fellow Canadian. Together the pair went to $58,000 to bring Ralph Hanover home.

It was a partnership that would forever change their lives.

Two years later, Ralph Hanover was the name on the lips of all of harness racing, as he swept his way through virtually all the sophomore classics. The big pacer rigged plainly in just hobbles and blind bridle won the Pacing Triple Crown on his way to more than $1.8 million in earnings and divisional honors as the best 3-year-old in the land.

Just over two decades since first making the acquaintance of Ralph Hanover, Stew Firlotte leads a quiet life in Florida, training a few horses, watching the sunsets come and go.

Ralph Hanover has returned to the Great White North, where he lives out a pensioned life at Grand Royal Farms in Ontario.

A few flecks of grey adorn his shining bay coat, but the old guy still looks fit enough to jump right back in harness and head out to the nearest racetrack.

The years and miles may conspire to keep these comrades apart, but their past is forever linked by a pair of seasons on the track when a veteran horseman found the horse of a lifetime.

"It was a whirlwind, my time with Ralph--and it went by so fast," said Firlotte. "It was so great, though--all of it. It was once in a lifetime."

Firlotte first spied his future champion at the fairgrounds in Hanover, Pa., where the laid-back yearling was being paraded.

"He caught my eye pretty good there, and I put a good checkmark on my book," Firlotte recalled of the son of the Tar Heel mare Ravina Hanover, also the dam of $200,000 winner Raven Hanover. "I couldn't have liked him any more there at the sale. Ralph was never a horse you could dislike at any time."

At the time of sale, Firlotte's Pointsetta Stable, and Waples were 50-50 partners on the pacer. They were soon not alone in their partnership. At Waples' urging, Richard Dinner and Norman Keyes' Grant's Direct Stable joined the team, and the partners looked toward the 1982 racing season with great hope and expectation.

Though the colt performed perfectly in all things asked of him, he was not exactly inspirational.

"He had the right name--Ralph," Waples said with a chuckle. "I think of Ralphs as very nonchalant and quiet.

"He seemed very lazy. I wasn't really sure if he'd wake up. He was good-gaited, so I was hoping it was just a matter of time."

Time, however, only brought a new problem, as the colt contract a bad virus in the first part of January that he had trouble shaking. Still, by the spring he was beginning to show the talent that would take him far.

"As far as his ability, gait and movement on his feet, he was perfect that way, but he sure wasn't an aggressive trainer," said Firlotte. "He only did what he wanted to do. There was just no pushing this horse. Every once in while he'd get caught in himself, and he'd show a blistering quarter-mile, and we'd start to think, 'What have we got here?'"

Firlotte sent the quiet-tempered Ralph Hanover to the gate June 11 for the first of three non-betting baby races, before putting him before the bettors July 1 at Greenwood with Doug Brown in the bike. It was Firlotte's 42nd birthday, and he predicted a failing effort: "I never win races on my birthday," he said with a laugh.

Ralph Hanover finished second that night, beaten just a neck in 2:02.3. Two weeks later he and Waples teamed up for what was their first of many triumphs together, scoring by three widening lengths in 2:03.4.

The partners next opted to send their colt to Vernon Downs for the Hanover-Hempt Stake. Firlotte, who was racing his good filly Programmed at The Meadowlands the same night, did not make the trip to the Empire State--but he sure heard about it from Waples.

"Ronnie called after the race and said, 'We have a good horse,'" Firlotte said. "He finished second to Flying Rich, but Ronnie said he used the horse three times in the mile, and the third time he gave more than he did the first two times. He'd had good horses before that he used twice--and they were good horses. He never had one he used three times that well."

Waples, however, said it took another catch-driver to step behind the colt before Ralph Hanover really earned the respect of his regular pilot.

"He raced at Blue Bonnets for Doug Brown, because I was at an auction, and he cut a lot of the mile," Waples recalled. "We called up and got the blow-by-blow from the announcer. The colt just kept going, winning by open lengths in 1:56.2. It was pretty exciting.

"After that race in Montreal, he matured a whole lot in a matter of a couple starts."

Ralph Hanover followed up his Quebec win with a two-heat victory in the Bluegrass Stake at Lexington, dropping his mark to 1:54.l in the process while defeating world champion Trim The Tree.

"His biggest asset was that Ronnie took such good care of him," said Firlotte. "He never used him any more than he had to. He measured him for each race. He was always going for the win, but not to burn the horse out."

Now Firlotte knew he had a good horse on his hands, but he also knew how difficult it was to bring a horse back for a strong sophomore campaign. A veteran with Ontario-breds, he had rarely been faced with prepping a 3-year-old for a Grand Circuit campaign.

That, however, did not stop him from making all the required March 15 payments to keep the colt eligible to events of which Firlotte had only dreamed--races like the Meadowlands Pace and Little Brown Jug.

After a trio of Mohawk qualifiers, Ralph Hanover first performed for the 1983 betting public at Hazel Park, winning in 1:59. He followed up with a pair of victories at Greenwood Raceway before embarking on his first big test--the two-heat Messenger Stake at Roosevelt.

Ralph Hanover made easy work of the first leg of the pacing Triple Crown, winning in 1:59.1 and a stakes-record 1:57.

After eight straight victories dating back to 1982, it might have been easy for the colt's connections to get pretty confident, but Ralph Hanover would not let that happen. A week after his convincing Messenger victory, he finished second and seventh, respectively, in the two-heat Confederation Cup at Flamboro Downs.

"I wish someone would tell me what happened at Flamboro," Waples said with a chuckle. "He went very few bad races, but that was sure one of them. I didn't know then or now why he did it."

The loss, which Firlotte attributed to the colt's inability to handle the track, did nothing to dissuade or deter the Ralph Hanover bandwagon that was becoming more and more crowded with every race.

"We took a page from Norm Clement and Norm Faulkner with Cam Fella," said Firlotte. "They really enjoyed that horse. It's not like racing today, where you move on to the next race before this one is barely over. We got to savor every race. We always brought a lot of people with us. Even after he finished last at Flamboro, we still had a party.

"Flamboro also made sure we were never overconfident in any races after that. We realized that when you go to the gate, there is always a chance you will get beat. That helps you enjoy every moment of every race."

Humility is always a wonderful thing to learn, but it didn't serve much use in coping with disappointments associated with Ralph Hanover. The fact was, there weren't many disappointments.

July found the big pacer romping in his elimination and the final of the $1,251,000 Meadowlands Pace-- as 40 supporters made the trek to Garden State on a private plane--as well as the Queen City Pace.

In August Ralph Hanover suffered a rare loss, finishing second by a nose to Fortune Teller in the final of the Oliver Wendell Holmes after capturing the first heat.

It was the first of four double-heat races Ralph Hanover would contest that month.

"I knew the Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Adios, the Prix d'Ete and the Cane Pace were all coming in August," said Firlotte. "I had to go to the Prix d'Ete in our backyard, and the Cane was too important to miss, but I knew we couldn't race in all four of them. I thought I'd use my best judgement; since I raced him in the Holmes, I was going to skip the Adios.

"On the day of the Adios entries, I got a call from someone who became one of my good friends--Delvin Miller. He said, 'Stew, if there is any way you can do this, I would sure appreciate you putting him in the Adios. It's our big day of racing at The Meadows, and you have the premier horse. I would be forever grateful.' I had to say OK."

Firlotte figured that if Ralph Hanover lost the first heat, they would just head back to the barn and call it a day. The only problem: The colt romped by two lengths in 1:56. He came back to take the final by a length in 1:54.4 to earn the right to wear the purple orchids.

A week later at Yonkers for the Cane, Ralph Hanover locked wheels with the Bill O'Donnell driven Allwin Steady in the first heat, finishing second. He was certainly none the worse for the experience in the final, as the bay came from fifth at the half to win by six lengths in a stakes record 1:57.

He now owned two jewels of the Triple Crown.

It was then off to Blue Bonnets for the Prix d'Ete, and Ralph Hanover did not disappoint, winning in straight heats of 1:56 and 1:54.

The colt earned a brief respite at Firlotte's farm as the calendar turned to September. Though the trainer admitted his charge looked a bit drawn up and tired, the pacer's recovery was all his own.

"Throughout the whole year the horse never had any kind of treatments," said Firlotte. "He maybe had four electrolyte vitamin jugs the whole summer. He lived on his own, and he raced on his own.

"This horse raced for two years, and I can honestly tell you that his total vet bill was not even close to $1,000. He had two large osselets (ankle inflamation) on each ankle. Sometimes an out-of-town vet would look at him and say we had to do something major to him, but all we did was pack him in ice every day, and he was perfect.

"A lot of people might say I'm a poor caretaker, but that's really what he needed. I also had very good people working with me, from our vet, Dr. Dave Powell, to our groom, Dave Riddell, who was a Red Smith Award winner."

It was clear Ralph Hanover had come back well from his busy August when he won the Simcoe at Mohawk in 1:57.1 on Sept. 13. He had one big dance left on his card: the Little Brown Jug.

"He bounced back so good, people started talking to me about the Triple Crown then," Firlotte recalled. "I couldn't really believe it would happen. I would not have been disappointed in the horse had it not happened."

A busload of supporters--48 in all--boarded a chartered transport and dined on catered food and spirits all the way from Mohawk to Delaware, Ohio: "We told anyone who wanted to come to get on the bus," said Firlotte with a chuckle.

Despite a windy and cold Jug day, with temperatures in the 50s, their trip was anything but disappointing.

Leaving from post two in his elimination, Ralph Hanover grabbed the lead right off the gate and did not look back, winning in 1:58.2. From post two in the final, the big colt was parked from the half on, but he would not be denied his place in history.

Ralph Hanover was an easy four-length winner, finishing in a season's record 1:55.3 to become the sport's seventh Pacing Triple Crown winner. He joined such legends as Adios Butler, Bret Hanover, Romeo Hanover, Rum Customer, Most Happy Fella and Niatross.

"That second heat was his best race, because it was so well planned by Ronnie," said Firlotte. "In the first he just won, but he didn't look very impressive doing it. One thing happened, and I never saw Ronnie do it before. Ralph was making his move down the stretch, and he cleared and looked like he was going to win--then Ronnie struck him with the whip twice. I had never seen him do that, and I asked him after the race, 'Are we in trouble?' Ronnie said Ralph was perfect. That hit had nothing to do with that race--it was for the next heat.

"In the next heat, Ronnie didn't even have to turn the whip. Ronnie jerked the right line--enough to take a horse off stride--and Ralph stepped out like a dancer, and he was long gone. He remembered that first heat."

After the Jug the Ralph Hanover connections held their biggest party yet, taking over the ballroom of the Holiday Inn--now the Delaware Inn--and inviting in anyone who had experienced the Ralph Hanover magic.

"No one was refused at the door," said Firlotte. "All the other drivers--Buddy Gilmour, Bill O'Donnell--they all came There was music and dancing all night. I look at racing today, and I say what a disappointment that people don't know how to celebrate their wins as we did. We appreciated every moment we had that year."

"I was pretty confident in Delaware," Waples added. "I would have been very disappointed had he not won the Jug. There are not too many horses I've had in my life that I enjoyed as much as him. There was no pressure; it was all friends who owned him. He even made me look good. No one enjoyed a horse as much as we did Ralph."

The Ralph Hanover party continued in Lexington, where the big colt won the Tattersalls Pace in back-to-back heats, and won the first heat of the Bluegrass Stake a week later over American Freedom. It was, however, American Freedom who got the best of his rival in the second heat, ending Ralph Hanover's career on a less than stellar note.

"It was just wear and tear," said Firlotte. "He was a tired fella. Billy [O'Donnell] came up to me after that race and said, 'It took me five horses, but I finally beat that son-of-a-bitch of yours!"

Ralph Hanover retired with a 1:53.4 mark taken at Lexington and earnings of more than $1.8 million from 27 wins. With his racing days done, the colt did not have far to travel to his new home. Former USTA President P.J. "Jack" Baugh had brokered a deal to stand the millionaire at his Almahurst Farm, hopefully ensuring the lineage of the Meadow Skipper line for years to come.

"It was a sad day when it was over," said Waples, "but it just felt so good to have been through it. You know you'll never get another one like him in your life. There are so many people who never get one like him. We lived through it, and we enjoyed it. It was sad to see it end, but you had to feel good for the horse."

Despite his sorrow over the end of his finest moments in racing, Firlotte knew the deal was the best for Ralph Hanover.

"We made the deal after the Meadowlands Pace that he would retire to Almahurst," said Firlotte. "I was comfortable with ending his career then. It had been a pretty profitable situation. In this modern day, we would have brought the horse back. There are so many more opportunities for older horses. I think even after Lexington, with two months off he would have been right back and roaring again."

Ralph Hanover entered the breeding market at what could have been an opportune time. His sire, Meadow Skipper, arguably the preeminent pacing sire of his generation, had died in the colt's 2-year-old season, and a stallion with that coveted blood was bound to be popular.

He would have been even more popular, however, had he actually produced horses like himself.

With strong support from Almahurst, Ralph Hanover sired 126 offspring in his first crop, with 106 making it to the races to earn just over $2.8 million. They were led by Ralph Underwood p,4,1:55.2f (237,441) and Same Set p,3,1:56.4f (209,361).The next year his 104 foals turned into 84 starters who brought home $3.1 million, led by Stonewall Almahurst p,3,1:55.3f ($250,176)--who won an elimination of the North America Cup for Stew Firlotte.

His richest crops came in 1987 and 1988, when his 211 starters earned a combined $6.8 million, headlined by Hubris p,3,1:55.1 ($263,655) and Right Please p,1:56h (216,276).

Ralph Hanover's offspring, however, could not find the on-track success of their sire. He had just 24 sub-1:55 performers, with his fastest being the 1993 gelding Firstline Bugsy, who took his 1:52s mark as an 8-year-old in 2001. He is also Ralph Hanover's richest performer with earnings of just over $300,000.

"We tried so hard, but Ralph never turned out to be a sire," said Firlotte. "He got the support he needed. Everyone loved the horse. Somehow he just wasn't marketable. He didn't get it done in the first three years, and pretty soon people lost interest.

"We had such high expectations. That's what made it so disappointing. He threw good-looking individuals. They were good-bodied; they just didn't go as much as they needed to."

In 1990, with the demise of Almahurst, Ralph Hanover moved to Ontario's Grand Royal Farm, where he continued to breed through the decade--but with smaller and smaller books.

The sire of 44 foals in the 1990 and 1992, he covered just 14 mares in 1994, and 19 mares total between 1995 and 2000.

"We gave him a good try here--he bred almost 70 mares his first year and 40 his second year," said Grand Royal's Dale Baker. "He just never hit a home run. He never had one that dominated. All he needed was one in his first two crops and things would have been different for him. As it was, he might as well just pack up his bags and go home.

"He had the whole package--talent, conformation--but he was the old-type breeding. He didn't cross with the new-type mares. The ones he did the best with were the Bret Hanover mares, but they were on their way out by the time he came along."

By 2001, at the age of 21, Ralph Hanover was retired from the rigors of breeding and left to live out his days at Grand Royal. He has no shortage of visitors, as racing fans passing by the farm still want to see the horse who dominated the sport in 1983.

Among his regular guests is Waples, who makes a point at least once a year to say hello to the horse who brought him to racing's pinnacle.

"It's always good to see the old fellow," said Waples. "We have a special bond. He is still one of the greatest horses I've ever been around.

"He never got the attention he deserved for has accomplishments. I think he was forgotten too quickly. The horse won the Triple Crown. People say it wasn't a tough bunch that year, but he beat whatever there was. You can't judge a horse by his competition. You have to judge him by what he accomplished."

Those accomplishments have earned Ralph Hanover the opportunity to spend his time grazing the fields, nickering at a mare or two, and living his life with the calm demeanor that he has always exuded.

"He is very agile and in good shape," said Baker. "People who come see him can't believe how good he looks."

The years have not been as kind to Firlotte, who suffered a stroke in 1997, and was soon sick enough to face a heart transplant. Through good care, Firlotte has managed to avoid surgery, and even handle operating his own restaurant in Florida, which has since closed.

"We had the Little Brown Jug trophy up at our restaurant," Firlotte recalled. "People would come from all over, and a lot of them knew exactly what it was. They couldn't believe they'd find a Brown Jug trophy down here. 'How'd you get that?' they'd ask me, and I'd tell them about Ralph. People would have their picture taken with it and everything."

Firlotte is now back with the horses. He fantasizes about taking Ralph Hanover on a victory tour similar to the one held for Niatross and Cam Fella, or maybe even bringing him back to Delaware to let him parade the 2003 Jug entrants to the post on the anniversary of his Triple Crown-securing victory.

In the meantime, every once in a while the horseman lets his mind drift back to the magical 1983 season when a soft-spoken trainer and his quiet-tempered horse basked in the racing spotlight across North America.

"The only thing bad about having a horse like Ralph is waiting for the next one to come along," said Firlotte with a laugh. "Once you have one, you know how rare and special they are."

by Nicole Kraft Courtesy of The USTA

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