The skies were dark and cloudy that first morning, and rain ran quietly off the roofs of the backstretch barns. The track was a sea of mud, and 20,677 spectators were scattered throughout the grandstand and clubhouse. One hundred and ten members of the media showed up, including ABC, who were there to televise the event to an estimated 15 million viewers.
The day was August 8, 1981, and it was the debut of harness racing's premier event-the Hambletonian-at The Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, NJ. A trio of trotters-Shiaway St Pat, Super Juan and Olaf-had come together for a third and final dash to determine the winner in the 56th edition of the classic.
For 24 years the Hambletonian had been contested at the bucolic DuQuoin fairgrounds-a one-mile clay racetrack surrounded by corn and wheat fields in the wilds of southern Illinois. Now, trotting's biggest event found itself only five miles from Times Square at one of the most modern racing facilities in the world.
The transition had not been without controversy. Many in the racing industry felt the race would lose its identity if moved to another venue.
"We believe we're showcasing the sport," Andy Grant, president of the Hambletonian Society, said at the time. "Not only is the public getting to see the number one horse, but they're getting a chance to see the number one race."
The Hambletonian had certainly been DuQuoin's number one race over the years-drawing over 15,000 spectators annually in a town of less than 3,000 people. However, the purse had never been higher than $300,000.
The Hayes Family had established the fairgrounds in 1923-bringing Grand Circuit harness racing to the Prairie State. Founder William R. "Will" Hayes became the only owner (with his Hayes Fair Acres Stable) to win both the Hambletonian (with Lusty Son) and the Little Brown Jug (with Dudley Hanover) in the same year, 1950.
Will's sons E.J. "Gene" and Don M. Hayes had initiated the move of the Hambletonian from Good Time Park in Goshen, NY in 1957 to DuQuoin. Will's son Bill eventually took over the family company (a Coca-Cola franchise) and became the operator of the Hambletonian, before selling the fairgrounds to an Iraqi national in 1979.
Despite the sale, Bill Hayes still offered a $650,000 purse to entice the Hambletonian Society to keep the famed race in Illinois in 1981, but to no avail. When the Meadowlands presented a whopping $838,000 purse-with a promise to up that amount to $1 million by the year 1983-their check was accepted, and the race moved to the Garden State.
"I used to think the Meadowlands ought to start up its own big trot, but the Hambo's far better off there; it'll get more attention; it might even thrive," Bill Hayessaid at the time.
Curiously, Hayes had a starter in the 1981 Hambletonian-Santa Ana, a homebred son of Noble Victory who had gone off gait in six of his previous seven starts that year.
"You're only eligible once," Hayes had said. "If Santa stays flat, he's got a ton of trot."
But Santa Ana didn't stay flat-starting from post three in the first heat for driver Shelley Goudreau, the 43-1 longshot went off stride just before the quarter pole and finished last in the field of 12.
Twenty-four eligiblesnecessitated two divisionsof a first heat that dreary August afternoon. The new locale also meant new conditions for the race. Rules mandated no more four-heat racing-the Hambletonian winner was to be decided in three heats from this day forward.
Many thought the record number of starters was due to the bulging purse pot hanging on the finish line. Burgomeister had raced for the paltry-by-comparison sum of $293,570 en route to winning the 1980 Hambletonian just a year prior.
"It looks like everybody who can walk is in this thing," murmured Hall of Famer Del Miller, as he perused the entry sheet the Friday before the big race.
There were no super standouts that day-no Deweys, no Donatos, no Windsong Legacys in the field. There were, however, a few near-equal contenders-including Super Juan, a diminutive colt trained and driven by Hall of Famer Howard Beissinger.
"My best colt (Defiant Yankee) had gotten pneumonia three weeks prior to the Hambletonian," Beissinger, now 88, recalled. "He was quite a bit better than Super Juan and I was disappointed that he wasn't able to make it into the Hambo.
"It was a new experience coming to the Meadowlands that year," Beissinger continued. "I was a tad bit disappointed because I'd already had three Hambletonian winners at DuQuoin, in 1969 (with Lindy's Pride), in 1971 (with) and in 1978 (with )."
Super Juan had won a prep race in 1:57.3 the week prior which was the fastest mile of the year by a 3-year-old trotter at the time.
"The track was pretty heavy that afternoon," Beissinger said. "I remember that a lot of guys talked about the difference between DuQuoin's clay track and the Meadowlands' surface, which of course could be troublesome due to all the rain we'd had the night before."
In the first division, Carl Allen hustled Olaf out quickly, taking the field through leisurely fractions of :30.2, 1:00, 1:31.1, before trotting to the wire in 2:03.4, one and ? lengths ahead of Arnies Aim (Archie McNeil), while Graf Zepplin (Gary Lewis) nailed third. Super Juan-leaving from post nine-made an uncharacteristic break just before the first quarter but rebounded to notch fourth, two lengths behind the winner. Smokin Yankee and Stanley Dancer finished fifth.
Olaf, who had been plagued with lameness issues throughout his career, was winless in four starts that year coming into his Hambo elim. That victory was to be his only one of 1981, although he would go on to earn $119,410 that season.
Trainer-driver Gary Lewis, who steered Graf Zepplin to a third-place finish in that first heat, remembers the day well. Lewis, now 68, also had Hot Blooded in the second division of the first heat, and had named Bill O'Donnell to rein the son of Songcan.
"I had bought both Graf Zepplin and Hot Blooded as yearlings for $6,000 each," Lewis recalled. "Graf was so tiny and the track was so muddy and heavy that day. He stayed right on Olaf's back for most of the mile, but the going was so heavy, it just took a lot out of him that might not have affected a bigger horse."
The second division saw Shiaway St. Pat leave from post seven, following the outer flow of horses until he grabbed the lead at the 1:31.2 three-quarters and then drew off to win by one and ? in 2:02.3 for driver Ray Remmen. At the top of the stretch he had opened up a six-length lead on 6-5 favorite Banker Barker, who then closed well to finish second for Mike Zeller. Charter Party and Tommy Haughton finished third, despite going off stride at the wire, while Snack Bar (HakanWallner) closed from last to be fourth and Hot Blooded raced evenly to finish fifth.
"Shiaway St. Pat was a tall lanky horse with a lot of leg under him," Remmen, 64, offered. "People have probably heard this story a million times but when he first arrived at the barn he looked anything but a Hambletonian winner. But as time went on, he got stronger and stronger and faster and faster. Going into the Hambletonian, we were pretty confident about his chances and it was reflected in the odds."
The gelded son of Tarport Devlin was the second favorite in that first heat, at 2-5, and would come back to face nine rivals in the second heat, again at those same odds, behind the still-favored Banker Barker.
Shiaway St. Pat was bred and owned by the Huffs (Robert, Wilbur and Ronald) of Durand, MI, whose 431-acre family operation, Shiawassee Farm, raised Standardbreds who mainly competed on the Michigan fair circuit. The youngster had competed over the Wolverine half-milers at two, but was often cantankerous and would, on occasion, break stride without warning.
The Huff's veterinarian, Dr. Cletus Vonderwell took care of that problem one afternoon, however and geldedShiaway St. Pat.
"He had lots of speed, but would run," Vonderwell said at the time. "We castrated him and the rest is history."
In the second heat, Stanley Dancer steered Smokin Yankee out quickly from the ten-hole to lead the field through a :29.2 first quarter and 1:00 half-mile clocking. The track was starting to dry up a bit by then.
"As the day wore on, the track got a little more firm," Remmen said. "Super Juan came back and just nipped us at the wire, forcing us to come back for a third heat."
When Smokin Yankee began to tire going to the 1:30.4 three-quarter pole, a relatively fresh Shiaway St. Pat took command and was one and ? lengths on top before a determined Super Juan put his ears in front just under the wire for the win. Olaf had gone off stride at the start, and finished last. Banker Barker never did live up to his Hambo expectations and finished fifth in that heat.
Seventy-one minutes later, Shiaway St. Pat, Super Juan and Olaf returned for a trifecta slug-fest.
"Even though things had dried up quite a bit by that time, the going was still heavy by the rail," Beissinger noted. "The two of us (Super Juan & Shiaway St. Pat) kind of played a cat and mouse game all the way to the wire, but the heavy track just took a little more out of my horse than I would have liked."
Olaf went off stride as soon as the wings of the gate folded, but came back to briefly take the lead away from Super Juan and Shiaway St. Pat down the backside. However, the stress of running had clearly gotten to him and he quickly faded, falling far behind the leaders. Meanwhile, Shiaway St. Pat overtook Super Juan in the last 1/16, and gamely put his neck in front of his rival to win in 2:02.1.
"I remember thinking as we went under the wire, "this one's for Canada,'" Remmen laughed. "When I was a kid, growing up in western Canada, there were only two races that anyone dreamed of winning-the Hambletonian and the Little Brown Jug.
"They didn't go as fast back then as they do now, but that race was still exciting, nevertheless," Beissinger said. "I'll always have warm spot in my heart for DuQuoin because I had such good luck there, but ultimately, I think they did the right thing by moving the Hambletonian to the Meadowlands, because there it gets the exposure it deserves."
"Because the Meadowlands had just opened, and so many of my peers were involved there, it was really a great time because we had so many people on our team-so many that consider us the 'home-town' team," Remmen said. "We had a great rooting section because we were stabled at the Meadowlands, and raced there on a regular basis."
"In spite of the fact that the weather was not in favor of the Meadowlands, it was still a great day and the track really went all out in terms of making it a big event," Lewis recalled. "There was excitement in the paddock, and a lot of people were there in sport coats, and suits and ties. It was nice to see so many horsemen looking dapper and taking pride in themselves, and giving credibility to the sport."
"When you're younger and win a race like that, it really doesn't sink in; it takes a few years because it's so overwhelming," Remmen stressed. "But as the years go by, you start to realize what a tremendous deal it really was. I never thought in a million years that I'd win a Hambletonian, but to win it with a gelding the first time it was contested at The Meadowlands, on my home turf, well, that was just too good to be true."
By Kimberly RINKER for the 2011 Hambletonian