Their rivalry preceded Affirmed and Alydar's by two years. Silk Stockings, linked forever to autistic children, and Tarport Hap, who had a tragic ending for a legendary horseman , were two of the greatest harness racing pacing mares of the last 40 years. They went head-to-head 20 times in the mid-'70s, and, frequently, their traveling battlefield was the New York Sire Stakes.
Unlike Affirmed and Alydar, a rivalry dominated by Affirmed 7-3 (it would have been 8-2 had Affirmed not been disqualified for blatantly interfering with Alydar in their final showdown, the 1978 Travers Stakes), Tarport Hap and Silk Stockings split their 20 encounters 10-to-10. One or the other won in 19 of those 20 meetings.
"It was a great rivalry," Silk Stockings' owner Ken Mazik said Wednesday. "They went at it, both of them. If you're an exceptional athlete, you need a comparable athlete to go at you. Think of the great rivalries: Alydar-Affirmed, Smokin' Joe Frazier and Ali."
Silk Stockings and Tarport Hap were practically sisters. Foaled in 1972, both were in's first-crop. Both were out of Tar Heel mares. Both had streaks of pure dominance. Both defeated the best colts of their generation, and both earned nearly $700,000 in their brilliant careers. But they had decidedly different backstories.
Mazik and his wife Claire ran the Au Clair School for Autistic Children in Bear, Delaware. "In our area, there was nothing but horse farms," Ken said. So the Maziks turned to horses for two reasons: autistic children sometimes react favorably to animals, and the Maziks thought they might be able to produce revenue for their school.
Using multiple regression analysis. Ken, a clinical psychologist, claimed a horse off Herve Filion for $5,000. "He won a lot of races and was claimed back," Ken said. "That was the start. We didn't like the idea of the horse getting claimed because the kids got involved. I thought we could maybe buy a filly, because if she didn't race, we could use her as a broodmare."
The Maziks went to a 1973 auction at Liberty Bell outside Philadelphia. On the way there, Claire's sales catalog kept falling open to the same page, the one which listed Silk Stockings. Claire convinced Ken that it was an omen. "I picked Silky, and it worked out pretty good," Ken said.
The Maziks needed a trainer and driver, and they selected a local horseman, Preston Burris, Jr. He would drive her in every one of her 57 starts.
Tarport Hap was bred by Hugh Grant, who raced her early in her career before selling her to Alan Leavitt and Bill Rosenburg. Hall of Famer Delvin Miller trained and drove Tarport Hap for almost three years before she concluded her career racing for Buddy Regan. Benny Webster drove Tarport Hap then, and her caretaker was Linda Toscano, who has evolved into one of the top trainers in North America, one who is annually among the leaders in the New York Sire Stakes.
"I was only with her for a very short time, but I remember everything about her," Toscano said. "She was a tough, good-looking mare. She would kick you and chase you out of her stall."
These two great fillies met for the first time at Saratoga Harness in the New York Sire Stakes Two-Year-Old Filly Pace, June 25th, 1974. Each filly came into the race three-for-three. That night, Silk Stockings won by five lengths as the 1-2 favorite. Tarport Hap finished second at 9-5.
Since Silk Stockings dealt Tarport Hap her first career defeat, Tarport Hap returned the favor, edging her by a head at Roosevelt Raceway. Tarport Hap won their next three meetings as well at Yonkers, The Meadows and back at Saratoga. After that race, Miller said he felt guilty beating Silk Stockings because he knew where the money was going.
Tarport Hap was in the midst of a nine-race win streak, one which Silk Stockings ended at Syracuse, when Tarport Hap finished third by a length to her rival. Silk Stockings beat Tarport Hap again after she made a break at Yonkers.
On September 28th at Lexington, Armbro Penny edged Tarport Hap by a nose with Silk Stockings a length back in third. That was the only race one of the two didn't win when they raced against each other.
As three-year-olds, Tarport Hap won their first meeting at Roosevelt. Silk Stockings responded by winning 12 consecutive races, defeating Tarport Hap three times. In that incredible run, Silk Stockings set a track record for three-year-old filly pacers at Buffalo Raceway and Brandywine in 2:00 3/5 and 1:57 4/5, respectively. She was even better at Goshen, breaking the all-age record in 1:58, which eclipsed the mark set by her sire,.
Up next was the richest harness race in history, the $230,521 Monticello OTB Classic against males at Monticello Raceway. Tarport Hap won her elimination the week before in 2:04 3/5 as the 4-5 favorite. Silk Stockings scored in her elimination by one length in 2:02 3/5 at 1-10.
In the final, Tarport Hap was 9-1 and made an early break. Silk Stockings was absolutely awesome as the 1-2 favorite, going wire-to-wire, winning by two lengths in 1:57 3/5. Ken said it was his favorite race. "The excitement of that race; that was the richest race ever," Ken said. "It was awesome."
Tarport Hap, though, won four of her final seven meetings with her nemesis through the end of their three-year-old seasons, defeating her at Vernon Downs, Liberty Bell, Yonkers and Roosevelt. Silk Stockings came out on top at The Meadows and twice at Delaware in the Jugette. In the first heat, Silk Stockings nipped Tarport Hap by a head in 1:57 2/5. Then Silk Stockings beat her again by two lengths in 1:58 1/5 to win the prestigious stakes.
That made their rivalry 10-9 in Tarport Hap's favor through the end of their three-year-old campaigns in 1975. Silk Stockings was named 1975 Pacer of the Year, the first filly to win that award.
Both mares would both race as five-year-olds, but their final meeting happened in the middle of their four-year-old seasons on a July 3rd afternoon at Freehold Raceway. Silk Stockings went off the 7-5 favorite. With Jerry "Sonny" Graham driving, Tarport Hap was 8-5. Silk Stockings went wire-to-wire and scored by two lengths for the man who always trained and drove her, Preston Burris, Jr. Tarport Hap tired to sixth.
They were 10-10 and never met again.
In her four-year-old-season, Tarport Hap won 20 of 32 starts, with seven seconds and two thirds. Silk Stockings won eight of her 12 starts with one second as a four-year-old. The following year at five, she had seven victories, three seconds and two thirds from 21 starts.
Tarport Hap was having a sensational five-year-old season, winning her first seven starts. Following a fifth at 1-2, she won again.
Her last start was in the Open Pace at The Meadowlands, Saturday night, March 27th, 1977. She was moving to the lead in the five-horse field when she made a break nearing the quarter pole. She wobbled to the outside of the track and collapsed. Ben Webster and emergency help tried to revive the great mare, but weren't successful. She died on the track and was buried in Paddock Park at The Meadowlands, which named a stakes race for three-year-old filly pacers in her honor. Tarport Hap was named 1977 Champion Older Pacing Mare.
Linda Toscano didn't get to see Tarport Hap's final, fatal race. "My mom and dad were flying in that night," she said. "I asked somebody to cover for me."
After her parents arrived, Linda went home and tried to find out how Tarport Hap had done that evening. She tuned in Stan Bergstein's 11:30 p.m. OTB-TV show from Yonkers. "Stan would mention any big races at The Meadowlands, but he didn't say anything about her," Toscano said.
She called the barn. "Nobody answered," she said. "I couldn't get in touch with anybody. There was a payphone at the barn and I just let it kept ringing."
Finally, someone picked up. Linda asked, "How did the mare do?" The voice on the other end said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but she died." Thirty-five years later, you can almost feel Toscano's sorrow when she said, "I was devastated."
She wasn't alone. One of the people saddened most by Tarport Hap's death was Silk Stocking's owner Ken Mazik. "I always loved that mare," he said. "She was such a great horse. I was always hoping to see her progeny kick some butt, but she had an early departure. What a warrior."
She battled Mazik's warrior 20 times. They had similar pedigrees and career numbers which were nearly identical, including one championship each. Silk Stockings, who died on October 3rd, 2003, at the age of 31, went 30-for-57, a win percentage of 50.5 with $694,894 in earnings. Tarport Hap won 35 of 68 starts, a 50.2 win percentage, and earnings of $688,664. "They were incredible horses," Toscano said.
Their fierce rivalry ending 10-10 couldn't be more fitting.
NYSS Roosevelt Raceway - Silk Stockings & Tarport Hap
1976 US Pacing Championship Roosevelt Raceway harness racing
By Bill Heller