The Hambletonian (1926-Present)
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Three tracks (Atlanta, Ga., Kalamazoo, Mich., and Syracuse, N.Y.) submitted bids for the inaugural running of the Hambletonian Stake in August 1926. The race was awarded to the New York State Fair at Syracuse, which offered to add $8,000 to the purse. From the first edition it was the richest race in the trotting sport, a status it maintains to this day. In no small way the amount of the purse is responsible for its position as the sport's greatest prize. Because of the enthusiastic reception by breeders and owners, the 1926 purse swelled to $73,451 -- which was reported to be more than the sum total of next five richest stakes offered for 3-year-old trotters that same year.
After that great success, Syracuse was awarded the race for the next three years. However, the 1927 meeting was canceled after five days of rain. The Hambletonian was postponed and raced at Lexington that fall and the filly Iosola's Worthy prevailed as the right horse at the right time; her stablemate Kashmir was the favorite in August, but was not a factor because of "bad manners" that day.
Syracuse was the site when Spencer won the third Hambletonian with Bill Leese in the bike, but the story leading up to the race had its share of melodrama. Fireglow, pronounced by Walter Cox as the greatest trotter he had ever trained, had been all but conceded the trophy when he died three weeks before the race from a mysterious poisoning"...following the hectic and unfinished race" at North Randall Park outside of Cleveland. Several horses went down. Some observers held Cox responsible for the accident and suspected retribution was behind the horse's death. Among the three drivers sidelined because of injuries suffered in that incident was Spencer's regular driver 66-year-old Alonzo "Lon" MacDonald. Missing his last chance in Hambletonian (he had driven in the first two editions), MacDonald died two years later.
In 1929 the race was again postponed and raced in Lexington. This time Walter Dear and his three stablemates from the Walter Cox barn finished 1-2-3-4, an unmatched accomplishment.
At that point, Syracuse no longer wished to host the event after two rainouts in three years, and Lexington already had a prestigious trotting race, the Kentucky Futurity. Where would the Hambletonian Society take the race? The answer lay in the winner's circle with Walter Dear -- his owner, William H. Cane, not only desired to win the race, but was eager to host it as well.
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Cane answered the doubters in resounding fashion, and created a national media event, attracting newspapers, magazines and newsreels of the day, as well as coast-to-coast radio broadcast coverage. He courted local dignitaries, the metropolitan press and the horse owners and breeders of the harness industry. The first Hambletonian at Goshen played to an overflow crowd, and over the years additions were built on the grandstand to accommodate the throngs of fans. Local papers reported the roads to Goshen jammed with traffic heading for the big race.
In 1940 pari-mutuels were legislated in New York State, and bookmakers and auction pools were history. The legendary Volo Song, trained and driven by "Mr. Hambletonian" of that era, Ben White, won the race in '43 at the old Empire City thoroughbred track, now the site of Yonkers Raceway. The move was required because of war-time gas rationing. It was White's fourth winner as a driver, his fifth as a trainer. Both accomplishments were unequaled for 35 years.
In '45, hometown favorite Titan Hanover, starting from post position 12—in the middle of the second of three tiers -- won in straight heats, and remains the only horse ever barred in the wagering. Chestertown's 1946 classic battle with Victory Song was started with the new Steve Phillips mobile gate, perhaps the most important innovation in the sport's history. The race was broadcast on television. Hoot Mon provided the first 2:00 mile in Hambletonian history in '47 and in the following year owner and amateur driver Harrison Hoyt won with Demon Hanover.
The 50's provided memories such as: 74-year-old Spanish-American war veteran Bion Shively winning with Sharp Note in 1952; a young Harry Harvey winning the next year with Helicopter in a 23-horse field; and Scott Frost capturing the 1955 Hambletonian on his way to acquiring the first Triple Crown of Trotting, in the same year it was established.
When Bill Cane died in 1956, the Goshen era came to an end. At the same time, a jurisdictional dispute between New York State officials and the United States Trotting Association, as well as the Hambletonian Society, over how harness racing was administered in the Empire State became a serious issue for the industry. In a statement issued by the Society, which acknowledged that "Goshen is the proper place for the Hambletonian" but expressing dissatisfaction with the administration of the sport in New York, it was announced that the 1957 race would be staged in DuQuoin, Illinois.
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Instead the Hambletonian stayed in the Midwest for 24 years, forging a new look and festive State Fair identity, as if scripted by Rodgers & Hammerstein. W. R. Hayes, a Coca Cola bottler, built the DuQuoin State Fair on 1,400 acres in Southern Illinois and hosted a Grand Circuit meeting for many years. Like Bill Cane, the family racing stable, Hayes Fair Acres, won the Hambletonian in 1950 with Lusty Song. Hayes died two years later, but his sons, Don and Gene, Gene's son Bill and their families shared his love of harness racing and sought to stage the event when the opportunity arose. In the next two and half decades, the Hayes clan was a wonderful host to some of the most memorable editions of the classic and some of its best traditions including: a Hambletonian Song and the grand old free-for-aller Pronto Don leading the post parade. Every year, in the week before Labor Day, the country fair venue became the focus of the sport for horsemen, members of the media and fans from across North America and Europe.
Southern Illinois in late summer can be hot and humid, with thermometer readings of 100 degrees not uncommon. Combined with the mile clay track at DuQuoin, it was perfect setting for trotting speed. Stake and world records were set and reset no less than a dozen times at DuQuoin, several times on the same afternoon. In the first heat in 1978 Speedy Somolli trotted the first 1:55 race mile in history. Remarkably he lost the second heat by a nose to Florida Pro in an identical 1:55, and required a third heat to win the day.
Because of 21 starters, the 1957 classic, DuQuoin's first, was conducted in a unique format of two divisions, each racing two heats. Hickory Smoke won both his heats, as did the filly Hoot Song, and then he defeated her in the raceoff between the two. Hickory Smoke is the only winner ever required to win three heats to take home the Hambletonian trophy, while Hoot Song remains the only horse to win two heats and be denied the coveted bowl.
On four occasions at DuQuoin it took all afternoon and four heats to determine who would win the silver: Blaze Hanover in 1960; Egyptian Candor in '65; Bonefish in '75 and Steve Lobell in '76. The toll on the combatants in the last two years caused the Hambletonian Society to modify the conditions, limiting the maximum number of heats in the stake to three.
DuQuoin also became known as the site for great champions of that era to affix their place in the trotting firmament by way of impressive straight heat victories: Ayres, Nevele Pride, Lindy's Pride, Super Bowl (on their way to the Triple Crown), as well as Speedy Crown and Green Speed. Like Speedy Somolli, others such as Speedy Scot (also a Triple Crown winner) and Emily's Pride faltered along the way and needed a third heat to put their competition away.
There were also great human stories: Sanders Russell, with his broken ankle in a plaster cast, winning with A.C.'s Viking; John Simpson Jr. and Sr.'s victory on Timothy T.; and Bill Haughton's poignant 1980 Hambletonian with Burgomeister a horse owned by his son Peter who had been tragically killed earlier that year. That was the last year at DuQuoin.
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Although the classic trot always bore an opulent purse, its growth at the Meadowlands has been almost exponential. Just three years after moving to New Jersey the Hambletonian raced for over one million dollars and has every year since. Beginning in 2005, the total purse for the Hambletonian was guaranteed at $1.5 million, while the value of the companion filly stake was to be $750,000.
The Hambletonian had been televised nationally as far back as 1964; in fact in 1975 it moved from its traditional day, Wednesday, to Saturday, where it has been raced since, in order to accommodate live television. During the last twenty years the network coverage of the classic along with corporate sponsorship has blossomed, with a full hour devoted to the race. Since 1994, the Hambletonian television broadcasts have been produced by CBS Sports. The event has also been helped by its proximity to Manhattan, the media capital of the world, and the Hambletonian has enjoyed unprecedented coverage, both electronic and print.
Conditions and format have been modified in the Hambletonian Stake as far back as the 50's, usually to reduce the number of starters or change the elimination plan. In 1991 the "placing system" of paying just five monies based on the final summary and condition which required a horse to win two heats in order to win the race were dropped. Henceforth, the winner of the final was the winner of the trophy. Responding to the modern era of simulcasting and fans unaccustomed to heat racing, a second change in 1997 was more apparent -- elimination races, if necessary, would be raced the previous week. Heat racing in the Hambletonian was history.
The Hambletonian Society and the Meadowlands have a contractual partnership through 2009 and celebrated the 75th edition in 2000 with commemorative book, America's Trotting Classic, and a documentary, The Race to Glory, which was broadcast on public television.
The Hambletonian Stake has been an extraordinary showcase for the wonderful stories that surround the great trotters, their connections and the memorable races they've contested for almost three-quarters of a century, embodying the inevitable changes and evolution of harness racing through those years. No matter the setting, regardless the format, or the field of trotters going to the gate, the Hambletonian remains the ultimate prize in the sport.
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