Nihilator Photo Credit: Joe Kyle
Dragon's Lair/Nihilator - Breeders Crown
For Ernie Gaskin, the Breeders Crown is a big deal.
In 1984, the first year of the Breeders Crown, Gaskin was an assistant trainer for legendary Hall of Fame trainer William R. Haughton. Gaskin was keenly involved with Nihilator, the stable’s spectacular juvenile pacing colt who captured the hearts and souls of the Standardbred world with eye-catching victories in the Woodrow Wilson at The Meadowlands and then the Red Mile, where he was the star.
“We had pretty much turned him out for the season,” said Gaskin remembering that time as if it was yesterday.
“Then (owner) Lou Guida called and said that this Breeders Crown was an important race and that we should go there with his horse Nihilator,” Gaskin said.
This was the first year for the Breeders Crown, contested throughout North America, with tracks hosting separate divisions of age, sex and gait. That call put Nihilator back in serious training and set the stage for an historic moment in harness racing.
Nihilator was unbeaten heading into the 1984 juvenile pacing colt Breeders Crown held at The Meadows. There, he met another precocious colt for the first time. Dragons Lair, trained and driven by Jeff Mallett, was stabled at The Meadows and though impressive locally, hadn’t shared the national spotlight with Nihilator.
The $772,500 Breeder Crown 2-Year-Old Colt Pace was conducted in same-night heats and was an epic race, with the hype extremely high, especially for a race involving two-year-olds.
When Dragon’s Lair upset Nihilator, it set off a chain reaction of opinions and decisions that led to Guida’s purchase of Dragons Lair.
“Yes, it was a great race,” said Gaskin recalling the loss, “But Nihilator came back the following year to win the Crown. In 1985, there were no more fireworks on the racetrack between the king and his rivals. Still, the memory of that one race gave the fledgling Breeders Crown the opportunity to give the sport the attention it deserved and give owners, trainers, breeders and drivers a showcase event to determine a champion.
In 1984, Gaskin was a key assistant trainer in the impressive Haughton stable. He had begun as a groom for Haughton in 1974 and advanced up the ladder when The Meadowlands opened in 1976; among his charges were top older trotters Cold Comfort and Keystone Pioneer.
While 1984 has many memories for Gaskin because of his close connection to Nihilator, he was also at the cutting edge of a dramatic shift in the sport. The use of catch-drivers, independent contractors who stepped into the sulky before a race and stepped off after, with little to no impact on the rest of the horse’s training, had become more and more widespread in a sport that originated with trainers driving their own horses.
“When Billy (Haughton) called me and told me to put (Hall of Famer Bill) O’Donnell down to drive Nihilator, I was shocked,” said Gaskin. The moment resonated in the history of the sport, because, in spite of his age, Haughton was considered a master in the sulky. He was admired by many of the catch drivers amassing the headlines.
“Billy said to me that he’d rather put one of those guys down to drive his horse than have one of them beat him,” Gaskin said, with a clear understanding of the reason for Haughton’s decision. “I can remember Billy Popfinger coming up to me and warning me not to make the change,” Gaskin said.
Gaskin’s admiration for Haughton, who ran the sport’s largest and most successful stable before his death in 1986, was immense. “He had an incredible personality. He knew how to talk the right way to everyone. It was amazing that he could be speaking to, say, a George Steinbrenner one minute and then a groom the next and not change at all,” said Gaskin.
Gaskin stayed on with the Haughton stable after Bill’s death, helping son Tommy achieve Breeders Crown championship status with the incomparable mare Peace Corps.
“She had a ton of speed, but Tommy and I were actually looking to trade her for a pacer we were interested in while she was training down for her 2-year-old season,” said Gaskin. “Peace Corps had incredible speed. In the Merrie Annabelle, she almost went to her knees, but somehow came back trotting to win.” Peace Corps captured the Crown as a two and three-year-old with Gaskin and the younger Haughton teaming up.
The Haughton stable gave Gaskin a foundation, and his love for the breed became part of the effort in Indiana to bring pari-mutuel racing to the state. He helped lead the drive to passage of enabling legislation in 1993. Soon after came Hoosier Park, site of this year’s Breeders Crown championships on October 27-28.
“It’s really been incredible what has happened in Indiana,” said Gaskin, who was appointed by the Governor in August of 1994 to the Standardbred Breed Development Advisory Commission.
From the birth of pari-mutuel racing 23 years ago, to hosting the Breeders Crown, appears to be a long journey. Yet, those who know the time it takes to build an effective breeding program are astonished how quickly Indiana has made a remarkable impact on the sport.
“When you see horses like Wiggle It Jiggleit, Always B Miki and Hannelore Hanover, it says a lot about what we were trying to accomplish as far as breeding development,” Gaskin said.
Household names in harness racing have emerged from Indiana, testament to hard work and determination to spread the word throughout North America -- not just about the Indiana Sires program -- but that the state can produce Grand Circuit quality horses of the highest level.
Noted farms like Hanover Shoe Farms sending quality mares to be bred in Indiana is not something that happened overnight, but also something that wouldn’t have happened without the correct structure and foundation of their breeding program.
The success of the breeding industry is, of course, what drives the Breeders Crown and 23 years after its opening, Hoosier Park won’t just be the location for the grand finales in all of the sport’s divisions. While it will bring regional stars from throughout North America to Anderson, Indiana, the state also has home-grown talent to showcase and a history of exceptional state-bred performers as previous Breeders Crown champions.
“I think when you look at the quality of mares that we breed in Indiana you see it improving year over year,” said Gaskin.
Such is the development of a program that has become richer over time and much more competitive on a national scale.
Champions have been born in Indiana and will be crowned there in 2017.