Unknown to fame is the first American who drove his wife and children home from church behind the family trotter one Sunday morning and then challenged his neighbor to a trotting race that afternoon. Whoever he was, he originated harness racing, and though the coming of the horseless carriage made the buggy obsolete, it also firmly established the trotter as a purely sporting animal. The sport's traditions, obviously, go back to colonial times, and nowhere are they perpetuated more fondly and colorfully than on a pleasant meadow near the center of town in Goshen, N.Y., where church buggies were competing against each other, with side bets of course, in the early 1800s. There the nation's first trotting track was laid out, and there, last week, harness races were conducted as they have been ever since.
Surrounded by the neat farms of the rolling Orange County countryside, Historic Track (apt name!) offers trotting races for sport's sake, with betting just a part of the show, not its main purpose. The spectacle of finely bred animals competing for minor prizes but much glory, under a brilliant afternoon sky and before a crowd of aficionados who know their horses, is an enriching experience. To the eyes of city folks, accustomed only to the roulette wheel of harness racing under lights as conducted at most of the major tracks, the contrast with Historic is vivid indeed.
A festive week of spirited racing at Goshen was marred only by the fact that attendance was barred to anyone below the age of 18. This ruling, one of a series of similarly capricious acts by New York Commissioner George Monaghan which has caused horsemen to hail his imminent departure from office, is ridiculous on its face and does violence to sporting tradition generally. What a narrow notion, that children should be shielded from the sight of money being bet on a horse race! There can be few better places than a pleasant race track for a youngster to discover the delights and values of true sportsmanship, to acquire ease and familiarity with animals, to learn self-discipline in handling money and to enjoy the open air.
Their children aside, many of trotting's first citizens were in attendance, as they always are at Historic. Typical of them is 64-year-old Octave Blake, president of the Grand Circuit. Ock Blake is a busy man; his factories (the Cornell-Dubilier Corp.) that produce electronic components for everything from TV sets to missiles are scattered around the country, in California, New Jersey, the Carolinas, Indiana and Massachusetts. Ock constantly flies this circuit, doing business en route in his own plane; yet when the first week in July comes round he cuts himself off from this and his many other enterprises and settles down in Goshen for a week of racing. "I tell my men," he says, "that I don't even want a phone call—except in case of fire." In the tan gabardine suit he always wears, Ock stands in the dust at the rail to observe the early-morning workouts and moves from there to the grandstand, missing nothing. He is joined at both places by other regulars of the trotting fraternity—the Sherman Jenneys of Walnut Hall Stud, the Norman Woolworths of Clearview Stables, the Dave Johnstons of Whitehall Farm, the Fred Van Lenneps of Castleton, the McNamara clan of Two Gaits and many more. Ock Blake and his friends come to Historic as much out of respect for the man who sponsors this meeting as for the races themselves, and the man they honor is Roland Harriman, premier patron of harness racing.
July 19, 1959
Since the turn of the century Historic Track has been the property of the Harriman family. On it Roland himself has driven in many races, and his father before him; only a few years ago, Roland Harriman, his wife, and daughter Betty drove in the same amateur race—with Betty winning behind a homebred filly named Dido. Sponsoring Historic's meeting is something of an expensive hobby for Harriman. Maintaining the track, paying its personnel, adding to the purses—all cost him in the neighborhood of $100,000 for the week. It keeps him away from his duties as board chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and the American Red Cross—to name just two of his myriad activities. And it also provides him the happiest few days of each year. Last week the clear blue eyes danced with excitement; the tall, spare frame bounced jauntily along as he greeted friends arriving for the races. "Come on in—relax and have fun!" has been his greeting at Historic for years now.
Outraged more than anyone else at the barring of children, Harriman explained: "Our sport, more than many others, encourages family participation. When I was a boy I drove horses—all of us did. Even today the families of our owners participate—they groom horses, jog them, race them in amateur affairs. It's one of the particular glories of harness racing. Well, I protested the ruling, but it didn't do any good."
At the races themselves, the biggest thrill of the week was reserved, appropriately, for Roland Harriman. The climactic event was the free-for-all trot—the Titan—named for Harriman's own 1945 Hambletonian winner, Titan Hanover. In the first heat Harry Pownall drove the Harriman dark beauty, Sharpshooter, to a superb victory, though he was considered a rank outsider. The significance of this triumph lies in the fact that the rest of the field numbered practically all the nation's very best trotters, all those considered capable of representing the U.S. at Roosevelt Raceway's International Trot on August 1, including Trader Horn, who was selected for that honor. After Roland Harriman's big moment, however, Trader went on to win the next two heats and thereby the race, happily justifying his choice.
Among the Hambletonian eligibles competing at Goshen, Billy Haughton's Hickory Pride again displayed his easy superiority, winning two straight heats with comparative ease. He is clearly at the top of his form, and Billy's considerable task is to keep him at that peak for two long months before the Hambletonian. This week, at Saratoga, Hickory meets one of his principal Hambletonian competitors, Diller Hanover, in a match that affords the first opportunity this season to compare these two fine trotters.
As it was when last reported here, the situation among the Little Brown Jug candidates is still hopelessly confused. The two class pacers—Joe O'Brien's Meadow Al and Del Miller's Adios Day—were again ingloriously trounced at Goshen, this time by a noneligible named Right Time. Meadow Al broke in both heats, demonstrating that he has yet to recover from the skittishness he acquired three weeks ago at Laurel. Adios Day, driven at Goshen by Miller's assistant Jimmy Arthur, took the lead in both heats and both times faded badly. He looks like a horse in need of a rest from racing. It now appears reasonable that a filly, for the first time, may win the Jug. Miller himself has Meadow Maid and Stanley Dancer has Honick Rainbow, both of whom have been racing extremely well, in contrast to the colts.