The two horses came pounding down the last 80 yards, sulky-to-sulky, nostrils flaring and blowing visible plumes of breath down toward the muddy track, hoofs digging out clots of mud and flicking them to the rear. The drivers rocked hard in their sulkies—one a Hall of Famer used to exceptional horses and big-time purses, the other a race driver trying, perhaps, to shoot out too many lights. The crowd noise swelled as the horses strained for one last surge.
And so it was in the final moments last Saturday afternoon as the Hambletonian, harness racing's premier event, made its debut at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The two trotters, Super Juan and Shiaway St. Pat—along with Olaf, who was out of contention by now—were racing for a third time that day and were just about empty. Harness racing might be struggling elsewhere, but the Meadowlands' executives had strewn money like straw to put on a showcase event. And now, for sure, they had it.
A spirited debate had preceded the race—over the pluses and minuses of even holding it at the Meadowlands, a concrete-and-glass megacomplex to which the Hambletonian had been moved after 24 years on the bucolic fairgrounds of DuQuoin, Ill. The Meadowlands track in East Rutherford, N.J. is less than five miles from Times Square. Meadows the track hasn't got, but it does have 500 pari-mutuel windows, a grandstand capacity of 40,000 and proximity to some 14 million people and the Big Apple's big-time media.
"I used to think the Meadowlands ought to start up its own big trot," said Bill Hayes, whose family owned the DuQuoin fairgrounds until 1979. By selling it to an Iraqi he gave the Hambletonian Society a convenient excuse to move the race. "But the Hambo's far better off here," he continued. "It'll get more attention; it might thrive."
If so, you couldn't judge by Saturday's attendance. It rained all morning and only 20,677 showed up. That's a smaller crowd than the Meadowlands drew for its regular racing card the night before. Still, about 110 newspapermen covered the race, and ABC televised it to an estimated 15 million spectators.
A record field of 24, split into two divisions, started the Hambo, perhaps because the Meadowlands had boosted the purse from last year's $293,570 to $838,000. Said Hall of Fame Driver Delvin Miller as he scanned the entries on Friday, "It looks like everybody who can walk is in this thing."
Horsemen entered all sorts of long shots. One was Olaf, who has had sore knees, among other complaints. Another was Santa Ana, a 43-to-l shot who didn't stay on gait in six of his previous seven races. Santa Ana is owned by Bill Hayes, who admits he bought him in 1979 for $86,000 with designs on the 1981 Hambo. Santa Ana's past performances didn't discourage Hayes. "What the heck," he said, "you're only eligible once. And if Santa stays fiat, he's got a ton of trot."
Although no clear-cut prerace favorite had emerged, there were five or six serious contenders, including Super Juan, a small but game colt driven by Hall of Famer Howard Beissinger, winner of the Hambletonian in 1969, 71 and 78. A week before, Super Juan won a prep race in 1:57⅗ the fastest time of the year for a 3-year-old trotter.
To win the Hambletonian a horse must come in first in two heats over the mile track. The first five finishers in each division would qualify for another heat. If that didn't produce a two-heat winner, there would be a race-off among the three single-heat winners. In the first division, a surprising Olaf sped to the lead, trotting a half mile in a quick 1:00 flat, and was never seriously challenged as he cruised home in a slow 2:03[4/5]. Super Juan broke stride early, but recovered to finish fourth and qualify for the next heat. Olaf, winless in four official 1981 races, was driven by Carl Allen, a part owner of the colt who, like Beissinger, races mainly on the prestigious Grand Circuit.
In the second division, Shiaway St. Pat broke wide from the seven hole, took the lead, opened up a six-length gap turning for home and won by 1¼ lengths over Banker Barker, the 6-to-5 favorite. It was only the second start for Shiaway in a Grand Circuit stakes this year against top 3-year-old trotters.
Shiaway, a gelding, was bred and is owned by Robert, Wilbur and Ronald Huff of Durand, Mich., whose 431-acre Shiawassee Farm is strictly a family operation. Last year Shiaway raced exclusively in Michigan, on a fair circuit that included such wayside tracks as Kinross, Hillsdale, Allegan and Fowlerville. Shiaway showed astonishing speed as a 2-year-old, but he also broke stride "two or three times a race," says Bob Huff. However, he so outclassed the competition, he'd occasionally win anyway. In March Bob Huff shipped Shiaway to New Jersey to prep for the Hambo. On the recommendation of a friend, he hired Ray Remmen to train and drive him.
Remmen, 34, operates a public stable. Last year it won more races and more money than any other stable at the Meadowlands, and this year it's tops among the money-winners again. Nonetheless, as Remmen says, "Guys like me aren't entrusted with top, high-priced 2-year-olds. Just having a contender in the Hambo is quite a thrill."
When Shiaway arrived in New Jersey, Remmen and his brother Larry, also a trainer, met the truck. "I thought it was a joke," Remmen says now. "He was a bag of bones, head drooping down and he walked like somebody had stuck something up inside him. Me and Larry laughed. 'So this is our Hambo horse.' "
But Shiaway impressed Remmen with his amazing speed. To calm the gelding and prevent him from breaking stride, Remmen made Shiaway a pair of earplugs. Then he made a discovery: Shiaway hates to be rushed. "We found if you take him easy at the start, he'd hold his trot. And by letting it out gradually, he had plenty to show." In June, Shiaway finished a fast-closing third in the Matron Stakes at Detroit Race Course to a trotter named Mo Bandy. A week later at the rich Yonkers Trot, Mo Bandy won and established himself as a Hambletonian contender. "I thought then and there that if Mo Bandy was good enough to win a Hambo, our chances were even better," Remmen says.
In the 10-horse third mile of the Hambletonian, Shiaway again zoomed to the front and straightened for home with the lead. But Super Juan was lying just off the pace and Beissinger pulled him out and caught Shiaway in the final strides to win by a head. Olaf broke stride at the start, and finished dead last.
After resting for 71 minutes, Olaf, Super Juan and Shiaway came back for the race-off. The starting gate pulled away and, once again, Olaf went off stride. Super Juan took the lead, Shiaway tucking in right behind. Up the back-stretch, Allen got Olaf back on gait and the colt caught the pacesetters at the half-mile mark, briefly taking the lead. But that was all Olaf had left. Around the last turn Super Juan regained the lead—but here came Shiaway, moving alongside, a neck behind. An eighth of a mile from home, it was Super Juan by a head. Then it was a nose. He fought bravely but couldn't quite hang on. At the wire, it was Shiaway by a neck.
Remmen, his wife, two daughters and about 40 Meadowlands drivers and friends whooped it up later at a local bar. And why not? Country horse and big-city driver made a fine combination.