I'm in love with an odd-looking gal. She stands only 4'3½" and weighs about 600 pounds, but to me she's lovely. Ah, those big, dark-brown eyes, that lustrous brown hide gleaming with black and bronze highlights as she trots around in the summer sun. Oh sure, her teeth are kind of long and yellow, but what the heck. I love her just the same. Her name is Pat Hanover, and she's a world-champion trottingbred mare, the crown princess of a new breed that's putting low-cost fun back into horse racing.
Trottingbreds are to big-time harness horses what midget racers are to Indy cars—smaller and not quite as fast, but in their own short-track way every bit as exciting. The first time I drove Pat was in a misty rain on an oval that measures only a sixth of a mile around. As we skidded through the corners she seemed to accelerate, and the sweet smell of warm horseflesh drifted back as the rain clouded my eyes. Then she surged into the short straightaway with a burst of power that amazed me. "She hasn't worked out in a few days," yelled Spencer Fossel, her owner, "so she's likely to break on you." And the next lap she did, her steady, loose-ankled, clip-clopping trot suddenly exploding into a gallop that left me leaning back against the reins to check her. Barns and fence posts flicked by in a kaleidoscopic red-and-white blur.
"Power to spare," Fossel said when I finally stopped her. "She was only going about a third as fast as she would in a race on a longer track."
Fossel, 70, a retired drug company executive who lives in Rupert, Vt., has been breeding, training and racing trottingbreds since 1973. His residence is an imposing old pile, a roomy white clapboard Colonial chockablock with collectibles: ruby-red apothecary jars, a vintage but still working pot-bellied stove, 19th-century medical and pharmacological texts. The loft above his horse barn is full of old horse-drawn vehicles, ranging from gigs and phaetons to a leather-topped surrey and what would appear to be a one-hoss chay. Next door to the horse barn is a factory that looks like a 19th-century antique. It sports an elegant sign that reads: J.H. GUILD COMPANY, HOME REMEDIES, EQUINE PRODUCTS.
October 28, 1985
Fossel purchased the company as a hobby in 1967. Today Guild manufactures more leg bandages for racehorses—160 miles' worth a year—than any other equine-products company in the world. Another item sold by the firm is Kendal's horse liniment, the preferred rubdown at many racetracks. Fossel is the biggest employer in town, though that's not saying too much: Rupert, a cozy little township tucked away in the green hills of southwestern Vermont, has a population of only 608. The Guild Co. headquarters sits sedately across the street from what some people say is the oldest continuous-service post office in America (having franked its first piece in 1792) and only a quarter of a maple-lined mile from what is believed to be the oldest Congregational church in Vermont. "The old Fossel," as he describes himself, is a latter-day squire of sorts, casually dressed in khakis and riding boots, with a peaked cap cocked on his iron-gray pate and a cigar sending up smoke signals from the corner of a wry mouth. His powerful forearms, along with the boots, give him away as a horseman.
There are four horses in the red stable. One is Chiefs Heather, a 10-year-old strawberry roan pacer who broke the little breed's world record for the half mile three times in 1980 and 1981. Trottingbreds, being smaller than standard-bred harness horses, compete on quarter-and half-mile tracks and cover only half the distance of their larger relations. To qualify as a trottingbred, a horse can stand no more than 51½ inches at the shoulder with shoes on, whereas standardbreds measure between 62 and 68 inches on average.
Heather's pacing record of 1:02[2/5] has since been broken—by a small standard-bred. Her stablemate, Pat Hanover, shared the trotting record for the half mile on a quarter-mile track, 1:09⅖ with a mare named Pizzaz, out of Tampa, Fla., until Pizzaz broke the record this summer with a time of 1:09 flat. "Pacers are faster than trotters," Fossel explains, "and of course a half-mile track is faster than a quarter, because it has fewer turns. Right now mares seem to be faster than stallions or geldings, whatever the gait." Chiefs Heather dropped her first foal, a strawberry roan filly, in July, so she is finished with racing. But at seven, Pat Hanover is just reaching her prime.
Trottingbreds were recognized as harness race horses only eight years ago. They're an outgrowth of the pony craze of the affluent 1950s, when a lot of kids in America dreamed of having a Shetland, Welsh or Hackney pony. The kids lost interest in their pets, but not some of the parents, who began racing them. In the early days, the tough little ponies turned a half-mile race into a plodding two-to-three-minute event. But breeders began crossing their Shetlands and Welsh with full-sized standardbreds to produce today's handsome, quick-stepping chevaux miniatures, as they're known in Quebec.
As the competition picked up momentum, pony fanciers in the Middle West and Northeast decided to organize. The International Trotting & Pacing Association, founded in 1964, boasts 800 members racing some 1,900 horses on 55 registered tracks in the U.S. Much of the action is in the heartland, but some of the fastest horses are found in Vermont.
"Today," Fossel says proudly, "our fastest horses can run neck and neck with most standardbreds over the half-mile distance. And because of the pony blood in their heritage they don't have the leg problems that bother so many standardbreds." A few years ago, in a fun race at the Rutland (Vermont) Fair Grounds, Fossel and Chiefs Heather actually beat a standardbred in a close race, clear evidence of the breed's rapid improvement. "Our sport hasn't reached its full potential yet," he says.
Fossel grew up "flatland Norwegian" in Watertown, S. Dak., the son of a hospital administrator. He got a degree in business administration from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., a school not noted for rowdyism. But Fossel thrives on the challenge of driving a sulky in heavy traffic. The horses may be small, but the danger is premium-size. "It's scary out there," he says. "You have to decide instantly which way to move when you're in close quarters. These horses don't steer themselves." That point was impressed on him, literally and painfully, two years ago on Rutland's hard, fast, half-mile track.
"Normally I refuse to drive another man's horse," Fossel says, "but that day I made an exception for a friend. I didn't know the horse was shadow shy, and my friend had forgotten to bring along his shadow roll. Sure enough, the first shadow we hit, the horse broke stride and went down." The sulky shafts, digging into the track, acted like catapults and sent Fossel crashing into a tangle of horse, harness and spinning wheels. His horse was unharmed, but a metal button on the sulky shaft punched a hole in Fossel's forehead; he still has a dull blue pocket above his right eyebrow. "It knocked me cold, and I woke up with a skull fracture, a dislocated jaw and one of my eyes scabbed over with dirt and dried blood," he says. "Rutland hospital patched me up and I drove home that night."
He was lucky. Five years ago a promising young girl driver was killed in Canada when she fell from her sulky and was struck in the head by her horse's hoof. In a recent race at Fairfax, Vt., two pacers went down. One had to be destroyed. The driver of another ended up in the hospital with a few broken ribs.
Pari-mutuel betting is not allowed in trottingbred racing, but competition is keen nevertheless. "The Canadians are especially fierce," Fossel says. "They used to serve liquor at the tracks up there, and some of the drivers, I fear, took on a little Canuck courage before the start. Up in Rochester, N.H. several years back, I heard that the Canadians were planning to gang up on me. I was the only Yank competing. They had arranged to box me in at the start and bang me around some. I was racing a fine horse named Dear Abby in those days, and I let the word leak out that she was hard to control, a rambunctious runaway. In fact, she had been in her early days. Just before the race, we rubbed Abby down with extra-strong liniment so that she jumped around a lot—that stuffs hot. My friends who were helping me harness her pretended to be knocked down. Then, just at the start, I let out a terrific yell as if I were scared stiff and she was running away with me. The Canadians scattered, and I won easily." In 1979, driving behind Chiefs Heather, Fossel became the first American to make the year's fastest time at Quebec's Club Mirabel.
The lack of betting windows and big purses keep trottingbred racing a low-key sport, but at the same time make it accessible to horse lovers who want to race. "A really good standardbred will cost you anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000 these days," Fossel says. "A decent trottingbred costs from $300 to $1,200. Add another thousand or so for a used sulky, harness and horse trailer, and you can go racing for a total of about $2,500, tops. At today's prices, it's a bargain."
One sunny Sunday in June, I accompanied Fossel to Rutland for a bargain day at the races. There were only half a dozen entries. One of the horses is owned by Fossel's best friend and closest competitor in the Rutland area, Ray Messer, 75, a local farmer and retired school teacher and administrator. "Over the past couple of seasons, we've never been more than a horse length apart," Fossel said. "It takes eight feet to register one-fifth of a second difference in time between two horses, and more often than not Ray and I end up with the same clocking." Messer is barely 5'3" but he has the grating deep voice and big, calloused hands of a John Wayne-size cowboy.
Another Rutland regular is Bernard Parker, 69, a shy, slow-spoken logger from Andover, Vt. who Fossel claims can get more out of a horse than any other trainer-driver in the sport. "Bernie buys ponies who can't seem to get out of their own way," he says. "Before you know it, they're going three to five seconds faster than they ever did before. It's magic." Watching him race, you can believe it. As he drives a pony to the wire, Parker's face is bright red with excitement and he snarls and yowls encouragement to the horse.
Fossel, in contrast, talks to Pat as they charge through traffic, but his lips hardly move. Rarely does he even brandish his whip. Yet the words must be effective, for the mare responds gracefully through the corners, putting on speed as the track straightens, then driving into the last turn with her ears alert and purposeful. On this Sunday, Fossel was an easy winner in both of the heats he raced. The times weren't spectacular—1:07 and change—but, as he explained, he didn't want to bring Pat to her peak until mid-August, in time for the big Rutland race weekend. (Pat's rear left leg has since been injured, and she won't race until next summer.)
"You want to take her around?" Fossel asked me as the other horses trailed off to their stables. Why not?
Up to now, I had only driven Pat on the small, sixth-of-a-mile track behind Fossel's home in Rupert. By contrast, the Rutland half mile with its empty, yawning stands looked like Indy's Brickyard. There was a stiff breeze blowing out of the west, and, as I took my seat in the sulky, legs cocked into the stirrups and the reins tucked under my thigh, I saw the flags snap at the McDonald's across the way. Pat eased out onto the hard, dusty surface. I clucked her up with a twitch of the reins, and she broke into her working pace. She stayed close to the rail, responding like a fine-tuned machine to the slightest pressure on the bit. Then we were through the turn and into the stretch, heading at full trot into the west wind. At this speed I could feel every irregularity in the track as the wind rushed past my helmet.
We flashed under the wire, then pushed around and through the far turn without checking speed in the slightest. Now she was flying up the back stretch, and although I knew we were traveling just a bit over 30 miles per hour, it sounded and felt more like a hundred. I slowed her toward the end of the staightaway and brought her to a halt beside Fossel. Only then did it occur to me that she hadn't once broken into a gallop the whole way around.
"You'll have to try it in traffic one of these days," Fossel said, smiling. "There's nothing quite like it, especially with Ray Messer trying to cut in on you at the corners, and Bernie Parker howling like a banshee in your ear."
"Sure," I answered, grinning back at him. What the hell. When you're in love, you'll do anything.