Manfred Hanover, the world's hottest trotting horse and one of the trotting world's hottest lovers, stood in his paddock stall before the eighth race at Saginaw (Mich.) Valley Downs on Father's Day doing his impersonation of a mule. The 6-year-old horse's front legs were splayed, his tongue was hanging out of the side of his mouth and his oversize ears were doing 180s, scanning the area like surveillance cameras. Manfred Hanover's head bobbed frantically as his groom and assistant trainer, Tina Bennett, peered intently at his right forehoof.
Meanwhile, the horse's co-owner, John Szczepanski (sha-PAN-ski), stood a few feet away, chain-smoking and doing his impersonation of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sure, Manfred Hanover—a.k.a. Manny or Mr. Fred—had won 16 straight races and $197,850 this year, but the trotter had lost his last race, nine days earlier, because he had broken stride. Then, just an hour and a half until post time, the colt was doing it again, breaking stride on the sloppy Saginaw track during his warmups for the feature race.
"I don't know what's wrong with him," Szczepanski said worriedly. Then Bennett, six months in foal to her husband, cannily spotted the problem, a nail that had been driven too high into Mr. Fred's hoof. A blacksmith promptly replaced the nail with a shorter one, and driver Mark Jordan climbed into the bike and headed toward the track. It was race time.
Saginaw Valley Downs, which can only be described as rustic—unless you want to be downright insulting—seats 2,400. But on this June evening 3,258 men, women and children packed the wooden stands and overflowed onto the sparsely vegetated grounds to watch the famous trotter in a $15,000 invitational mile. And they couldn't even take a plunge on the horse. Manfred Hanover's winning ways have made him such a hot favorite that tracks across the country have been stuck with minus pools, the result of big spenders betting heavily on him to show, thereby leaving track managers with their pockets hanging inside out. So at Saginaw, as elsewhere, there was no wagering on Manfred Hanover.
September 14, 1986
His fans didn't seem to care, though, and Manny didn't disappoint them. When race caller Lenny Calderone yelled, "Here they come!" Jordan and Manfred Hanover went immediately to the lead, taking a sharp left turn from the outside post and cutting in front of the field of four to set the pace. Manny handled the wet racecourse just fine, winning by an easy 4½ lengths while setting a track record of 1:59⅕ his 29th sub-two-minute mile, three more than any other trotter in history.
O.K., so much for the race. The real reason all those fans came out to Saginaw Valley Downs to see Manfred Hanover is that he's not only a top athlete but a famous lover as well. Mr. Fred is a superstud. About three hours after winning the race at Saginaw, he was loaded into a van and shipped 100 miles to his home at Equinox Farms in Clare, Mich., where a bevy of equine beauties awaited him.
It is extremely rare for a standardbred, and unheard-of for a thoroughbred, to do time in the breeding shed while he is still racing. Not since the great Dan Patch, some 80 years ago, has a top trotter done such double duty—and with good reason. Most trainers believe that a horse can't give his best performance on the track and in the hay. And questions of stamina aside, a horse that has stood at stud tends to think of little else and is often fractious when he's brought back to the track. The threat to other horses posed by an unruly stallion long ago gave rise to a very strong convention—an unwritten rule of racing, if you will—that bars from the track horses that have bred.
Manfred, however, is the exception that makes the rule seem almost foolish. "He's very well mannered," says Szczepanski. "Most stallions get crazy when you breed them, but that wasn't our problem. In 1984 we were racing him, assuming that any day on the track could be his last, because anything can happen to a horse in a race—injury or illness. We were test-breeding him at the time, to see how he was in the shed, and he didn't get crazy. Sure, every time he jumps on a mare we worry about injury. But we had an overwhelming response [from owners of mares] when we started breeding him, and we couldn't just back out. And we could only maintain his racing condition by racing him." So, of course, they did both.
Which seems to suit the macho Manny just fine. His services don't come cheap, either. His stud fee is a hefty $5,000, and he's got 68 mares on this season's dance card. That's a potential $340,000 to add to whatever he wins on the track—a figure that has already brought his earnings to $689,495 for his career. Besides making love by the light of the moon and then going out to score on the track the very next day, Mr. Fred is also a personality kid who guzzles Gatorade.
Manfred Hanover didn't get to this enviable station in life without some setbacks. He was born with a silver bit in his mouth, foaled at the famed Hanover Shoe Farm in Pennsylvania by Super Bowl out of Miss Sue Hanover, and the first time the colt went through a sales ring, the late Billy Haughton, the renowned trainer and driver, put down $75,000 for him, which was big bucks for a standardbred yearling. But the horse never made it to the races at two and started only once as a 3-year-old, finishing seventh. So Haughton gave up on Manny, and back to the sales ring he went.
Enter a couple of racetrack novices named Walter and John Szczepanski, father-son owners of a 100-acre standardbred breeding farm smack-dab in the middle of Michigan. They bought Manfred Hanover for $8,500 in 1983. Of course, people now say they stole him at that price.
"He looked good to me," Walter says, "and he was well bred. But it was a gamble. I bought six horses at that sale, and he's the only one that turned out."
In fact, the Szczepanskis, who started the business in 1980, went through 25 or 30 racehorses before they hit pay dirt. To date, their $8,500 gamble on Mr. Fred has paid off more than 100 times over.
It's 7 a.m. the day after the Saginaw race, and the owners of Equinox Farms are having breakfast at their regular table in the K & A chow house near Clare. There's a lot of joking and horse talk, though Walter's still fretting over that high nail they found in Manfred's hoof the night before. Manny has a date back at the farm later on; he's due to be bred that afternoon.
Walter, now 56, had been an independent contractor who built a lot of houses around Warren, Mich., before going into real estate. John, 35, is a doctor of osteopathy, though he's had to cut his office hours to afternoons since Manfred trotted into his life. Until six years ago neither Walter nor John knew anything about standardbreds, although John's wife, Glenda, who competes in dressage, at least knew which end of the horse ate. "We originally were going to raise Polish Arabians, as a hobby," says John. "But Dad wanted standardbreds, and what Dad wants, Dad usually gets."
A 92-year-old real estate client of Walter's, Paul Hoffman (now deceased), got the Szczepanskis into the horse business. Hoffman talked Walter into attending a couple of yearling sales with him, and the next thing he knew, Walter was bidding on the animals. "I could be retired now, if it wasn't for Paul," says Walter, who gave up the real estate business only to find himself up to his hocks in standardbreds. "But we taught ourselves about horses. We're still learning. You pick a little up here and a little up there. You choose the best information you can and pick the best horses you can find. We had a couple of slow years, and then we got Manny."
The Szczepanskis soon discovered why they got the horse so cheaply. Mr. Fred had an unfortunate habit of regularly breaking stride at either the quarter or three-quarter pole. Walter, who had taught himself to drive, took the horse out on the jogging track again and again, trying to cure him of the problem. Meanwhile, Manny was given the lowliest assignment on the farm, teaser for another stallion. His job was merely to arouse the mares, not to be bred to them. "It humbled the hell out of him," says Walter. Just the same, Mr. Fred did his lowly duty in the breeding shed during the 11 months it took him to finally stop breaking stride, and in 1984, his 4-year-old season, the Szczepanskis raced him a dozen times. He won five of those races.
But 1985 was the year Manfred Hanover really came into his own. A classic late bloomer, he went to the post an astounding 46 times and won 24 races and $456,905. For his efforts he became the No. 1 stud this season at Equinox, a farm with 96 mares and only one other stallion. As this year's 16 straight wins illustrate, Manny's arduous duties in the shed don't seem to have slowed him down a whit.
Maybe Manny's secret is the Gatorade. John started giving it to him about a year and a half ago, because he believes it replaces the potassium and electrolytes lost when the stallion exerts himself. The horse tosses down about 800 quarts of the stuff a year. He's heavily into the orange flavor, drinking it right out of the bottle after a race. And a couple of shooters after a session in the breeding shed keep him in fine fettle. Besides, he hasn't developed a taste for oysters yet.
The Szczepanskis settle their check at the K & A and head back to the farm. There's a full day of breeding ahead. Manfred looks none the worse for wear this fine summer morning. A little tired maybe, but he definitely perks up when he sees his femme du jour, a nice looking bay mare.
The rules of harness racing—unlike those of the thoroughbred sport—require artificial insemination, and as a consequence most standardbreds are doomed to make love to the equivalent of inflatable mares. But Mr. Fred, always the special case, actually gets to mount a living, breathing thing. It's a little hard on his back, but toujours l'amour. "Some horses bite or get rough with the mare," John says, "but not Manny. He's a gentleman." At the height of his passion, Manfred is diverted by John and ejaculates into a leather-covered receptacle, the contents of which will be used to impregnate as many as 15 mares.
So far this year Manny has thrived on his demanding schedule. A typical day for him begins at 2 a.m., when he's trotted out to breed to a mare by the moonlight; then he's put into a van and shipped a couple of hundred miles to a track, unloaded long enough to go out and win a race, loaded into the van again and sent back to the farm. As his record performance at Saginaw attests, none of this has managed to dull his competitive edge. Still, there are those who think Walter and John are crazy.
How, the doubters ask, can a horse have the stamina to race and breed at the same time? It's impossible, they huff, for the Szczepanskis to deliver on Manny's many commitments to tracks and mares. Beyond that, there are those who simply believe that a breeding stallion should not be permitted to race.
Walter and John replied to these critics with a notice in the April edition of The Michigan Harness Horseman: "Manfred Hanover will not leave Michigan until July first, and will breed a mare every 2 days even when he races. If he races out of state, he will return to the farm to take care of his harem regardless of what some people will say."
The Szczepanskis insist that they would do nothing to jeopardize the well-being of their valuable star (they've already turned down an offer of $2.7 million from a would-be buyer). "We'll syndicate him eventually," says Walter, "but I really think he should stand out east next year." There, one presumes, he would have the opportunity to meet a better class of mare.
Meanwhile, the Szczepanskis plan to have Manny keep all his appointments, both at the track and in the breeding shed, no matter what anybody thinks. He took a brief layoff from racing this summer for minor surgery to repair a slight crack in a splint bone, but Manfred Hanover's next serious test will come on Sept. 26 at Louisville Downs in the $450,000 Breeders Crown trot. By then, of course, the breeding season will be long over and Manny can concentrate exclusively on his racing.
At midnight, some 26 hours after the Saginaw race, John returns to the farm from an evening out and goes straight to Manfred Hanover's barn to check on his horse. Mr. Fred is standing in his stall doing his mule impersonation again, frantically bobbing his head and twitching his big ears. John goes into the stall and, still in his suit and tie, mucks it out, fluffs up the hay and feeds the star a snack.
It's been a long, hard day for Manfred Hanover, but hey, what the heck, it's a living.
"Most stallions go crazy when you breed them, but that wasn't our problem. He's very well mannered."