This year's Hambletonian for 3-year-old trotters rolled around before last year's race was finished, at least in the sense that the owners of the horses involved in last year's dead heat were still in court squabbling over the purse. So wouldn't you know it? Last Saturday afternoon at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., darned if Lou Guida and Frank Antonacci, the owners of Hambo '89's cowinners, Park Avenue Joe and Probe, weren't in the second heat with the divisional winners of this year's first heat. Talk about grudge matches.
The bombastic Guida, harness racing's dominant owner of the 1980s, had Embassy Lobell, a colt who appeared to be coming into his own. As he nervously awaited the second heat in the $1.3 million classic, Guida said he harbored no hard feelings toward Antonacci. "It's just business," he said, with a shrug. But Guida also said he was plenty worried about Harmonious, the Antonacci-owned colt that had upset the favored Royal Troubador in his division of the first heat.
And when the 1990 Hambletonian was over, all was, well, Harmonious. Antonacci's horse, driven by the superbly talented John Campbell, won so easily over Embassy Lobell that there was nothing for Guida to do except offer his congratulations to his rival. Harmonious trotted the mile in 1:54⅕ the second-fastest final Hambo heat in history.
To his credit, Antonacci didn't gloat in victory; he only said he felt "vindicated." He didn't even make much of the fact that this was a record fourth Hambo victory for his Lindy Farm. "This is much better," said Osvaldo Formia, Harmonious's Argentine-born trainer. "Last year all the fun was taken out of it."
Formia, 52, was also the trainer of Probe, the Antonacci-owned colt in last year's controversy. Probe had won the first Hambo heat with Guida's Park Avenue Joe finishing second. In the second heat, Park Avenue Joe won while Probe faded to ninth. In the raceoff, the two heat winners hit the wire together. It took the race judges five minutes and two photo-finish prints to declare it the first dead heat in Hambletonian history.
Minutes later, the race judges ruled Park Avenue Joe the '89 winner because he had a better overall standing in the three heats, and awarded Guida's colt 50% of the purse while giving Probe only 25%. Antonacci appealed the decision to the Hambletonian Society, the race's governing body, and also took the case to a New Jersey administrative law judge. Months later, the Society, and subsequently the judge, declared the two horses to be cowinners. The squabble now is over the distribution of the purse.
Against this dramatic backdrop, both Guida and Antonacci entered trotters in this year's Hambo. But their colts were regarded as only mild threats to Royal Troubador, who on July 14 had won the Yonkers Trot, the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown (the others are the Hambletonian and the Kentucky Futurity, on Oct. 5). Although no trotter has won the Triple Crown since Super Bowl did it in 1972, Royal Troubador's owner-trainer-driver, Carl Allen, felt confident.
Alas, in the final race, Royal Troubador tired on the lead and struggled home third. Critics immediately wondered if Allen had made a crucial mistake in not giving his colt a race in the three weeks since he won at Yonkers. More likely, Allen had simply run into a colt who was coming into his own at just the right time. The Hambletonian was only the ninth lifetime start for Harmonious, but the colt benefited from Campbell's decision, less than a week before the race, to drive him in the classic. "That made me feel we had a certain winner," said Formia, expressing his respect for Campbell, the Canadian-born driving wizard whose many credentials and records now include three wins in the last four Hambos.
In the second heat, which included the top five finishers in the two divisions of the first heat, Allen sent Royal Troubador to the lead, but he gave way in the stretch to Embassy Lobell, who then was overtaken by Harmonious. "I got a perfect trip," the triumphant Campbell said afterward.
And as for that Harmonious guy, Antonacci, he was positively humming. "Last year, I remember thinking I had won," he said, "and then I saw Park Avenue Joe's name up there. So I felt twice as excited about winning this year."