Classical Jazz 2005: Home

2009 Hambletonian Happenings

By Chris Tully for the Hambletonian Society
Monday, August 10, 2009--Roosevelt Reunion: Remembering an Era 
                    "Every parting is a form of death, as every reunion is a type of heaven."

All the stars were in alignment after The Hambletonian as a group of joyous and jocular individuals remembered the bygone era of Roosevelt Raceway. Stars of Harness Racing’s past and present were on hand to enjoy an evening of fun-filled back slapping and good-natured ribbing at the Landmark Catering Hall, just down Paterson Plank Road from The Meadowlands.

The festivities began at 6 p.m., just after Muscle Hill was cooled out, and went well past the advertised last call of 10 p.m. The brain child of Randy Perry and Fred Hudson, the benefit event was coordinated with help from Randy’s wife Donna and Judy Bokman of the Standardbred Retirement Foundation, complete with a DVD tableau of photos and memories.

Initially, there was light chatter and conversation over hors d'oeuvres and drinks. The food was delicious and plentiful, as the revelers laughed and remembered the good old days.
While walking around soaking it all in, I couldn’t help but think what a good time my father would have had, chumming it up with all his old buddies. Although there were over 150 people, certain individuals stood out in the crowd. One of which who needs no introduction was "Showboat Billy" himself, Bill Popfinger.

As Master of Ceremonies, and chief instigator, Billy livened up the place with his energy and enthusiasm. At the microphone he told some stories, thanked some people and then badgered all of his cronies until they were shamed into saying a few words. Cheers went out from the crowd as each icon got up to the mike and recounted some of his most memorable moments. 
 Roosevelt Reunion
Left  to right:  Billy Popfinger, Jimmy Marohn, Carmine Abbatiello, Lucien Fontaine, Frank Popfinger, Buddy Gilmour

First was Buddy Gilmour, then the "Loosh" Lucien Fontaine took his turn. The crowd kept calling for "The Red Man" Carmine Abbatiello, but he wouldn’t budge. Benny "The Whip" Webster got up and said, "I p!**ed away a lot of money, but had a lot of fun doing it!"

MC Popfinger, while continuing to badger Carmine said, "Abbatiello is the only guy who could put Schaefer [Beer] out of business with those [T.V.] commercials!"

Anyone who remembers the Racing from Yonkers show with Stan Bergstein and Spencer Ross remembers Carmine crossing the George Washington Bridge with a harness horse, stopping at the Schaefer’s Circle. No stunt doubles or special effects for that T.V. segment. Legend has it that the producers and the NYPD closed the lower level (Martha) of the GWB for Carmine and his steed, and shot that footage at 1 o’clock in the morning!

Coon Gilmour Fanning Perry and Bockman
         Greg Coon, Buddy Gilmour & Moira Fanning                  Randy Perry & Judy Bokman

Frank Popfinger took his turn, and thanked everyone for coming to his birthday party. That was quite a Trifecta for Frank; the Hambo, the Roosevelt Reunion, and his birthday...all on
one day! He said while living out on Long Island he drives past Roosevelt Raceway every once in a while, hoping it would re-open someday. A few other guys got up and told some poignant stories of their experiences around this group of history makers.

John Kopas recalled how Carmine used to take everyone’s used whips because he was so frugal, and then asked the crowd, "I want to know who bought Carmine his ticket."

This caused the crowd to erupt with laughter, and was the catalyst for another round of "Red Man" cheers. This did not work either, as Carmine, grinning ear to ear, would not budge. At the table where I was seated, with the Doherty and Remmen crew, they wondered out loud if Carmine needed some additional pre-racing to help get him up to the gate.

Not to be outdone by Showboat Billy, the industry’s MC for the ages, John Manzi got up and cracked a few jokes and reminisced about his old stomping grounds. No Roosevelt reunion would be complete without a few stories about the Gam Wa, the local Westbury watering hole. In those days, everyone would go there after the races and BBQ together on the off days. It really was one big, happy family.

Toward the final hour, everyone was having so much fun, no one wanted to leave. The staff shut down the bar and started stacking chairs on tables. But, it takes a lot more than that to get rid of a bunch of harness horseman. They may have closed Roosevelt Raceway, but the spirit of the Westbury oval lives on forever!

Sunday, August 9, 2009--Over the Hill and Over the Hump
A German philosopher once said, 
                    "Just remember, once you're over the hill you begin to pick up speed."

That is exactly what Hambletonian champion Muscle Hill did at the head of the stretch...pick up speed. On top by two lengths at the head of the stretch, the star son of Muscles Yankee showed his heels to the field and drew off by six to equal the world record. The colt’s connections released a collective sigh of relief before crowding into the winner’s circle.

They celebrated victory while taking comfort in knowing that the hard part is over...winning the Hambo. Not to conclude that the World Trotting Derby, Kentucky Futurity and the Breeders Crown will be a walk in the park, nonetheless, they are OVER the proverbial hump. 
             Muscle Hill in Paddock
                       Muscle Hill in front paddock with Caretaker Sylvia Hovde
The Meadowlands Hambo Day attendance and betting handle were both up from years past. The large turnout of fans was treated to a stellar card of world-class racing, compliments of Racing Secretary Peter Koch. Paddock Park was filled with fans as many of the sport’s leading drivers were on hand to sign autographs. The line stretched for over 100 feet. The USTA staff who orchestrated the event noted that Ron Pierce stayed late, until the very last of 100’s of autograph seekers was happy. He was even stopped by fans in the tunnel between races, and patiently waited while they searched endlessly for a pen.

One of my duties during Hambo day is to ensure that the grooms receive their goody bags and certified wardrobe for the procession down to the front paddock. The embroidered bag is packed with Hambo hats, souvenir pint glasses, T-shirts, buttons, a program, the horse’s Hambo blanket, a lead shank and the official caretaker’s shirt and hat.

Because the Hambo is the ONLY harness race on live television, television producers and racing officials want the grooms to look official. As I handed out the bags, sometimes the shirts don’t fit, and the color was BRIGHT yellow. This concerned some fashion conscious caretakers. Regardless, we worked out the kinks so that the Oaks and the Hambo grooms all walked down to the front paddock in unison with matching outfits. 
               Hambo Procession
                                        Hambletonian Procession 2009
As I followed the line of Hambo horses down the stretch, I noticed Hall of Famer Doug Ackerman pushing the bike for Judge Joe. At that moment time stood still. My thoughts drifted back to last year when I pushed the bike with Paul Doherty and Deweycheatumnhowe. The crowd of railbirds was wishing all the horses’ good luck, and snapping photos with cameras and cell phones. What a great sight to see—thousands of people cheering and anxiously waiting to see a harness race!

In the front paddock, I entered into the usual mob scene. It’s a place to see, and be seen. I always wish I had time to talk to everyone. But with getting quotes, taking pictures and getting pushed around by security and other photographers, time flies when you are having fun. I try to connect with people I only get to see once in a while, usually at the Hambo. 
               Jim Ladwig
One of those people is my good buddy Jim Ladwig (Above).  As Winbak Farm’s yearling manager since 1999, he has raised some of the world’s best in the last decade, including: Horse of the Year Rainbow Blue, TWO Little Brown Jug winners (No Pan Intended & Bettor’s Delight), and now TWO Hambo winners (the first was Vivid Photo). Not a bad decade by anyone’s standard.

As Joe Thomson was receiving the winning breeder trophy, Jim Ladwig was content talking with me in the background. Jim’s expertise in evaluating yearlings and preventing sale day train wrecks is invaluable. Considering that he usually has about 300 yearlings to manage, it would not be hard to miss a scratch here and a pimple there. Nonetheless, he does not miss a thing. I worked with him for years and always admired his ability to recall each horse by appearance and attitude. This is a talent for which his boss, countless trainers, and numerous owners expect him to recount at the sales, all day long, for each and every yearling.

As the trophy presentations were in full swing and the pressure was off, Jim felt secure enough to share a little story with me. He told me of the moment he was re-acquainted with the colt formerly known as ‘Yankee Blondie 06,’ just as he was ‘coming in’ from the field for yearling sale prep.

It was about the third week in September. Jim was leaving for the Lexington sale and completing a last minute review of the next batch of Harrisburg colts and fillies in the barn. He got to Muscle Hill and his heart sank. Jim noticed that when the colt came in he was falling at the hips and had a roach back.

He said, "Oh my God, Joe [Thomson] loves [the dam] Yankee Blondie, this colt needs some help!" Obviously, not the picture of perfection he was looking for. He told his staff, "Turn this colt back out for another two weeks until I return from Lexington."

Upon his return the colt’s back was treated with a regimen of chiropractics, laser therapy, and a topical solution known as "blue emu."

Six weeks later the colt gained 100 pounds and his condition improved dramatically. His awkward back was still noticeable, but not as apparent. Significant progress had been made. At the sale Jim told Muscle Hill’s suitor, Greg Peck, about the situation. Greg loved the colt’s video, disregarded the imperfection, and bought the colt for $55,000.

Back in the main paddock after cooling out, Muscle Hill was munching on carrots with his caretaker, Sylvia Hovde. Her cheerful Hambo day assistant, Mali Norbye, was also on hand. She was all-smiles over the Peter Haughton winner she rubs, Holiday Road. It was at that time I uncovered another interesting story from the Muscle Hill camp was about his night watchman.

This is the kind of story that would never happen before the Kentucky Derby. Sometime during mid-June, Muscle Hill’s previous night watchman quit. The owners were rightfully concerned and installed video surveillance in the barn. Of course, video is no substitute for being there. 
                Muscle Hill caretakers group
                                         Rico Robinson, Muscle Hill, Sylvia & Mali
Greg Peck hired another man for the job, Rico Robinson. Rico, a pleasant and easy-going young fellow had been jogging horses for Greg after being laid off during the winter months from his previous employer, Noel Daley. Rico’s girlfriend, Kate, still works for Noel Daley, whose Explosive Matter has been second to Muscle Hill all year.

Don’t you think it is kind of interesting that the former employee of a chief rival is charged with looking after the prize fighter of another? This would be a perfect plot for some industrial espionage, if there ever was such a thing in Harness Racing. It reminded me of the movie, "Sleeping with the Enemy," only in title of course. Because, only in Harness Racing are we still one big, happy family. Aren’t we?

Saturday, August 8, 2009--The Eyes of All People Are Upon Us

Just 10 days before his inauguration, President-Elect John F. Kennedy in a speech delivered to a 'Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' on January 9, 1961, spoke of the tough task ahead.

"We must always consider," he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us."

While winning the Hambletonian may not be as daunting a task as negotiating the cold war and civil rights, it may feel like the weight of the free world is sitting upon a hill with the eyes of all people upon him. Muscle Hill, that is. At 3 to 5, he is not only the favorite, but the horse to beat. If that isn’t enough, he has 9 other horses who would like to take the spotlight off of him. On Saturday, August 8th, ten of the industry’s best and brightest 3-year-old trotting colts go after the $1.5 million dollar prize, and the subsequent bragging rights that go along with it. Winning the Hambo does not immortalize someone as much as being president of the free world, but its close.

While winning the Hambletonian may not be as daunting a task as negotiating the cold war and civil rights, it may feel like the weight of the free world is sitting upon a hill with the eyes of all people upon him. Muscle Hill, that is. At 3 to 5, he is not only the favorite, but the horse to beat. If that isn’t enough, he has 9 other horses who would like to take the spotlight off of him. On Saturday, August 8th, ten of the industry’s best and brightest 3-year-old trotting colts go after the $1.5 million dollar prize, and the subsequent bragging rights that go along with it. Winning the Hambo does not immortalize someone as much as being president of the free world, but its close!

While roaming around some of the training centers, I happened upon two more individuals who would like to lay claim to their own piece of land in the Hambletonian Empire. One of which is a Muscles Yankee colt who has won nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, Federal Flex. 
                                 Federal Flex
                                                                        Federal Flex
He is spending the week under the close watch of Jeff Gillis’ assistant, Brady MacDougal at Ford’s Farm in Middletown, NY. I took some video and some still photos as Brady jogged the colt. He looked good and was a nice horse to be around. He went 7 laps around Ford’s 5/8 mile track, which is a little less than 4 miles, or 4.375 to be exact. I don’t know about you, but even with College Algebra last semester, I always get confused about distance when jogging on a five-eighths.

While at Ford’s, I ran into Mary Beauchamp, the numbers lady at The Meadowlands. That is one hard working woman. She works for Carmine Fusco as well as handing out the saddle pads on race nights. Her feet never stop moving. We were reminiscing about Jimmy’s Turf Shop on the backstretch, and all the other things that are no longer around from 20 years ago. Mary will be especially hard at work on Hambo day, ensuring everyone is properly outfitted for the big race procession.

Another horse I bumped into while out on the Hambo trail is Triumphant Caviar. He, along with his co-owner and caretaker Kerry Beaver, were beaming with anticipation. When I met Kerry at Magical Acres she looked so familiar that I had to ask if we had ever met before. As it turns out we did, on the Boots and Saddles circuit some 12 or more years ago. She had some success in that series, which was usually carded along with the greatest side-show in harness racing, the C.K.G. Billings Amateur Driving Circuit. Ah yes, it’s all coming back to me now; the outrider rescuing me at the Red Mile with a loose horse while I was just a passenger. That’s one of those memories I would just as soon forget. 

            Triumphant Caviar and Caretaker
                                Triuimphant Caviar & caretaker Kerry Beaver
Anyway, "Caviar" gets ridden in the winter, up hills, to build up his stifles. However, now his routine is more, well you know... routine. He insists on being turned out first thing in the morning, or as Kerry says, "He will kill you." Then, once he has some the p!** and vinegar out of him, he gets jogged. Then he is just like a puppy dog. So calm in fact that Kerry takes her young children, ages 3 and 5, out on the jog cart with him. His favorite treat is Nature Valley Granola bars.

However, Kerry said that he will get none this week, "just in case" they contain some sort of secret, unacceptable ingredient. Conversely, his trainer, Chris Beaver says that when not chewing on granola bars, Triumphant Caviar likes to use people as a chew toy.

Whatever the case may be, I am sure that he, along with his 9 other colleagues would like to be chewing on a bundle of carrots in front of 20,000 fans Saturday afternoon. The bundle of carrots that is awarded to the horse that wins the $1.5 million Hambletonian.

Friday, August 7, 2009--Walking in Rhythm

"An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day." ~ Henry David Thoreau

Walking around the Standardbred training centers for fun and fitness is something I wish I could do more often. There is always something happening, and the people are interesting to watch. Horses and grooms are seen coming to and from paddocks, as well as horses and trainers entering and exiting the track. Creatures, in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, walking in all directions. Each individual traveling with an exacting purpose. The famed American naturalist, John Muir, once said, "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." My quest for locating Hambletonian finalists was no exception.

             White Birch Tread Mill
                                   White Birch Farm's Treadmill
Walking around the Standardbred training centers for fun and fitness is something I wish I could do more often. There is always something happening, and the people are interesting to watch. Horses and grooms are seen coming to and from paddocks, as well as horses and trainers entering and exiting the track. Creatures, in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, walking in all directions. Each individual traveling with an exacting purpose. The famed American naturalist, John Muir, once said, "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." My quest for locating Hambletonian finalists was no exception.

At White Birch Farm near Allentown, New Jersey, I found myself walking around the American Viking Racing Stable, otherwise known as the Trond Smedshammer stable. Of course, I was greeted by a friendly boxer at the entrance to the barn. Upon entering I noticed a flurry of activity. Grooms were scurrying around with their morning chores. Most looked up just long enough to say hello and silently investigate this uninvited guest who was wandering around their compound. At the back end of the barn I noticed two colts on horse walkers. They seemed to be enjoying their walk. They had overhead cover from the early morning sun and a view of the busy training track.

Back in the barn, no one seemed to mind my presence for a second tour down the long shed row. Finally, after feeling left out of the game, I asked someone where I might find Trond. They said he was at his farm down the road in Cream Ridge and should be back in a few minutes. I hung around some more, poking my nose in a few stalls and trying to stay out of the way. In doing so, I stumbled upon a piece of duct tape (versatile use number eight-eight) on an empty stall door that read, "Calchips Brute."

I asked a young lady nearby where I might find this elusive creature.  She replied, "He’s in the paddock, he should be right back."

At this point I am 0 for 2 and still swinging. This gal seemed pretty "tuned-in" to the inner-workings of American Viking Racing Stables so I asked, "What about Reinsman Hanover?"

To which she stated, "Oh, that colt is at the farm with Trond."

That figures, now I have struck out with the bases loaded. Not one to leave the batter’s box without a hit, I struck up a conversation with Jamie Freeman, a caretaker in Trond’s outfit. She would only give me her name if I promised not to confuse her with the grooms of the Hambletonian finalists. So, to set the record straight and be true to my word, Jamie is from Scarborough, Maine, and has worked for Trond for 2 years. She rubs Napolean and Falls For You. The caretaker for Calchips Brute is Javier Perez, while the man looking after Reinsman Hanover is Frenchman Sebastien Tribourdeau. 
               CalChip Blueprint
                                     Calchips Brute with caretaker Javier Perez

Jamie Freeman, a Mainer, just returned from her vacation in Presque Isle, Maine. She said she had a blast. Wow, Maine in the summertime, what a treat. But, I digress. Jamie filled me in on the routine of the two Hambo horses, in the absence of their grooms. Jamie said that Calchips Brute is a happy horse who gets turned out a lot. First he goes on the walker, and then he gets turned out. After which, when most of the training is finished, he gets ridden in the water in the infield of White Birch for about 20 minutes, which builds up his shoulders.

Reinsman Hanover, I am told, is part of a new routine that finds a large number of the stable’s horses at Trond’s farm. At his place he utilizes a jogging path through the woods with winding turns and rolling hills. This gets the horses off the track and gives them a tough, strenuous workout. Jamie says that this method is hard work for the horses; it keeps them very fit and strengthens their hind-ends. Who wouldn’t enjoy a cool walk or jog in the forest on a hot summer day?

By this time Trond has arrived back on the scene with a couple of his assistant trainers: Vincent Courne and Jay Picciano. It was nice to see Jay, and as we were catching up on old times Trond finished up a phone call and came out of his office. I explained why I was there, and Trond nodded in approval. I asked if it was OK to ask the grooms some questions, he nodded. I asked if I could take some photos, he nodded and off he walked to train a set of colts. Trond Smedshammer is a man of few words. His questions are answered out on the racetrack.

Thursday, August 6, 2009--Ma'am, Is This Seat Taken?

"Love is like water. We can fall in it. We can drown in it. And we can't live without it." 
              Hot Shot Blue Chip
                         Caretaker Marcie Wilson & Hot Shot Blue Chip
Traveling around the countryside talking to people about horse racing is a dream job. I wish I could make a career out of it. It’s fun, fulfilling and fascinating. Between the horses and the people, the dogs and the drama, it certainly is never boring.

Without sounding insensitive, I am only remotely interested in hearing about how fast a horse got to the half; if I want that information I will look at the horse’s lines. What I really want is a good, old-fashioned story. A tale that makes me reflect about how lucky I am to be alive. A saga that makes me feel grateful for being able to do what I love doing. 
I found such a story while traveling through central New Jersey.

Many aspiring and established harness trainers go to the Standardbred Horse Sale in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania during the first week in November. It’s a traditional event in our industry. Harrisburg and Hanover are to yearlings like the Hambo is to Trotting and the Jug is to Pacing. It’s just that simple.

Owners also go to find that next champion. Some go in hopes of filling the recently vacated stalls of champions just syndicated and turned out to stud, while some others go to replace the 2-year-olds that didn’t make it. But they go—in droves. There are plenty of other horse sales, however, if by chance they missed buying a colt or filly at many of the other yearling sale offerings, Harrisburg is the final frontier—the last chance. 
In fact, many folks who go to Harrisburg end up falling in love with a colt or filly, and they want that individual for their very own. Personally, I have heard countless trainers, as well as breeders, say: ‘I love this filly.’ This very scenario happened to a guy who won the 2005 Hambletonian Oaks and has two colts in the Open Hambo on Saturday. Only this time, the filly that he fell in love with was not of the equine variety.

Thirty-eight-year-old Jonas Czernyson went to Harrisburg in 2006 looking for some yearlings to fill his roster. He won the Oaks the year before and was eager to find a few nice trotting babies. Anyone who has ever inspected yearlings or worked at the Harrisburg sale knows that it can be an exciting, yet exhausting experience. The days are long, the floors are hard, and there are literally hundreds of aisles of horses to navigate. If your dogs ain’t barking by lunchtime Tuesday, you’ve missed something, or haven’t done it right.

Jonas was wandering around the mammoth exhibition hall after a long day of inspecting yearlings. He was looking for a place to rest his barking dogs for a short spell. He found himself standing in front of a chair in the Millstream Consignment. He politely asked a pretty lady if he could sit in that particular chair. The lady in question was Christine Cone, whose family owns the Georgetown, Kentucky Standardbred nursery.

She replied, "Sure, but if you sit there you have to watch a yearling video." Now, when

I heard Christine tell that portion of the story the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I thought that this gal must have attended the Phil Tully School of Super-Salesmanship. 
Symphonic Hanover gets a massage
       Hambletonian contender Symphonic Hanover gets a massage

Jonas agreed, and said, "Ok, show me the tape of your BEST trotting yearling."

To which Christine countered, "I have five trotters and they are ALL GOOD!"

The rest is history, because I am not sure, nor did I ask, how long Jonas stayed in that particular chair. In any event, the happy couple are getting married right in front of the Stable of Memories, AKA The Round Barn, at the Red Mile in Lexington on September 19th this fall. It happens to be the same night as the Canadian Classic; a race that will probably feature the same two horses that Team JC is putting behind the gate this Saturday; Hot Shot Blue Chip and Symphonic Hanover.

During the 1970’s, racing had the "Green Wave," AKA the Haughton Stable. This is because during most Grand Circuit events there were so many Haughton horses entered in each race that when they went to the paddock it looked like a green wave. During the eighties we had Team Nordin, led by the father and son team of Sorin and Jan. The caretakers all sported shirts with the stable logo.

Today, Team JC enters the paddock like a "blue blizzard!" Very professional and well equipped, Team JC usually has multiple entrants in all the major trotting events. The Jonas Czernyson team wears blue polo shirts adorned with the sharp TEAM JC logo. In his barn at Winners International I was particularly impressed with the Team JC equipment board. Each horse was listed with ALL of the rigging that horse wears. Similar devices are something all trainers should have.

I can’t tell you how many outfits I have worked for when the only person who knew EXACTLY what a horse wore was not available when we were packing the equipment to go race. Avoiding mistakes and miscommunication is half the battle in this business, and that board goes a long way to fixing that problem. Unfortunately, in the final outcome it is usually the groom that gets blamed for a "wardrobe malfunction." If you have ever had a groom bring the wrong hopples to the paddock and then say, "They all look the same," you know what I mean. 

                       Team CJ Training Chart
                              ~Jonas Czyerson's training chart~

One caretaker who is one part excited, one part elated, and two parts savvy is Marcie Wilson. She is a sharp horsewoman who is living the dream. Not one, but TWO of her charges are in the Hambo final. She rubs both Hot Shot Blue Chip AND Symphonic Hanover. Marcie got her start in the industry at Lindy Farms as she hails from Stafford, Connecticut. First, she started working with the broodmares, and then eventually with the racing stable. Needless to say, Marcie can’t paddock both colts, but I bet she would if she could. The services of Linn Risedale will be used to paddock Hot Shot.

Each and every horse is an individual, and these two are more dissimilar than alike. Symphonic Hanover does not jog too much; he generally walks in the pressure cart for about an hour per day. This keeps him happy and muscled up. He tends to be a little nervous and needs to be the first out in the morning. He has been receiving massage therapy and some chiropractic work to keep him calm and work out the kinks.

Hot Shot Blue Chip tends to be more easy-going and has a more traditional routine. He had just jogged 4 miles and was getting a bath when I arrived. While he was being scraped-off, Marcie told me the story of how she met her boyfriend, Giacomo Francisci. A native of Italy, he is one of the Team JC assistant trainers.

Back in 2004, she was working for Lindy Farms and he was with Mario Zuanetti’s Atlantic Trot. Both were stabled at Sunshine Meadows in South Florida. Marcie claims that she nearly ran over Giacomo on the training track early one morning. She admits to being somewhat distracted at the time and that it was an honest near-miss. After the chance meeting, the pair exchanged curse words on the track. Following the squabble, the pair started dating, and have been together ever since. Sounds like a match made in heaven to me, built on a solid foundation of sand, stone dust, and crushed seashells. Isn’t love grand!

   Judge Joe & caretker 
                    Judge Joe with caretaker Brian Siemens at Goshen

Wednesday, August 5, 2009--The Luck of the Draw
The ancient Roman poet, Ovid, once wrote: "Luck affects everything; let your hook always be cast. In the stream where you least expect it, there will be fish." Accordingly, 10 hooks have been cast into the sea of trotting superstardom, The Hambletonian at The Meadowlands. The richest and most prestigious race in the harness industry goes for a record $1,520,333 this year, making it the richest race in the last 23 years.

Plenty of the sport’s movers and shakers were on hand Tuesday afternoon in Pegagus for the annual Post Position Draw and Press Conference. Previous to the draw, The Meadowlands produced a fabulous video montage of race clips, stretch drives and fabulous finishes. Adding to the excitement and build-up for the race draw was the impromptu interviews being conducted by stat-man Bob "Hollywood" Heyden and race announcer Sam McKee. Sam is calling his first Hambletonian this year as Ken Warkentin will be adding color to the TV show. Considering Sam’s race calling duties at the Red Mile and the Kentucky Futurity, he may be the first individual ever to be the "man in the booth" for two-out-of-three legs of the Trotting Triple Crown. Congratulations Sam, you have rightfully earned your place in harness history.

During the draw, the elimination winners were given the opportunity to "pick their own posts." That reminds me of the Priceline Negotiator, William Shatner, and "name your own price" for hotel and airfare. The artist formerly known as Captain Kirk owns a farm in Kentucky and breeds American Saddlebreds and Quarter Horses. Perhaps Hollywood Heyden can convince him to come and draw the post positions next year. Hey, we had George Foreman present the trophy, why not? Maybe T.J. Hooker will throw in an all expense paid trip to for two to the 2010 Hambo!

Back at the draw, Greg Peck said that where he comes from the shortest distance between the start and the finish is the rail, so he chose post position one. It seems to me that another recent, undefeated, Hambo favorite also went behind the gate on the very inside. Dave Brower, the now-published handicapper extraordinaire placed Muscle Hill at 3 to 5. I have a sneaky suspicion that he would have been the same price regardless of post.

A horse whose "luck of the draw" was not of the Irish variety, but more like the "that’s racing luck for ya’" type is Judge Joe. The grand looking son of Credit Winner drew post ten--all the way on the outside rail. He will be the horse that all the rail birds get to see up close and personal. And his price for this new-found fame is some extra ground to cover. I caught up with Judge Joe at his summer camp cabin, Goshen Historic Track.

When I arrived, the handsome colt had his head out of the stall and his long, fluffy foretop was blowing in the wind created by a large fan. He seemed to be enjoying it as he kept pushing the stall gate to get closer to the cool breeze. He had already been jogged 4 miles by his trainer, astute horseman D. R. Ackerman. His caretaker, Brian Siemens, was more than happy to take him out of the stall and on to the grass outside the backstretch rail at the Cradle of the Trotter. 
As other horses jogged by, Judge Joe was keeping a close eye on them in between servings of lush grass. Being the caretaker of a Hambletonian finalist could make anyone nervous. Nonetheless, Brian Siemens was as cool as a cucumber when I met him. He was reading the newspaper right in front of Judge Joe’s stall. That reminded me of the manner in which Grand Circuit grooms used to live—right in front of their horse’s stall. As long as they had a chair, a folding cot, and a cooler they were content. Those were the days.

Speaking of memories, it is hard for me to visit with all of the Hambo caretakers this year and not think of the one caretaker I followed around last year for 10 days, Paul Doherty. It was with great sadness that I learned of his illness and subsequent passing during Goshen week. Paul was an extraordinary man. Losing him was a devastating blow to his family, and the industry.

The Doherty’s are some of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and also some of the sharpest horsemen in the business. My sincerest condolences go out to his entire immediate, and extended, family. One bright spot in this sea of despair is that Paul’s wife and daughters will be on hand to present the Caretakers Award to the winning groom at the Hambletonian. It takes tremendous strength and courage to put on a smile, so soon, following such a tragedy. I truly admire their spirit and fortitude in honoring their late loved-one by making the presentation. 
          Dewey and Paul Doherty
      Paul Doherty with Deweycheatumnhowe at the 2008 Hambletonian
Paul, the hardworking horseman, was so generous with his moment of Hambo glory that it was an inspiration just to be around him. One of my fondest memories of 2008 is pushing the race bike from the winners circle while he led a victorious Dewey back to the paddock. In his memory, I remind you to follow Paul’s lead and, "never waste the day!"

Tuesday, August 4, 2009--The Dog Days of Summer
It’s hard to work like a dog, and sleep like a dog, at the same time. Yet, the New Jersey Training Center Circuit has some of each to offer. On any given day, at any given farm, you are sure to find both occurring, simultaneously. Grooms working hard on their charges, and working hard not to step on any number of dogs sprawled out in the middle of the shed-row. Conversely, watch out for dogs working hard at sleeping in the middle of the shed-row, and hoping not to get stepped on. Such is a dog’s life. Sleep, eat, sleep some more. Chase a few critters in between.

For all the harness tracks that steadfastly prohibit the entrance of dogs into their secure stable areas, the training centers have become like the "land of the misplaced dogs." There are big ones, little ones, fat ones and skinny ones, all vying for position and attention. Even with all the horses, people, trucks and trailers going this way and that way, the dogs seem to stay out of harm’s way. You may occasionally find them "under foot," but you will definitely not find them under-represented. At least, that is, not around Noel Daley’s barn at Magical Acres. 
Immediately upon my arrival I was greeted by two Jack Russell’s and a Bulldog named "Dude." They were very friendly, and quickly ushered me into the barn. I stopped by just before afternoon feed time on Sunday and met a native Australian named Mark Vanderkemp. He said that there were more dogs than people, somewhere around 16, just in his barn.

Mark said that he has two primary responsibilities for the Noel Daley Stable; jogs and trains horses all morning, and shoes them all afternoon. The blacksmith shop is set up just inside the front door and appears to be the center of daily activity at the barn. In fact, Mr. Daley employs two such individuals. Brett Hampton also fulfills the farrier/rider role. Keeping a 50-head stable in fresh shoes is no easy task and these men definitely earn their keep. The stable employs about 15 people; 11 grooms and 4 riders (joggers). Another half-dozen horses live and swim at "The Ridge" every day.

Sunday night, after the horses ate it was pretty quiet around the barn. Dude the Bulldog was asserting his authority with the other dogs and about 20 horses were turned out in the rain-soaked paddocks. By Monday morning, the team was into a full court press. Cross chains were swinging and telephones were ringing. The operation was quite a sight to behold; well organized and all business. I caught up with Emma Pettersson and inquired about Explosive Matter. It appears that "Matty" was at the spa today, enjoying a nice, cold, salt-water whirlpool at "The Ridge." On a ninety degree day during the dog days of summer, being a star racehorse certainly has its perks!

Across town, I ran into another star racehorse, Muscle Hill. He was "kicking-back" in his stall at White Birch Farm, after having been jogged by his caretaker, Sylvia Hovde, first thing in the morning. Muscle Hill seemed very relaxed and content as he was stretched out in his stall looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Is that why they call the grooms, "caretakers?" Maybe it is because they take the weight of the world off the shoulders of the trainers and horses.

The champion trotter’s conditioner, Greg Peck, was on the scene and shared some of his thoughts about racing and the Hambo. He said he was glad that the eliminations and the media circus are over. He also lamented about the pressure of "getting in" to the Hambo was steep. "It’s not like the [Kentucky] Derby," he said, "where you are in unless your horse gets injured." Good point. As we all know, anything can happen in a horse race during the dog days of summer!

Saturday, August 1, 2009
Lots can happen in a harness race. Favorites win, and sometimes favorites don’t win. With trotters, even more of the unexpected can happen. Nonetheless, Saturday night at The Meadowlands, some happenings were “as expected.” Some were not. As expected, 2008 2-year-old trotter of the year, and the prohibitive early Hambletonian favorite, Muscle Hill won his elimination.

Explosive Matter also won his elim, despite being in a shipping accident the previous day. Both colts won their respective splits in 1:52.3. Things did not happen as well for Federal Flex. Despite being the overwhelming betting favorite from post seven, he did not overcome being parked to the half. He did, however, earn a spot in the final by virtue of his being the fourth place finisher with the highest money earnings. Symphonic Hanover won that division giving trainer Jonas Czernyson two starters in the final. And such is the happenstance of harness racing. 
                    Explosive Matter and Emma Petterrsson
                      Exposive Matter & caretaker Emma Petterrsson
When circumstances beyond our control happen, the results can be far reaching. Yet sometimes, with a twist of fate and some racing luck, sometimes things work out for the best. Noel Daley, a perennial leading trainer, had a colt in all three of the elimination heats. By far, his best colt, Explosive Matter, who was second to Muscle Hill in the Stanley Dancer, was involved in a minor roll-over on Friday, the day before the Hambo eliminations. Fortunately, nothing serious happened. In fact, the horse emerged from the wreckage without a scratch. Regardless, it must have been a nerve-racking experience for his cool-headed trainer and the colt’s devoted caretaker, Emma Pettersson.

I listened with great interest as Emma described the event to me before the race: “We were leaving the farm in a truck and trailer after swimming the colt. He usually swims at ‘The Ridge’ 2 or 3 times a week. I was in the passenger seat. There was a farm tractor with a side-cutter mowing the grass as we approached a narrow passage. As the driver swerved wide to go around the mower, the trailer tires grabbed and then slid down the wet, grassy bank. The trailer ended up on its side, and I ended up in the driver’s seat. It felt like a horror movie—like everything was in slow motion. It was the worse day of my life.”

Emma and Explosive Matter seemed none the worse for wear, 24 hours later. When I inquired as to the horse’s demeanor following the accident, Emma said: “He was a little more snuggly this morning and we both had a different perspective on life!” Certainly a trip to the final of the $1.5 million Hambletonian could also give one a “different perspective.”

While cruising the paddock for scoops I ran into USTA director and Pennsylvania icon Sam Beegle. He was a little more modest than I had anticipated. When asked if he was excited, he said: “At my age just being here is great. It doesn’t matter what happens.” His colt, NF Quotable raced good and finished fourth. He may have made the final if Federal Flex had finished third or better. But, those things happen in harness racing.

Another modest individual is D.R. Ackerman. His colt, Judge Joe, finished second in a tight pack. Soft spoken, but visibly pleased I caught up with him after the race. He had a bucket in one hand and the harness in the other. The groom was in the spit box with the horse and D.R. was gathering up the gear as he offered this about the colt’s routine: “He made us happy, let’s try to keep him happy.” Shortly thereafter, I overheard him telling some well-wishers: “He made the cut; we got our entry fee back!”
I caught up with a couple of other trainers who were also very calm, cool, and collected. Despite having their first Hambletonian starters, who subsequently made the cut, they were all business before the elimination races. The first was Julie Miller, a hard working and successful trainer in her own right, she is also known as driver Andy Miller’s wife. The pair operate a 30-horse stable at Gaitway Farm. Their entry, The Chancellor, finished third to Muscle Hill in the third split. Julie was very pleasant to talk to and said that she was more excited and happy before the race than nervous. She attributes her success to a great staff and the teamwork that she and her husband enjoy. “Andy works hard in the barn every day and he gives me great feedback after our horses’ race. He is a good horseman who goes above and beyond!” Between racing and training and raising two kids, a son, T.J. (11), and a daughter Olivia (9), they definitely have “lots happening.”

Another trainer with his first Hambo hopeful, Federal Flex, is Canadian Jeff Gillis. Originally from Nova Scotia, he was raised around Standardbreds by his father, Raymond Gillis. His dad was an Owner, Trainer, Driver, Racing Secretary and Paddock Judge at the small track in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia known as Inverness. While still a teenager he moved to Ontario and followed his dreams by saving up for $3,000 claimers. He claims this “non-traditional” route landed him on the training and owning end quickly. He worked for Ben Wallace briefly, but spent most of his time paving his own way. Soft-spoken yet confident, he did say he was a little nervous before the race. Jeff (31) is married with two young boys, ages 4 and 5. When not racing he enjoys Texas Hold’em Poker. As luck would have it, he is still in the game with a colt whose lifetime earnings are approaching three-quarters of a million dollars!

Stay tuned for more Hambo Happenings as the road to The Hambletonian winds through East Rutherford, down the New Jersey Turnpike to Magical Acres, White Birch Farm, Winners International, and Gaitway Farm. Also on the trail, down the Route 17 Quickway in Orange County, New York, will be the Cradle of the Trotter, Goshen Historic Track and Ford’s Farm just off I-84. I certainly encourage input from racing fans and participants. If you have any stories to share, or just want to tell me “what’s happening,” please don’t hesitate to contact me at or 845-807-7538. See ya’ around!


Ticket info - call 800-555-1212