Harness Racing In New York State. By Dean A. Hoffman. History Press. 124 pages. $19.99.
During the past decade we’ve seen the emergence of historical biographies that have caught fire with the general public and become wildly successful: two examples are Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and David McCullogh’s John Adams. Both books conflate the nuts and bolts of the historical record with colorful anecdotes and read like novels. Well, harness racing’s premiere present day historian, Dean Hoffman, has done the same thing, on a smaller scale, in his new book about the highs and lows of standardbred racing and breeding in New York. From Messenger charging down a gangplank when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1788 to the regulators cracking down on Lou Pena, we get an overview of the growth of the sport in New York, as well as an anecdote laden narrative about the men and horses that made it happen.
Hoffman was an Associate/Contributing Editor at Hub Rail during the latter half of the seventies, subsequently moving on to a twenty-five year stint as Executive Editor at Hoof Beats, beginning in 1981. He published Castleton Farm: A Tradition of Standardbred Excellence in 1995 and Yankeeland: The Farm The Kellers Built in 2005. While those were niche books geared to a hard core harness racing audience, Harness Racing In New York State will have broader appeal, and it is written in a straightforward, congenial style that will satisfy the expert while not scaring away the newcomers to the sport. The same sort of engaging reminiscences that have always played a role in Hoffman’s work can be found throughout this book.The almost seventy photographs which are synchronized with the text are superb. Digital age editing techniques have breathed new life into historical black and white images, some from the author’s personal collection. The chapter layout works for the reader and the text is print-friendly
The book’s preface zeroes in on August 1, 1959, the night of the First Roosevelt International Trot—the seminal point for the metropolitan brand of harness racing that has dominated the latter half of the twentieth Century. And it’s only fitting that the first three words in that preface are George Morton Levy, who along with Bob Johnson—as Hoffman points out—and Bill Cane, did the dirty work with the politicians and unions that led to the meteoric rise of harness racing in metropolitan New York.The Hambletonion, which was first raced in Syracuse and later at Bill Cain’s mile long, pear-shaped track in Goshen, remained in New York from its inception in 1926 until 1957, when it was relocated to DuQuoin, and Hoffman gives us a colorful account of the people and horses involved in the early days of that classic.
Steve Phillips, Marty Tananbaum, Allen Finkelson, Ted Zornow: all the characters are included in this book. There’s plenty of behind the scenes political intrigue, too. Hoffman goes into the long road travelled by the legislation that finally allowed for pari-mutuel betting in New York, as well the Laverne Law, which has allowed the sire stakes program to flourish. The longstanding battle between the USTA and the New York regulators is also covered.A chapter on race-fixing in New York would obviously be out of place here, but I do take issue with Hoffman’s approach to that topic. He states: “There were always challenges to the racing industry, of course. Where money and wagering is involved, there will always be a suspicion that some things are not exactly kosher.”
No, say it isn’t so. At Yonkers, Roosevelt and Monticello? He writes about an inquiry initiated by the Brooklyn DA in August, 1966 in which Bill Haughton was subpoenaed to testify and his name appeared in the papers. Oh, well. Sholty, Insko, Chapman and Gilmour got the same subpoena, and so did Tod Gibbons, Phil Tully and John Cashaman Jr, the racing secretaries at Roosevely, Yonkers and Monticello. Sure, the authorities, State and Federal, did plenty of grandstanding back then, and there were plenty of investigations that generated lots of publicity but went nowhere, but this was not a case of the mean and nasty authorities picking on poor, innocent harness racing.At a Congressional hearing in Washington in 1972, a proposal was made that either a national racing czar be appointed or pari-mutuel racing be eliminated. The legislators had just watched a video of the Mr Ace-- Moonstone Bay boat race at Yonkers. A $28 winner and a 9-2 place horse gave the bettors a $43 payoff. The trainer of the horse blocking for the winning combination and another trainer-driver collected more than $26,000 on the exacta, and the owner of that horse wound up dead in the trunk of a car in Brooklyn the following week. A Yonkers Raceway executive and a state-appointed track official also displayed their skill as handicappers; they collected $6,000 on that race.
The toxic cocktail of OTB, the superfecta, and inflated pools generated by the televising of those gimmick races, brought cheating to a new level. A sophisticated betting syndicate eliminated two horses in most races featuring the super and hence reduced the box price to $1,080—bingo. The Director of Monticello Raceway from 1959 to 1972 was indicted for tax fraud when he had others cash $10,000 worth of super tickets that belonged to him. Buddy Gilmour, Ben Webster and Carmine Abbatiello were three of the drivers barred from Roosevelt by George Morton Levy. It goes on and on. You can’t understate corruption when discussing harness racing in New York.Another minor objection is that only five drivers are listed in the Empire Builders chapter at the end of the book: Carmine Abbatiello, Glen Garnsey, William Haughton, Thomas W Murphy, Harry Pownall and Cat Manzi. All are accomplished New York natives and deserving of mention, but Herve Filion deserves more than a spot in a picture of Tim Rooney. From the winter of 1967, when he was assigned a dozen stalls at Yonkers, up until his indictment in 1995, Herve was a force to be reckoned with in New York. The fact that he was born in Canada shouldn’t discount his contribution.
And while I’m at it, Goshen native Elizabeth Rorty is recognized as an Empire Builder, which makes sense, but none of the men who covered the sport for the metropolitan newspapers get much recognition—writers like Louis Effrat, Warren Pack and Clyde Hirt. The promoters like Lou Barasch, Joe Goldstein and Nick Grande also deserve high marks for creating an audience for the Roosevelt International and beyond that for keeping the ball rolling through good times and bad with their crazy promotions.Hoffman does a wonderful job detailing the rise of the New York Sire Stakes program, from the early sixties when the ability to get around the track without falling down seemed to be the only prerequisite for stallion status, to the elevation of the program to national status via Oscar Kimelman and his Blue Chip Farm. His acquisition of Most Happy Fella in the early seventies was a game changer. The disconnect between purse money and performance started to shrink and New York bred yearlings became desirable to top owners and trainers. This chapter is loaded with information on the sire stakes races, the Old Glory Sale and the stallions that populated the various breeding operations that sprouted up around the state during the sixties and seventies.
While Roosevelt and Yonkers were clearly the driving force in New York racing, and get the most play in the book, Hoffman also details the establishment of racing at the various satellite tracks around the state. We find out when Batavia, Buffalo, Saratoga, Vernon Downs and Monticello came online and the circumstances and people behind those operations. Again, we get details and background information in a conversable format.Trust me, this book will tell you plenty that you didn’t know about racing in New York. We haven’t seen anything like it for ages, and the way things are going we may not see anything like it again.