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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book Review: Buckeye Side Wheelers & Keystone Tail Sitters

Frequenct VFTRG contributor Joe F. offers us a review of Ralph Jone's memoir.  For disclosure purposes, Joe F. does not know Ralph Jones or Kimberly Rinker.  I hope you enjoy his review:

Buckeye Side Wheelers & Keystone Tail Sitters: Reflections on Harness Racing’s Glory Days. By Ralph Jones as told to Kimberly Rinker. 64 pages. $9.95 @ The Harness Racing Museum.

By Ralph Jones
Harness Racing lifer, Ralph Jones, who has been to every Little Brown Jug since 1947, recently published a memoir—as told to Kimberly Rinker—about the various roles he played during “Harness Racing’s Glory Days.” Rinker notes in her Foreword that the 86-year-old Ohio native has served “as a judge, as Deputy Executive Secretary for the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission, and as a harness racing journalist, publicist and photographer.” He gives us a personal survey of his eighty years around the sport.

Mr. Jones was introduced to racing at the country fairs around his native Delaware County as a small child. At that time it was pretty much a free-for-all out on the track as there were no cameras and the judges were generally in no position to catch a driver cutting another’s tires off. Fellow Buckeye Steve Phillips didn’t introduced the mobile starting gate at Roosevelt Raceway until 1946 so Ralph spent his youth tolerating the helter-skelter running starts that were the norm back then. Many of the starts were handicapped, and sometimes handicap barriers were used, while at others the horses scored out Indian-file. Ralph’s reminiscences about the various games played by the drivers in an effort to gain an edge and the countervailing measures the judges employed to insure a fair start are very amusing.

Ralph spent a lot of time at the Delaware track around the time it was built in 1939. He got to watch great horses like Adios, Nibble Hanover, King’s Counsel and Little Pat. Eddie Cobb, Dick Buxton and Gene Reigle were regulars. World War II kept Jones from the first Jug, won by Ensign Hanover in 1946 for Curly Smart, but he hasn’t missed one since.
The book is full of anecdotes culled from Jones’s seven year stint working for Bowman Brown at The Harness Horse, another seven years as Publicity Director at Hempt Farms and fifteen years with the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Fair Commission. Many pertain to horses but those involving people always stress family connections: Gene Sears, his son Jay and grandson Brian; Roy Reigle, his son Gene and grandson Bruce; Billy Haughton and son Peter. He does the same with regard to the bloodlines of the horses he brings up. Harness racing is all about the bonds formed between people and horses for Ralph Jones. One of his prized possessions is a stopwatch given to him as a young man by Sep Palin, the trainer-driver of Greyhound.

In a chapter on speed, he marvels at how fast today’s horses go. He tells Rinker, “Of course back then if you had a horse that could go in 2:10, you had a world beater….If you could beat 2:20 you had a pretty decent trotter or pacer.” Later on he shakes his head over Rock N Roll Heaven’s twin :49.2 heats at Delaware.
The Chapter on “The Little Brown Jug: Through the Years” offers his recollection of Knight Dream, Tar Heel, Adios Harry, Bret Hanover, Hot Hitter and numerous other Jug winners. Many of these call up his personal relationships with owners, drivers and trainers. His observations on these colts, and a filly, and the circumstances of their triumphs are informative and entertaining. There is also quite a bit about the Red Mile and some of the exceptional performances he witnessed there. Pictures from Mr. Jones own collection as well as the USTA archives are interspersed throughout the book. If you approach harness racing from a long term perspective you might want to check it out.

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