During the post parade Sam McKee makes it a point to inform the bettors about what brand of sulky a driver is using. If he guesses wrong he will come back prior to the race and make a definitive call. It wasn’t always like that. One of the major reasons the year 1976 serves as a significant turning point for harness racing is the fact that In December of 1975 Joe King’s modified sulky had been successfully introduced as the Yonkers meet came to a close. When racing shifted to Roosevelt Raceway the bike was used on 14 horses on the initial eight race card and six of them won. The bettors cried out for a designation on the program and the OTB entry sheet. The buzz was similar to that which accompanied the emergence of King’s single-shaft sulky earlier in the decade, only this time the USTA was powerless to legislate it out of existence. The modified bike would speed up the game as nothing else had.
Although it was obvious that the horses were moving markedly faster than they had in the past, some trainers, drivers and owners remained in a state of denial. Joe O’Brien was one of those. Seventeen of the eighteen trotters in that year’s Hambletonian were hitched to the new bike; O’Brien’s outstanding Speedy Scot-Armbro Flight filly, Armbro Regina, was the only one pulling a traditional wooden sulky. Regardless, there’s no doubt that the new bike was a major factor in the speed explosion that was initiated in 1976.
Another factor in the sudden explosion of pacing speed was superior breeding. Meadow Skipper was sixteen in 1976. His first crop, which contained Most Happy Fella, hit the track in 1969, and Albatross came along the following year. By ’76 Skipper had a number of quality horses in play, including: Governor Skipper, Handle With Care, Nero, Jade Prince, Escort, Windy Way, Tarport Skipper, Windshield Wiper, Raven Hanover, Seedling Herbert and JR Skipper. They hadn’t taken over yet, but by the time Skipper passed, six years later on January 28, 1982, he was firmly in possession of the crown.
A look at the Little Brown Jug provides us with some perspective on the sea change that was occurring. Pre Skipper—the winners of the Jug came from Adios, Billy Direct, Good Time, Knight Dream, Poplar Byrd and their sons. MHF won the race in 1970—the first year a Meadow Skipper was eligible. This win was followed by a brief dry spell during which Strike out, Melvin’s Woe and Armbro Omaha won the Jug, but during the 42 years from 1970 on, almost 75% of the Jugs were won by colts, and one filly, that trace back to Skipper on the top line. In addition, eight of the first ten editions of the Meadowlands Pace were won by sons or grandsons of Meadow Skipper.
Most Happy Fella’s first crop was four-years-old in 1976, and it included Tarport Hap and Silk Stockings. Oil Burner, whose claim to fame as a stallion lay with No Nukes, was a member of MHF’s second crop, along with Precious Fella, the sire of Tijuana Blue Chip and Whitey’s Fella, as well as the influential New Zealand sire, Smooth Fella. Tyler B came along in ’77 and Cam Fella two years later. No Nukes (79) was MHF’s most influential grandson, giving us Western Hanover and Jate Lobell. Tyler B contributed Dragon’s Lair.
Skipper’s son Nero, who was four in ’76, was a great colt and in March of that year Alan Leavitt syndicated him for $3.6 million, the highest valuation ever placed on a standardbred; there were 25 shares valued at $144,000 each. The first of his progeny raced in 1980 and his last crop hit the track in 1997. He was very prolific, and he was popular, for a while. In the end he was not highly regarded as a sire—Runnymeade Lobell, Icarus Lobell and Trutone Lobell were three of his best. Skipper did have some misses.
Albatross produced plenty of good racehorses, but was not a sire of sires. His son Niatross is credited with success in his first two crops with the likes of Nihilator, Barberry Spur, Pershing Square, Caressable, Handsome Sum, Masquerade, Semalu D’Amour and Smartest Remark, but he fell off the earth after being relocated to New York.
The Skippers did not dominate the sophomore pacing division in 1976. Keystone Ore, Stanley Dancer’s Bye Bye Byrd colt, was the star for most of the season. He won the Cane, Jug, Tattersalls and Bluegrass. But his sire was 21-years-old and Keystone Ore would be his last shooting star. Nesbit, Batman, Bye And Large, Bye Bye Max, Meadow Paige, Albert’s Star, Keystone Smartie and Keystone Memento had all come before Ore. And none of them would extend their dad.
Tar Heel was 28-years-old in 1976. Richmond, a full-brother to Nansemond and Isle of Wight, was a stakes colt but not a prominent one. Like Bye Bye Byrd, Tar Heel, who lived to the age of thirty-four, was past his prime as a stallion. His son O’Brien Hanover was twenty-one, but he had never been anything but a NYSS stallion. Laverne and Isle Of Wight were ten that year, Kentucky was nine and Nansemond eight, but none of them were worth anything as stallions. Steady Beau was sixteen and sired Steady Star, the fastest horse on the planet for nine years, but that one never won anything of note. Armbro Ranger, from Steady Star’s first crop, was a top tier colt, but he was about it.
Good Time had Crash racing as a two-year-old in 1976 but the little guy was just about out of gas. His son Race Time was fifteen but, aside from Dream Maker, there wasn’t much there that year. Good Time’s two best, Columbia George and Best Of All, were nine and twelve, respectively. Like Steady Star, they had Hanover behind them and were primed for outstanding careers at stud. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. George had Beckilyn Hanover, Le Baron Rouge and Timeron Hanover as four-year-olds that year, but none of the sons of Good Time were of any value when it came to extending him.
Bret Hanover, the great hope of the Adios line, was fourteen in 1976, and standing for $2,500 at Castleton Farm.. His son Warm Breeze was three that year. Like Steady Star, Warm Breeze was very fast but his accomplishments on the GC didn’t match his speed. When he won the Matron he paid $118. He was the fastest colt that year at :54.4 and did set a WR of :53.1 the following year at Sacramento. His premier son, Falcon Seelster, was an accomplished sire but unless McArdle throws an outlier Bret is destined to dead end on top with McArdle. It’s Abercrombie who has kept that Adios branch alive via his son, Artspalce. The winners of the last four Jugs have been out of Artsplace mares; 35% of the Jugs since 1970 have been won by colts, and a filly, that are out of Adios line mares. The mares from all of the above were productive, but things began to narrow on top.
Yonkers cancelled their International Pace in March of 1976 after the connections of the top five Down Under pacers turned down their invitations. The devaluation of the dollar as well as harsh quarantine rules that pretty much required a horse to spend most of the season here made the introduction of horses from Australia and New Zealand much less desirable for the Kiwis. Horses like Cardigan bay and Cardinal King that had been so instrumental in the growth of the sport during the 1960s became less prominent. The import business was still strong but there was less incentive to ship the best Down Under horses to North America. The sport had decided to privilege speed over stamina and toughness; distance racing was going the way of the wooden sulky. Also, sire stakes advocates saw a conflict of interest in subsidizing their blood polluters at the same time all these grizzled geldings were being imported from Down Under.
There were 712 two minute miles recorded in 1975; with 20% of the year left there were already double that number recorded in 1976. Yes, the opening of the Meadowlands played a significant role in this but it was more than that. Roosevelt Raceway recorded 25 two minute miles in all of 1975, while in the first 38 nights of the 1976 summer meet in Westbury there were already 31 such miles. Two-year-old Governor Skipper qualified in a pedestrian, by today’s standards, 2:03.4 and it was met with shock and awe.
The speed explosion on the twice arounds wasn’t confined to the top tier horses; on the fourth of July Adelweiss Rainbow won in 2:00 at RR, and the same night the more celebrated Albert’s Star won in :59.3 and Jug winner Seatrain in :58.1. Those three would have amounted to 12% of the 2:00 miles at Roosevelt in all of 1975. Later on in the month Silk Stockings broke her own TR at Monticello, notching a win in :57.2. While Keystone Ore won over the Saratoga half in :56.2. And when Keystone Ore won the Cane his :57.1 mile broke Silk Stockings :58.2 mark for three-year-olds.
Striking Image, a pretty good brother to Ring Of Light and Mirror Image, broke the YR two-year-old TR. Albatross held the RR two-year-old mark of 2:00.4, which he set for Harry Harvey when he jogged in the Roosevelt Futurity, but Stanley Dancer’s Nansemond brother to Triple B, Kawartha Eagle, won in 2:01 at Roosevelt that year, a mere tick off the record. Rambling Willie broke the WR for a mile and a quarter on a half in the Yonkers Summer Series and Handle With Care broke the mile and a half record in the Hudson Valley FFA Pace.
When the Meadowlands opened on September 1, large quality fields and an aggressive style of driving accelerated the parade of broken records. Rambling Willie established the TR beating Nero, and Oil Burner went the third fastest mile ever by a three-year-old in the Holmes, beating Armbro Ranger in :55.1. He had tied the WR of :54.4 for a three-year-old pacer earlier at Syracuse. And Young Quinn got Nero at the wire in :55, a WR for an aged gelding and the third fastest mile in history. The conflation of Meadow Skipper’s influence, the modified sulky and the opening of the Meadowlands led to unprecedented speed.
Five weeks after the Meadowlands opened Jade Prince had folks shaking their heads when the two-year-old Meadow Skipper colt went the fastest race mile ever--:54.1—for Jack Kopas in winning the second heat of the Fayette Pace at The Red Mile. He had paid $30 in the first heat as part of an entry with Super Clint and Crash. The :54.3 win by four-year-old Albatross at Sportsman’s Park in 1972 was and still is a significant marker, similar to Steady Star’s :52 time trial, but having a freshman take that record from him was incredible. Taurus Bomber had equaled the Albatross mark earlier in 1976 at Springfield, but that accomplishment turned into a footnote.
Thirty-seven years later those high tech bikes are still a key ingredient to success, The Big M is still a prominent player in the speed game and Skipper still rules on top. With regard to the latter however, the Volomite line running though Sampson Hanover and SBSW may be mounting a challenge Skipper and his progeny haven’t faced before, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that one.