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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Nemesis In Harness Racing

The nemesis has always played a prominent role in harness racing, the horse that doesn’t qualify as a full-fledged rival to a star performer, but serves as an ever present irritant.

Perhaps the most famous such relationship involved Bret Hanover and his paternal brother Adios Vic. Bret lost only six of his 68 races, and four of those losses (five heats) were to the smaller, more compact Vic. Despite his heft, Bret could dance around a half, while the less agile but very fast Vic struggled on the turns and functioned best on a big track.

 Bret Hanover won all 24 freshman starts and suffered his initial defeat in the first heat of the Review Futurity in Springfield, Ill, after winning 35 races without a loss. Bret won by winning the second heat in a faster time but Vic and his pilot, Jim Dennis, had ended the streak. Bret subsequently suffered another pair of losses to Vic two weeks later at Indianapolis, when the big guy dropped a heat and the race-off of the Horseman Futurity.

Big Bum suffered still another loss to his nemesis in Illinois when Vic beat him in the Washington Park Stake the following year.

And he struck again, for the last time, in the $20,000 Preview Pace at Hollywood Park, Bret’s penultimate start. Frank Ervin made the mistake of backing down the half, leaving his horse at the mercy of Vic’s lethal late kick. True Duane beat Bret Hanover in his final start, the American Pacing Classic, but Jim Denis and his charge set the win up by getting into Ervin’s head and inspiring him to flip tactics and go the fastest competitive mile ever—1:54.3. Unfortunately, the race was at a mile and an eighth.

The great pacer Albatross, a two-time Horse of the Year, the winner of 59 of 71 lifetime starts and the first Standardbred to earn more than $500,000 in a single season, had no rival, but Nansemond was his nemesis. The latter, a rugged son of Tar Heel, beat Super Bird in five heats through the three years they competed. This led to victories in four races: The Little Brown Jug, the Adios Harry at Brandywine, the Suburban Downs Pacing Derby at Hawthorne and an invitational at Liberty Bell. The last three came at age four.

The Jug, where Albatross took the first heat and Nansemond the other two, was a crushing defeat for the son of Meadow Skipper. Trainer-driver Stanley Dancer never got over that one. While the other three came in July, August and October of the champ’s four-year-old campaign.  And these losses were compounded by the three defeats Albatross suffered to Nansemond’s full brother, Isle Of Wight, in March of that year. The six-year-old beat him in the Milestone at Liberty Bell, the Provincial Cup at Windsor Raceway and the Clark Memorial back at Liberty Bell. These losses, in tandem with the compromised health of Stanley Dancer, so shook some members of the syndicate that Dancer came very close to being replaced.

Albatross beat Nansemond in the Star Pointer, Sheppard, Roosevelt Futurity, Messenger, Cane, Battle Of Brandywine, Canadian Pacing Derby, LK Shapiro, NPD, APC and others. So he was clearly better, but his nemesis and that one’s driver Herve Filion, did get under his skin.

Dancer also dealt with Songcan, a nemesis to his Triple Crown winner Super Bowl, who was born a year after Albatross. In the spring and early summer of their sophomore campaign, Songcan was considered the best trotter in the division. He crushed Super Bowl and Spartan Hanover as the 1-2 favorite in the Dexter Cup at Roosevelt Raceway in June, but Super Bowl, who won 23 of 28 starts that year, soon exerted his superiority.

When Super Bowl, who required an oversized sulky and was referred to as Big Dummy by his groom, looked to complete the Triple Crown with a win in the Kentucky Futurity, Songcan, and the little pest sitting behind him, George Sholty, gave the big guy flat tires in both heats. The son of Stars Pride was steered to victory, regardless, by Stanley Dancer.

Sholty, who weighed in at 108 pounds in his prime, was a protagonist in another such relationship. Florida Pro, a tall, handsome son of Arnie Almahurst, who wasn’t particularly handy but possessed a big turn of speed, made life miserable for world champion Speedy Somolli.

Florida Pro took three straight from Somolli at two, while in the process of going 9 for 13. He then engineered a spectacular win over Howard Beissinger’s charge in the Beacon Course Trot the following year at The Meadowlands, as the 3-5 favorite.

The pair traded wins in the first two heats of the Hambletonian, before Somolli prevailed by a nose in the final.

Florida Pro then beat the son of Speedy Crown in the Colonial in 1:58.1, which equaled the world record on a 5/8 track, which was held by his buddy Somolli, who also held the mile record.

Both wound up in Sweden, Speedy Somolli after standing 11 years in New Jersey and Florida Pro after putting in nine years at Hanover. The former, the grandsire of Valley Victory, tasted more success in that realm. Florida Pro, the sire of Sugarcane Hanover, on the other hand, was an unsuccessful but very fertile and prolific sire—the worst kind.

Check Me Out, from the first crop of Donato Hanover, was a world champion and division winner at two and three. She’s still the second richest offspring of her sire in North America. She won 25 of 31 starts as a filly, primarily for Tim Tetrick, and earned $1.8 million over those two years. CMO had no significant wins at four.

Her nemesis was Maven, who is pretty much a one off from her sire, the Triple Crown winner Glidemaster. The pair were together from the start; CMO won the first qualifier either appeared in by eight lengths at The Meadowlands in June, 2011. Maven was fourth.

Despite the fact that they were both eligible to the PASS, they only crossed paths one other time at two. Check Me Out won a $55,000 sire stakes split at Chester as the 2/5 favorite in August. While Maven had a good year, CMO kept a much higher profile, winning the Merrie Annabelle, Peaceful Way, BC and Matron.

In mid-May of 2015 Maven, who was driven by Yannick Gingras, beat CMO in that one’s seasonal debut, in a split of the PASS at The Meadows. Trainer Ray Schnittker positioned the filly so far back she couldn’t possibly win. CMO had a 3-2 advantage at three. Both finished out in the Oaks when disaster struck around the last turn. The Donato filly took the Elegantimage, Bluegrass and PA Championship, while Maven won the Breeders Crown. The latter signaled the role shift within the division for the pair and that carried over to the following year when CMO never got untracked while Maven beat her in the Allerage Mare and BC elimination and final.

Check Me Out beat Maven 128 to 12 in the Dan Patch voting at three. Still, one might argue that Maven was more than a nemesis: she retired at age 7 with $1.7 million in the bank and a world record, while CMO retired at four with $1.9 million and having set three world records.

Die Laughing and chauffeur Richie Silverman were a pain in Artsplace’s butt at two and three. They split at two, with the No Nukes colt beating  Art in the elimination and final of the Presidential at Garden State, while the latter won the Governor’s Cup at that same track and the BC in a world record performance at Pompano Park. The quest for division honors came down to that race in which Die Laughing was the 3/5 choice from the six while Art was 3/1 from the three. The decisive win elevated the son of Abercrombie to millionaire status and secured the Dan Patch for him.

The following year Die Laughing beat Artsplace in the Prix d’Ete and the Messenger. He also topped the million-dollar mark, becoming only the second to win a million dollars at both two and three. Precious Bunny trumped both of them, winning the division as well as Horse of the Year honors.

Krispy Apple certainly tormented See You At Peelers. The latter took the division at two and three and kicked her career off with a streak of 22 wins, but the pugnacious daughter of Western Ideal was always buzzing around her. Peelers retired four long years ago but 8-year-old KA is still performing at a high level; she’s banked $70,000 already this year and is now about $89,000 ahead of Peelers in the lifetime earnings column.

Major Look was a thorn in the side of American Jewel at three. The Art Major filly beat the world champion in her seasonal debut at Vernon Downs as the 15/1 underdog to the 1/5 Jewel. And two months later Major Look beat Jewel in the Shalee at The Meadowlands in 1:49.3. This time she was a 10/1 outsider. 

After Mission Brief went into self-destruct mode in the Breeders Crown and Wild Honey took the prize, some, including trainer Jimmy Takter, said Wild Honey should be the division winner. She had taken the measure of the Muscle Hill speed demon in their previous encounter, in the KY Filly Futurity, and she had also won the Oaks while Mission Brief was finishing second in the Hambletonian. If this isn’t being a nemesis, what is? Ron Burke’s charge had already beaten her tormentor in the Zweig, Elegantimage and Moni Maker, and would redeem herself for the miscue in the BC with wins over Honey in the Matron and Continentalvictory. What more did they want? Cooler heads prevailed come election time.

Joe FitzGerald


JLB said...

Fascinating historical recap, Joe, thank you !!

William Waters said...

As usual, great essay, Joe. I might add, I love it when your work also gets in HRU so that even more readers get to enjoy your work.