The two horses came pounding down the last 80 yards, sulky-to-sulky, nostrils flaring and blowing visible plumes of breath down toward the muddy track, hoofs digging out clots of mud and flicking them to the rear. The drivers rocked hard in their sulkies—one a Hall of Famer used to exceptional horses and big-time purses, the other a race driver trying, perhaps, to shoot out too many lights. The crowd noise swelled as the horses strained for one last surge.
And so it was in the final moments last Saturday afternoon as the Hambletonian, harness racing's premier event, made its debut at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The two trotters, Super Juan and Shiaway St. Pat—along with Olaf, who was out of contention by now—were racing for a third time that day and were just about empty. Harness racing might be struggling elsewhere, but the Meadowlands' executives had strewn money like straw to put on a showcase event. And now, for sure, they had it.
A spirited debate had preceded the race—over the pluses and minuses of even holding it at the Meadowlands, a concrete-and-glass megacomplex to which the Hambletonian had been moved after 24 years on the bucolic fairgrounds of DuQuoin, Ill. The Meadowlands track in East Rutherford, N.J. is less than five miles from Times Square. Meadows the track hasn't got, but it does have 500 pari-mutuel windows, a grandstand capacity of 40,000 and proximity to some 14 million people and the Big Apple's big-time media.
"I used to think the Meadowlands ought to start up its own big trot," said Bill Hayes, whose family owned the DuQuoin fairgrounds until 1979. By selling it to an Iraqi he gave the Hambletonian Society a convenient excuse to move the race. "But the Hambo's far better off here," he continued. "It'll get more attention; it might thrive."
If so, you couldn't judge by Saturday's attendance. It rained all morning and only 20,677 showed up. That's a smaller crowd than the Meadowlands drew for its regular racing card the night before. Still, about 110 newspapermen covered the race, and ABC televised it to an estimated 15 million spectators.
A record field of 24, split into two divisions, started the Hambo, perhaps because the Meadowlands had boosted the purse from last year's $293,570 to $838,000. Said Hall of Fame Driver Delvin Miller as he scanned the entries on Friday, "It looks like everybody who can walk is in this thing."
Horsemen entered all sorts of long shots. One was Olaf, who has had sore knees, among other complaints. Another was Santa Ana, a 43-to-l shot who didn't stay on gait in six of his previous seven races. Santa Ana is owned by Bill Hayes, who admits he bought him in 1979 for $86,000 with designs on the 1981 Hambo. Santa Ana's past performances didn't discourage Hayes. "What the heck," he said, "you're only eligible once. And if Santa stays fiat, he's got a ton of trot."
Although no clear-cut prerace favorite had emerged, there were five or six serious contenders, including Super Juan, a small but game colt driven by Hall of Famer Howard Beissinger, winner of the Hambletonian in 1969, 71 and 78. A week before, Super Juan won a prep race in 1:57[3/5], the fastest time of the year for a 3-year-old trotter.
To win the Hambletonian a horse must come in first in two heats over the mile track. The first five finishers in each division would qualify for another heat. If that didn't produce a two-heat winner, there would be a race-off among the three single-heat winners. In the first division, a surprising Olaf sped to the lead, trotting a half mile in a quick 1:00 flat, and was never seriously challenged as he cruised home in a slow 2:03[4/5]. Super Juan broke stride early, but recovered to finish fourth and qualify for the next heat. Olaf, winless in four official 1981 races, was driven by Carl Allen, a part owner of the colt who, like Beissinger, races mainly on the prestigious Grand Circuit.
In the second division, Shiaway St. Pat broke wide from the seven hole, took the lead, opened up a six-length gap turning for home and won by 1� lengths over Banker Barker, the 6-to-5 favorite. It was only the second start for Shiaway in a Grand Circuit stakes this year against top 3-year-old trotters.