By Perry Lefko
Photo:R. Gauwitz Hanover has been claimed 11 straight times (Curtis Salonick photo)
R. Gauwitz Hanover is making a name for himself by the number of times he’s been claimed this year, while at the same time making his namesake proud.
The six-year-old Modern Art gelding, named after a 75-year-old disabled individual who lives in a nursing home in Illinois, has been claimed 11 consecutive times this year racing in Philadelphia. R. Gauwitz Hanover is scheduled to race Sunday in a $20,000-$25,000 claiming handicap race at Harrah’s Philadelphia and one of his former trainers, Marty Fine, told Harness Racing Update he has interest in claiming him back.
But there will likely be several claims put in for the horse because that’s been the scenario since July 11.
According to David Carr of the United Stated Trotting Association, the record for consecutive claims belongs to the pacing mare Champagnesupernova, who was haltered 13 times in a row in 2003 racing at The Meadows. R. Gauwitz Hanover is tied for second with the pacer Automatic Teller for consecutive claims. Automatic Teller was claimed 11 times in succession in 2013 at Harrah’s Philadelphia and Mohegan Sun at Pocono.
In his last start, September 26 at Pocono Downs, R. Gauwitz Hanover was haltered for $25,000 by trainer Nicholas Gampietro, who claimed him for $17,500 back in May before the streak began.
Since the first of the 11 claims, he has won eight races and has never placed worse than third. He’s currently on a three-race win streak. Overall this year, he has raced 27 times and has won 15 and banked almost $130,000.
He’s been claimed 14 times overall this year.
Almost as amazing as the number of times he’s been claimed is the fact that he is getting faster with age. He recorded a lifetime mark this year of 1:49 on a five-eighths mile track.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, and usually you won’t see it because horses can’t hold up to environmental changes that continuously, but this is such a great horse,” Fine said. “He’s really a $50,000 claimer, but because Pocono only has claimers up to $25,000, he has to be claimed. If you go back in the horse’s history, he was meant to be a good horse.”
The horse’s namesake is Ralph Gauwitz, who was born with spastic cerebral palsy and has had to overcome various physical challenge and health issues. Gauwitz has been a lifelong fan of harness racing and was honored by the Illinois State Fair in the fall of 2009 through the efforts of veteran racing writer Dean Hoffman. They first met in 1968 and became good friends. Hoffman asked Russell Williams, Chairman of Hanover Shoe Farms, if the breeding farm would name a yearling in honor of Ralph. Hanover includes its name as a suffix in all the horses they breed, so to call a horse Ralph Hanover, one of all-time great pacers in harness racing history, would have been sacrilege. So the nursery came up with an alternative and, in fact, named two horses after Ralph – a trotter and a pacer – the first time it had ever done that.
Celebrity Gauwitz, a trotter originally named Gauwitz Hanover, has not been as successful as R. Gauwitz Hanover. Purchased for $37,000 as a yearling at the Harrisburg Sales, the gelding by Yankee Glide has raced 12 times this year and earned $1,511. Overall, he’s raced 55 times, has won six and banked $41,509.
R. Gauwitz Hanover was purchased as a yearling at the Harrisburg Sales by Canadian-based Landmark Racing Stable for $30,000. Howard Pearce, who manages Landmark, said Mark Steacy, who trains horses for the group, was contacted by Williams asking if it could retain the name rather than changing it.
“They certainly didn’t know anything about the background of the name,” Hoffman said of Landmark. “A lot of credit to Russell Williams (for doing what he did) and the original owners who bought him as a yearling and retaining that name.”
Through Hoffman, Howard Pearce, who manages the Landmark group, contacted Gauwitz.
“Every time the horse was doing something good or getting ready to qualify, I would phone Ralph and we became telephone pals,” Pearce said.
The horse began his career in Ontario and did decently in Ontario Sires Stakes races, earning just north of $85,000 in 11 juvenile starts. Following one of the horse’s OSS Grassroots victories in which the ownership group was presented a trophy, Pearce sent it to Gauwitz. It sits prominently in Ralph’s room. Pearce did not tell Gauwitz he was sending the trophy.
“The package showed up one day and I had several long letters that day and I set that package under a chair and forgot about it for awhile,” he recalled. “Then one of the seeing aids walked after it had been sitting there for awhile and asked, ‘what’s this?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She opened it and it was the trophy. I was overwhelmed.”
Suspensory ligament issues limited the horse to only six starts as a three-year-old, earning about $30,000. He was subsequently put up for a sale by Landmark, which has a policy of selling their horses after the three-year-old seasons.
Steacy, who trained the gelding in his first two seasons of racing, is pleasant surprised by the gelding’s efforts.
“I knew the horse had that kind of ability, but I’m surprised because he was very lame when I had him at the end because of the suspensories,” Steacy said. “He was a very nice horse. He was very talented and tried his hardest.”
“He was going to be a really good horse until he (was injured),” Pearce said. “I have him on my TrackMaster and the name keeps coming up because he’s winning.”
Fine compared R. Gauwitz Hanover to the great Cam Fella – the Pacing Machine. As ridiculous as that may seem, Fine has experience working with both horses and said the attitude and the desire to win is similar.
“He has ailments that most claimers do, but he’s just a great horse,” Fine said. “On a personal side I wish he wasn’t claimed that much. I wish I could have claimed him and just kept him in my barn. But in fairness to the horse, to do that you would have to race against Open company because of the amount of money he’s made. I don’t know if it’s good for any horse to be claimed 11 times in a row, but I do know this is a special animal. Legitimately he’s a $50,000 claimer, but to race him in (the) Open (class), you would be doing an injustice to the horse because of his will to win. You’d break him down completely. He will race his guts out. A lot of horses will protect themselves when they know they’re in too tough and won’t give you the same effort. This horse will go as much as he can go to try to win.
“He’s one of those horses, boy, you wish they were all like that – the heart of a tiger. Truly a privilege to be around, he’s a great horse. If you take care of him, he will take care of you. When you get that I-want-to-win attitude from a horse they will overcome many things.
“But 11 claims in a row, no other horse could ever overcome it but him.”
Driver George Napolitano, who is the regular pilot of the gelding, listed him as the toughest horse he’s ever steered.
“This horse has a special piece of my heart,” Napolitano said. “He’s got big, round, ugly legs. He’s always sore. He’s not sound. He shows it before the race. He shows it after the race. I’m sure he shows it all week because I’ve got friends that have trained him and owned him. That’s why he’s not in the top caliber.
“But when you get him behind the gate he turns into an Open pacer with big legs. He just amazes me at what he does. I have a love affair with that horse. He’s a Superman in a horse. He’s a superstar in my eyes. I’ve driven a lot of old, tough claimers that I thought were my favorite, but he gets the award. He’s beat some good horses from bad posts. He’s definitely going to be in my scrap book.
“He’s overcome some gong-show races. He’s definitely a prize. He’s a Mike Tyson in horseflesh. He refuses to lose. He’s gritty. I don’t care who’s listed as the trainer, as long as they feed him, keep him happy, he just seems to amaze everybody that owns him and trains him.
“If they had $30,000 or $40,000 claiming races at Pocono, he’d be in there winning. That’s the bottom line. It’s kind of sad that that poor horse gets rented every week. He’s got a different home. It breaks my heart a little bit because as good as he is, you would love to see him have one good trainer and have somebody take care of him. It’s sad that every week he goes to a different home. It’s like a foster child; you never know who your parents are going to be. I wish they would have a different policy, so if a horse got claimed more than five times it gets to race two or three times without being claimed. That horse has probably got 10 or more claims on him every week, but I don’t make the rules. All I do is drive racehorses. ”
Gauwitz follows the horse through a friend who provides him with updates when his namesake is racing. Gauwitz, who at one time was involved in breeding horses, specifically trotters, said the horse means a lot to him.
“I was into trotters until this (pacer) came along,” Gauwitz said. “He was something of a disappointment as a three-year-old – he just wasn’t sound – but he’s come back and has been a little bit better each year since. This year he’s been about as good as you can get. He’s got a mark of 1:49 on a five-eighths mile track. I can remember when 1:49 on any track was a big deal. He’s been racing (virtually) every week. I just figure unless I hear otherwise he’s going to race sometime, somewhere during the weekend.
“He gives me a reason to get up every day,” Gauwitz added. “Some days without that I wouldn’t feel like I had a reason to get up. He gives me a reason to look forward to every weekend, which is otherwise the same as every other day.”
Hoffman is happy that the horse’s current performance has brought some happiness to Gauwitz.
“Harness racing was the light of Ralph’s life since the time he was a kid, no doubt about it,” Hoffman said. “He’s had a lot of hardship in his life, but Ralph’s never complained about his disability. It’s something he’s had to live with.”
You might say Ralph Gauwitz and the horse named after him have had to overcome physical challenges, but both truly have heart.