As we approach the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Meadowlands (Sept. 1, 1976), let’s take a look at a few items of interest stemming from those early days, many of which still resonate today.
The last seven times the richest race in the sport’s history was contested, it happened at the Meadowlands:
7. 1977 Meadowlands Pace (won by Escort for a purse of $425,000)
6. 1978 Meadowlands Pace (Falcon Almahurst, $560,000)
5. 1979 Meadowlands Pace (Sonsam, $750,000)
4. 1979 Woodrow Wilson (Niatross, $862,750)
3. 1980 Meadowlands Pace (Niatross, $1,011,000)
2. 1980 Woodrow Wilson (Land Grant, $2,011,000)
1. 1984 Woodrow Wilson (Nihilator, $2,161,000)
Thirty-two years later and no one, anywhere has topped the high water mark of Nihilator and Bill O’Donnell winning the Wilson for Billy Haughton with a colt from the first crop of Niatross — who himself is the only horse in the last 40 years to twice win the richest race in the sport’s history.
The richest race prior to the Meadowlands opening was the $236,250 Monticello OTB Classic in 1976 won by Oil Burner. Two days after the Meadowlands opened in 1976, Steve Lobell won the Hambletonian in four heats at DuQoin for a purse of $263,524.
Haughton is the only trainer in history to win two races valued at over $1.75 million. Nihilator in 1984 in the Wilson and McKinzie Almahurst in the 1981 Wilson ($1,76 million). The latter was the only million-dollar driving victory in Haughton’s incredible career.
For those who do not remember the prominence of the Woodrow Wilson or where born too late, here’s one for you: The six richest races ever held were all Woodrow Wilsons from the 1980s.
Quiz (it’s a tough one)
Q. Who was the first Hambletonian winner that John Campbell ever drove?
A. In 1983, Campbell qualified Historic Freight (1984 winner with Benny Webster) three times for Skip Lewis. So, technically, that would be the first. Campbell’s first Hambletonian-winning victory came with Mack Lobell in 1987.
Abbatiello at 80
No Jug, Pace, Hambletonian or Breeders Crown. For Carmine Abbatiello, that’s no problem. Abbatiello, who turned 80 in May, is one of the most likeable – and talented – drivers ever.
From 1975, when he led all of North America as the only driver past $2 million ($306,000 ahead of Benny Webster) the Red Man was in the top three in the nation for the first five years of operation at the Meadowlands. This despite the fact that he was only a regular in East Rutherford, NJ the first year, 1976.
Remember that when the Meadowlands began, it was the Herculean efforts of one Anthony Abbatiello (Carmine’s older brother) that got the ball rolling. A $300 million project developed legs due, in no small part, to the insistence and persistence of the man who nearly single-handedly got the SBOA of NJ going, got the USTA in 1973 to recognize the state of New Jersey as “District 12″, lifted up the New Jersey Sires Stakes program that went from 10 registered stallions to 81 in the state in a single calendar year.
Hats off to Tony Abbatiello, Hall Of Famer and a true visionary/pioneer in his efforts to get New Jersey racing on the map — and, specifically, the Meadowlands and the Sports Complex a reality.
Maybe the best quote from Tony four decades back was: “We pull together or we starve together. That’s the secret to our success.”
Q. The first trotter to win a Meadowlands race was also the first Horse of the Year to appear in East Rutherford. Who was he?
A. Savoir, the 1975 HOY, won in race six on Sept. 2, 1976 for the Haughton barn. He became the first trotter to win with Peter Haughton driving, even though father Billy Haughton was listed. Also on that card was a freshman by the name of B Gs Bunny. He won, too, less than a year before scorching the oval to a 1:24.1 three quarter time in his Meadowlands Pace elimination en route to a 1:54 world record mile. That race turned out to be his last, too. He came up lame and headed to a stallion career. Thee aforementioned McKinzie Almahurst was from his very first crop and won the $1,760,000 Wilson of 1981.
Wellwood was there
Bill Wellwood was driving at the Meadowlands on the track’s second night of live racing when he drove Dar Hanover from post 10 in the final race on the card. That drive was a mere 40 years before his daughter Paula would call the Hambletonian trophy hers in 2016 with a gallant colt named Marion Marauder.
Also on night #2
A six-year-old horse named Arbor Bachelor also raced on the second night card. Seven years later, when John Campbell won seven in a row at the Big M, Arbor Bachelor, at age 13, was one of his winners.
Niatross was born six months after the Meadowlands opened, but many would consider him the greatest performer in the history of the track.
Q. Can you name the only horse of the 117 Niatross faced in his career, that earned over $1 million lifetime?
A. J Ds Buck, a 39-time lifetime winner for Ron Waples, banked $1,141,792.