by Dean A. Hoffman
It took 32 years for the Hambletonian to record its first 2:00 mile.
America’s greatest trotting classic was born in 1926 during the Roaring Twenties, and endured the Great Depression and World War II without ever adding a “magic mile” to its luster.
Hoot Mon changed that in 1947 with his epic 2:00 effort at the long-defunct Good Time Park in Goshen.
It was another 31 years before Speedy Somolli tripped the timer at 1:55 in the first heat of the Hambletonian and Florida Pro matched that clocking in the second heat.
The Hambletonian, however, has never notched a 1:50 mile Will this be the year that all changes?
Some might feet that the absence of Walner makes a new record unlikely, but never underestimate what will happen on a hot afternoon with a wide-open field.
Muscle Hill set the current record of 1:50.1 in 2009 and that seemed easily within the reach of Walner, but let’s not dismiss the chance of a 1:50 mile by those seeking the crown in Walner’s absence.
So much depends on the weather and how the heats unfold. With Walner looming as the overwhelming favorite, there was the chance that he would so intimidate his rivals that he could forge to the front, moderate the pace, and dare anyone to challenge him. Walner’s driver Tim Tetrick understands that the first goal in the Hambletonian is simply to win and not set a record. He is also mindful that Walner has many other engagements on his dance card later this season.
But with Walner MIA in the 2017 Hambletonian, could the first 1:50 mile be scored by another trotter?
The Early Years
Guy McKinney won the first Hambletonian at the New York State Fair in Syracuse with a best time of 2:04-3/4. The Hambletonian alternated between Syracuse and Lexington in the early years, with the best winning time Spencer’s 2:02-1/2.
In 1931, the Hambletonian moved to the three-cornered track at Good Time Park in Goshen, where it would remain through 1956. The track featured a sharp first turn, a veritable “Dean Man’s Curve” that ended the chances of more than a few Hambletonian hopefuls.
Any man driving Hambletonian starter at Good Time Park knew that having a fast trotter counted for naught in the Hambletonian if he didn’t stay flat through Dean Man’s Curve.
In 1941, the winner Bill Gallon was able to take home the trophy with a best time of just 2:05. The next year The Ambassador needed only a 2:04 mile to claim the top prize.
The match between Hoot Mon and Rodney in 1947 started with Hoot Mon breaking entering the stretch and Rodney cruising to a first-heat victory. Hoot Mon made no mistakes in the second trip as he whirled to the wire in an astonishing 2:00. Spectators were stunned. Hoot Mon never lowered that mark.
With the death of Hambletonian impresario William H Cane in 1956, the trotting classic relocated west to the resplendent DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in southern Illinois. The mile track was always manicured to perfection and the winning times reflected that.
The fastest heat of 2:00.1 in the first Hambletonian at Du Quoin in 1957 flirted with the stake record, but a year later, the filly Emily’s Pride took off a tick with a 1:59.4 mile. Like Hoot Mon, Emily’s Pride notched her record mile in the second heat.
Record times in the Hambletonian dropped regularly at Du Quoin, notably with Ayres winning in 1:56.4 in 1964 and then Green Speed repeating heats of 1:55.3 in 1977.
The 1978 Hambletonian shaped up as a titanic clash featuring the troika of Speedy Somolli, Florida Pro, and Brisco Hanover. They scared off all but a handful of rivals.
Speedy Somolli drew post one and his cat-quick speed discouraged any challenges away from the gate. The other drivers simply assumed that Howard Beissinger would step on the accelerator at the start to protect his position. That prospect prompted other drivers to duck for cover at the start.
Beissinger, looking over his right shoulder and seeing no pressure, simply let Speedy Somolli dawdle around the first turn and he reached the quarter in 30 seconds. The other drivers knew their horses had no chance if this tempo continued and began to apply pressure.
Speedy Somolli responded by trotting the final three-quarters in 1:25 to record the first 1:55 trotting race in history. Now 94, Beissinger told me recently how proud he was that the milestone was achieved without frantic early fractions.
Rival Florida Pro turned the tables on Speedy Somolli in the next heat with yet another 1:55 mile.
That led to a third heat and Beissinger changed bridles on Speedy Smolli in hopes that a Kant-See-Bak would spur him to finish better. That tactic worked and Speedy Somolli got the trophy.
When the Hambletonian moved East to the Meadowlands in 1981, the winning times began to shade 1:55 on an annual basis. Predictably, Mack Lobell set a record in winning in 1987 and others followed suit.
In 2009, Muscle Hill whirled through an unbeaten season seemingly without breaking a sweat. He tripped the timer in 1:50.1 claiming the Hambletonian for his owners, driver Brian Sears, and trainer Greg Peck.
That eight-year-old record still stands, defiantly withstanding the best efforts in recent years.
Will this year see a new record? It’s certainly possible, although Walner’s absence seems to diminish that prospect. Unexpected things happen when horses strive for the greatest of all American trotting events, so stay tuned.