by Dean A. Hoffman
In early March, 2008, trotting Triple Crown winner Windsong’s Legacy died suddenly after serving a mare at Perretti Farms in New Jersey. He was seven years old.
He was starting only his fourth season at stud and his limited number of foals included the 2012 Horse of the Year Chapter Seven, now off to a rousing stud in the stud with his son Walner.
Five years later, tragedy would once again strike the stallion barn at Perretti Farms. Rocknroll Hanover, the 2005 Horse of the Year, showed signs of discomfort in mid-March, 2013, and he was rushed to Mid-Atlantic Equine in nearby Ringoes.
Examining veterinarians found the champion pacer was suffering from gastric impaction and had no choice but to euthanize him. Rocknroll Hanover was only 11.
It was yet another devastating loss. Rocknroll Hanover had won the Meadowlands Pace, Breeders Crown, and North America Cup in his sophomore season. After his short time in the stallion ranks, he had sired a Horse of the Year in Rock N Roll Heaven as well as Put On A Show and A Rocknroll Dance.
So the recent death of Somebeachsomewhere was not certainly not unprecedented in standardbred history. Death seems to love a shining mark. Few events are more poignant that a life unfulfilled. We mourn all deaths, but when a person — or, for our purposes, a horse — dies prematurely, the sting of loss hurts so much more.
Thus was the case with Windsongs Legacy, Rocknroll Hanover, and Somebeachsomewhere. But they are only among the latest in the history of harness racing.
Somebeachsomewhere had been treated for cancer for months and his death, while tragic, was not wholly unexpected. Yet it certainly was wholly devastating to the breed and to those people closest to the champion — trainer and part-owner Brent MacGrath and his partners and the team at Hanover Shoe Farms.
Somebeachsomewhere is not the first outstanding pacing stallion at Hanover Shoe Farms stallions lost at the unlucky age of 13.
In 1990, Tyler B died at age 13. The son of Most Happy Fella hit with remarkable impact when his first foals raced in 1984. They include Dragon’s Lair, Amneris, and Dignitarian. He later added the gifted filly So Cozy and Tyler B gained a posthumous Little Brown Jug credit when his son Magical Mike won the Jug in 1991.
In 1947, Billy Direct died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack, in his paddock at Hanover Shoe Farms. The full impact of that loss was perhaps not fully appreciated. While he had sired Ensign Hanover, the winner of the first Little Brown Jug in 1946 in his first season (1942) at Hanover, Billy Direct would gain two posthumous Jug credits in Dudley Hanover (1950) and Tar Heel (1951).
In fact, you can perhaps make the case that Billy Direct accomplished more in a few years at Hanover than any other stallion. The farm’s broodmare band at that time was comprised largely of trotting-bred mares as Billy Direct was the first pacing stallion ever in the Hanover stud barn.
In addition to his trio of Jug winners, Billy Direct sired the dams of pacing champs such as Adios Butler and Bullet Hanover.
The same year that Billy Direct died at Hanover, the young Hambletonian winner Spencer Scott was declared sterile and withdrawn from stud service. He started in the stud at Hanover the same year as Billy Direct.
Spencer Scott’s son Rodney would reign as Horse of the Year in 1948 and Rodney’s brother Egan Hanover won the Kentucky Futurity the same season.
The year that Rodney and Egan Hanover were making headlines, the Hambletonian winner was a storybook colt named Demon Hanover.
He was a horseman’s dream on the track, but the man who trained and drove him was not a horseman at all. Harrison Hoyt was a hat manufacturer in Connecticut who bought Demon as a hobby horse and trained him on a one-third mile track across from his home.
Demon turned out to be a star on the track and Hoyt rejected a $100,000 offer (more than $1 million in current dollars) for him during his sophomore season. Demon won the Hambletonian easily and later went to stud at Gay Acres Farm in Ohio.
When his first foals — horses such as Steamin Demon, Demon Rum, Buckeye Demon, Demon Damsel and many others — raced so successfully, young John Gaines approached Bob Critchfield of Gay Acres to buy Demon for $505,000 and syndicate him. Critchfield wasn’t allergic to money, but was puzzled by the odd figure.
“Del Miller syndicated Adios for $500,000 and I’d like to top that price,” Gaines said. Critchfield refused to play that game. He said that Miller was a friend and had done him many favors. He’d sell Demon Hanover for a flat half-million.
Gaines assembled a stable of syndicate members that included some of the biggest names in the breeding business. Demon Hanover stood at Walnut Hall Farm and served a full book in 1959. After the breeding season was diagnosed with kidney stones and treated.
Soon thereafter, farm manager Ted Woodley was showing Demon Hanover to visitors one day when the stallion suddenly collapsed. Efforts to save him were unsuccessful. An autopsy showed that he had a blood clot in his heart. Demon Hanover was just 14 years old.
In 1986, Nihilator came off the track with a glittering resume that included 35 wins in 38 tries, a $3.2 million bank account, and a Horse of the Year title to his credit. His 1:49.3 mark as a 3-year-old was the fastest race ever and it wasn’t surprising that mares lined up to get Nihilator’s attention despite his $ 35,000 stud fee.
Nihilator died after serving only a few books of mares. Despite his extraordinary speed and success on the track, he left little impact as a stallion.
Premature stallion deaths are hardly new to standardbreds. A century ago, harness racing mourned the loss of the handsome Lee Axworthy, the fastest trotting stallion in history. As a five-year-sold, Lee Axworthy lowered the trotting record to stallions from 2:01 to 1:58-1/4, just missing the gelded Uhlan’s ultimate trotting speed standard of 1:58.
Lee Axworthy went to stud in Kentucky at Castleton, but died at age seven after just two seasons. During his two seasons, he sired Lee Tide, in turn the sire of Hambletonian winner Spencer. Lee Axworthy also sired superstar trotter Lee Worthy, who sired the dam of champion mare Rosalind.
Indeed death does seem to leave a shining mark.