by Dave Briggs
The weather didn’t cooperate and the result wasn’t what anyone could have reasonably expected, but the takeaway from Solvalla Racetrack was that even on one of its imperfect days, the Elitloppet is still as magical a harness racing experience as one can find.
As the locals tell it, the last Sunday in May in Stockholm is usually a sun-kissed affair — as if the heavens conspire annually to smile upon it. Not so this year, with a persistent drizzle that occasionally hardened and blew sideways and periodically gave way to enough sun to dry the heavily-banked five-eighths-mile oval just enough to save the trotters from sloshing their way to the wire all afternoon.
While the attendance was surely down from a typical year when walking just from mid-stretch to the stable area can take 10 minutes or more, those that did come brought their usual passion.’
It was most notable in the traditional rhythmic clapping at the start of races and the touching ovation given to Swedish champion Readly Express — the winner of the first heat — after he was forced to scratch out of the Elitlopp final following a gimpy post parade. After the scratch was announced, and before Readly Express exited the track for what is believed to be the last time, driver Bjorn Goop steered the trotter toward the horse-loving fans in salute to their heart-felt ovation. It was one of those catch-in-your-throat moments that makes the Elitlopp the Elitlopp — weather be damned.
Yes, Propulsion wasn’t Propulsion and failed in his fourth straight attempt to win the Elitlopp.
Yes, second heat winner Aubrion du Gers couldn’t close the deal either, even after Readly Express dropped out.
Yes, driver Romain Derieux wasn’t the one expected to be spraying champagne in celebration after he steered Dijon to a monumental upset and survived a judges inquiry into whether the French trotter paced in deep stretch.
But the rest was truly in the pink.
Through a tarmac sea of umbrellas splashed with Elitlopp hot pink accents most notable in the luminescent straw fedoras given out as a freebie by the V75 betting people ATG — think Hambletonian giveaway ball caps on shrooms — the Elitlopp drivers and trainers started the afternoon by, fittingly, walking the pink carpet. Oddly, they entered to the dark guitar strains of Metallica’s Enter Sandman as they marched through an adoring crowd and onto a giant, pink, open-sided tractor trailer that slowly paraded the waving-and-grinning Elitlopp trainers and drivers past fans on the way to the stable area. En route, the connections of this year’s Swedish trotting royalty were serenaded first by a Swedish cover of Kool and the Gang’s hit Celebration, followed by Stockholm i mitt hjärta (Stockholm in My Heart), sung in Swedish by Lasse Berghagen.
As usual, the fans — some of whom camped outside the track gates early in the morning to get a prime spot — were on rooftops and balconies, and in the three main grandstand buildings, beer gardens, burger pits and party tents.
As usual, there were drum-bangers, cowbell-shakers and flag-wavers; though all three were muted somewhat by the day’s drizzle downer that likely also allowed the infield pond to escape its usual invasion of drunken divers evading security.
As usual, the giant wooden horse stood sentry in the first turn, the press center was overflowing with more journalists and photographers than you’ll likely see anywhere else in the sport and each race was thankfully free of any of that soul-killing North American drag nonsense — post times carefully choreographed by the judges’ stand that rose and fell from the infield on cue all day like a flying saucer.
It all added up to a uniquely Solvalla, uniquely Stockholm and uniquely Swedish experience; one that makes for tremendous nourishment for the harness racing soul.