Members of Elbridge Gerry, Jr.’s family signed the Declaration of Independence and were crucial in the foundation of harness racing. No wonder Ebby’s been so active in his beloved Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, NY where he is chairman of the executive committee and a past president.
by Dave Briggs
Given that his ancestor – and namesake — signed the Declaration of Independence, was key in establishing both the United States and its Bill of Rights and even has a political term named for him, it’s notable to hear Elbridge Gerry, Jr. say his more interesting family member was E.H. Harriman, the man that played a major role in the establishment of harness racing. Notable, but no surprise from a family that has been prominent in the sport since the 1800s, still operates Arden Homestead stable and was instrumental in the establishment of the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, an institution 86-year-old Gerry, Jr. — Ebby to just about everyone — still serves as chairman of the executive committee since retiring as president in 2014.
“E.H. Harriman, who was my great grandfather on my grandmother’s side — my grandmother’s father — was Roland and Averell Harriman’s father and he really started the sport back in the 1800s. Roland became more interested, but it was Averell that really started the Arden Homestead stable with his wife in the early 1900s. My father (Elbridge Gerry, Sr.), who was really a generation below Roland – though they were pretty close in age and very close — was polo player with his three brothers. So we all grew up with horses. Roland got my father interested in trotters and he got him to sit behind them, race them et cetera. Roland said, ‘Why don’t you buy a couple?’ so my father did.”
The rest is history… Well, in Ebby’s case, what came before is pretty significant American history, as well.
“I guess the most famous ancestor was the first Elbridge Gerry,” Ebby said. “He had signed the Declaration of Independence. He was at the convention that formed the country. He refused to sign (the Declaration) the first time around, until they passed a Bill of Rights and then he went with it.”
Ebby said he may be missing a generation, but he believes the original Elbridge Gerry was his great, great, great, great grandfather (that’s four “greats” if you’re counting).
“He was also (the country’s 5th) vice-president under (James) Madison and he died in office, but he’s best known for the word ‘gerrymander.’ When he was governor of Massachusetts, he redistributed the state in such a way that he would get re-elected and that’s why it’s called gerrymandering.”
As for horses, Ebby’s father joined Arden Homestead stable in 1942.
“Roland had a trainer called Billy Dickinson, who was a fabulous guy and they’d go to the sale and buy maybe seven or eight horses and put the names in a hat. My father probably couldn’t afford to buy half of them so he’d pick maybe two or three out of the hat and that was the only fair way to do it, Roland would say. And (my dad) would always end up getting the better horses, so after three or four years Roland thought this was crazy and said, ‘Why don’t we join?’ so that’s when my father became part of the Arden Homestead stable.
“You know the first horse they owned together? Titan Hanover (the winner of the 1945 Hambletonian). So, it’s been in our blood. My brother Peter has been more active than I am. He’s a little younger than I am, so he still races. We own the stable together now. He started the first big amateur series.”
The family also started the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.
“It’s been wonderful thing. Roland started it and my father was very active with it. He proceeded Roland as president and I proceeded my father. It’s such a fabulous institution. You’ve got to see it to believe it,” Gerry said.
“I’m a history buff, so I like the first floor, the stable… I like the exhibits there. On the second floor, I think the way they’ve done all the people that have done so much for the sport, how they recognize them, those would be my three favorite things.”
“(Museum president) Larry DeVan is doing just a superb job of running the institution. You couldn’t have a better family get involved. He’s Lawrence Sheppard’s grandson.”
Ebby said one of the things he loves most about harness racing is the ability to participate directly in it.
“If you own a thoroughbred, you can go look at it and they are nice to look at and win a lot of money with them, but you can’t get on their back. The thrill of driving them, racing them… there’s nothing like it. I’d recommend that to anyone who is an owner. Get your trainer to let you sit behind him, be a part of it,” Ebby said.
Today, Arden Homestead owns parts of seven or eight horses.
“The whole family is involved. My wife is involved and she owns a couple of horses. We all used to drive together and we’ve been blessed with fantastic trainers.”