Ranking the 10 best horsemen of all time

December 8, 2019

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Of all the tremendous horsemen The Curmudgeon has known personally, here is his list of the top 10 in terms of talent.

by Murray Brown

I was asked this question by horseman John Amidon: “Who is the best horseman you’ve known?” I will amend the question to: Ranking the Top 10 standardbred horsemen I’ve known personally. He did not ask the question specifically about standardbreds, but I assume that’s what he meant.

10. Ron Gurfein

Basically the same resume as Chuck Sylvester. Gurfein produced three Hambletonian winners and is a member of the sport’s living Hall of Fame. He started out with nothing buying cheap horses from Delaware, OH and racing mostly at Monticello. He was a master at getting good horses, especially trotting mares and making them into top ones. He then evolved into buying yearlings and making top horses out of many of them. He developed great relationships and worked with many of the sport’s most noted owners, including: Phil Tully, George Segal, Jerry Silva and most notably members of the Antonacci family.

9. John F Simpson Sr.

How could anybody expect me not to have him on this list? Certainly, there is some personal bias involved, but there is nobody else who has guided the number one breeding farm in history for decades, while most of the time being blind. He was the youngest driver to ever go a sub-2:00 mile with My Birthday at Old Orchard Maine. He has been involved with three Hambletonian winners, driving and training Hickory, Smoke and Ayres and as the owner and man behind the scenes with Timothy T. He was also the developer, trainer and driver of the great trotting mare Elma when she raced in America. In 1957, he was voted Horseman of the Year. That year, he had the winners of the two most prestigious races of the time with Hickory Smoke in the Hambletonian and Torpid in the Little Brown Jug. He also had three other divisional champions that year. He trained several other world champions including the fastest 2-year-old ever at that time — Bullet Hanover.

8. Chuck Sylvester

Three Hambletonian winners bought as yearlings and developed by him. A member of the sport’s living Hall of Fame. What more can be said of him? A whole lot more. A great guy and a great horseman. One of the very few in the sport of whom I’ve never heard a bad word spoken. He has never had an overly large stable, preferring to focus on quality rather than quantity, however rarely at a high price. With the exception of Muscles Yankee, virtually all of his best horses didn’t cost a lot of money, but they ended up earning a lot for their connections. I would guess that all one would have to say would be Mack Lobell and Muscles Yankee and those two would put him on this list.

7. Ron Burke

I’ll start by saying that no North American trainer has ever won more races, nor have had his horses earn more money than Ron Burke. That alone should be enough to land him on this list.

There are those who might say that with around 300 horses under his umbrella most years, how could he not have. Ronnie, his brother Mickey, Jr. and their dad Mickey, Sr. started off by racing a few cheap claimers at The Meadows.

As their success grew, so did the size of their stable.

There is nobody in this game who is a better organizer of horses and people. To a great degree, he is a one man show when it comes to managing the large number of horses in his care.

He watches each and every one of them race. He enters them all. He decides on their drivers. He works harder than anybody I have seen in this sport since WRH (William Haughton). His organization capabilities are just amazing.

6. Brett Pelling

Not only a great horseman, but an extremely bright individual. He came from the great learning tree of Ross Croghan, from which many outstanding Down Under horsemen have descended. Pelling has made it on all levels, from training overnight horses, to Saturday Night Specials, to developing yearlings into champions. He has remarkable foresight and patience and is able to recognize great potential at a very early stage. There is no one around today who been able to or does bring a young horse around better, without subjecting it to the major stresses before bring it into “the fray that only the brave endure,” to quote poet Charles McKay.

5. Stanley F Dancer

One of a kind. Somehow I think he should be ranked higher, but I don’t know who I would demote to get him there. As a driver, he revolutionized harness racing. His “going to the top” philosophy and believing that being on top was the shortest way around the tracks revolutionized harness racing. Prior to that, half-mile track racing was even more boring than it often is today.

As a trainer, he was an absolute perfectionist. He expected no less than that from himself and everybody else that he had working with him. He paid his help accordingly.

Once he became a “colt trainer” he strived to acquire only the best. Price rarely phased him or his owners. When he purchased Dancer Hanover for $105,000, it was the highest priced yearling of any breed ever sold at public auction. His stable was immaculate as was his persona. Noted thoroughbred trainer D Wayne Lucas was known for having an appealing and immaculate stable. Stanley Dancer was D Wayne Lucas before anybody had even heard of D Wayne Lucas.

Dancer’s list of champions is innumerable. He’d reach in every direction to get the great horses that he wanted from buying and developing yearlings to getting great horses such as Albatross, Cardigan Bay and Su Mac Lad into his stable.

4. Delvin G Miller

If he had only stood Adios in the stud and played a significant role in breeding Meadow Skipper he would be on this list, but he did more, much more. He built a racetrack —- The Meadows.

He was a great trainer and an accomplished driver. He developed numerous champions.

However, if I had to use only two words to describe him, those words would be “unselfish” and “generous.”

He helped to develop many outstanding people as well as horses. As Tom Charters has said to me, “Once I started working for Delvin I never had to look for a job for the rest of my life.”

He was perhaps the greatest ambassador throughout the world that the sport has ever known.

2. Jimmy Takter (dead heat)

His success speaks for itself. I doubt that there has ever been a horse trainer who has had so many champions in his stable in such a short period of time. He is a perfectionist who has risen from the bottom to becoming the best trainer of his generation. He started with master horseman Soren Nordin and is the son of another master Swedish horseman William Bo Takter. I’m sure Jimmy learned a lot from his mentors but he has always done it his way. An area in which he has specialized has always been compartmentalization. He knows what he likes to do and does it extremely well. He also knows that others may be as good or even better at what he doesn’t particularly like to do. He has put together a great team, composed of among others, his wife Christina (business and bookkeeping), Perry Soderberg (yearling evaluation) and Connie Svensson (farrier).

2. W. R. Haughton (dead heat)

A great driver and an even better trainer. He had the unique ability to make lemonade out of lemons. Some of, if not the majority of, his best horses were bargain basement buys. He was incredibly adept at training them all — pacers, trotters, males, females, stakes horses and overnight horses. He specialized with problem horses — those which his second trainers could not find the key to or just couldn’t get along with. I always thought that the luckiest owners were those who owned horses in his “mutts” classes who trained on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If they were “mutt” students, they received The Master’s individual attention.

A prime example was Seton Hanover, the only horse to defeat Albatross at two. Billy had bought him as a yearling for John Froehlich for a pretty fair price. Mr. Froehlich liked to have his horses train up north at Roosevelt Raceway so that he could come see them train. Seton was left with Billy’s number one man Apples Thomas. From the beginning, the colt was a problem child. Apples couldn’t get him to hit the pace. By the end of March, he still hadn’t shown any inclination to do what he was bred to do. As a last resort, he was shipped to WRH in Florida to join his brigade of mutts. The rest is history.

1. Jean Pierre DuBois

He has done it at the highest level in three areas regarding equines — with standardbreds, thoroughbreds and jumpers. Not only has he trained and driven and ridden all three, but he has had unfathomable success in owning and breeding them, as well.

He is truly the most intuitive, brilliant and down to earth horseman it has been my privilege to have known. He has not only achieved greatness in his home country France, but throughout the world wherever horses are raised and raced.
This has been very difficult to compile. I’m sure that there are many who might disagree with my choices and/or my ratings. Please understand this is only a personal view expressing my experience. I understand that and appreciate that there are some out there that might disagree.

Here are some listed in alphabetical order who are worthy of inclusion who just couldn’t make the cut at this time. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed and will hear about:

Tony Alagna
Ralph BaldwinJean
Michel Bazire
Howard Beissinger
Blair Burgess
Jim Campbell
Casie Coleman
Frank Ervin
Mike Lachance
Bob McIntosh
Bruce Nickells
Gene Riegle
Bill Robinson
George Sholty
Linda Toscano
Keith Waples
Roger White

Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: hofmurray@aol.com.

Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.
Harness Racing Update