by Dean A. Hoffman
He struggled down the aisle of the stable at the Illinois State Fair, balancing himself with crutches and dragging his legs behind him.
He stopped in front of the stall where I was tending to a trotter and appraised the blood bay colt.
“What’s his status?” he asked me.
That was my introduction to Ralph J. Gauwitz, Jr. of Illinois and a half-century later we are close friends.
Ralph was born in Illinois, the heart of America, and shares a birthday with America: he was born on the Fourth of July.
He wasn’t, however, born during the revolutionary war but instead in 1940, making him 80 years old on Saturday. He likes to remind me that he was born the same year as Adios, Volo Song, Worthy Boy, King’s Counsel and the thoroughbred Triple Crown winner Count Fleet.
Alas, Ralph was born with spastic cerebral palsy, and has been confined to a wheelchair most of his adult life. But that hasn’t prevented him from being one of the most ardent fans of harness racing in history.
He always lived in the Land of Lincoln and there are not many tracks, fairs, or breeding farms in Illinois that Ralph has not visited. He was also a regular fixture at the Lexington and Indianapolis Grand Circuit meets for decades and a ringside observer at the yearling sales in Kentucky and in Harrisburg, PA.
In 1970 at the Tattersalls sale, Ralph was more than an observer as he had the final bid on a filly named On To Victory, a sister-in-blood to Triple Crown winner Speedy Scot. Her price was modest and Ralph didn’t have the funds to train her, so he bred her to Illinois stallions.
On To Victory didn’t produce any champions but Ralph sold her foals and followed their progress on the track.
He knew standardbred pedigrees inside and out and could cite the accomplishments of countless stallions and mares throughout the 20th Century.
His interest in pedigrees is what led to our initial conversation. I was spending my summer break from college in 1968 rubbing horses and the day we met I was caring for a colt named Speed Classic. He’d been the highest-priced colt in the Castleton Farm yearling consignment the previous fall and he was an elegant andrefined colt. Ralph knew the colt’s pedigree and sale price and was interested in him. Alas, Speed Classic stabbed a hind leg, never raced, and went to stud in Argentina.
But from that initial meeting in1968, our friendship blossomed. In 1972, when I was fresh out of college and living in Columbus, OH in a small apartment (rent of $112.50/month), Ralph made his first and only trip to the Little Brown Jug.
I picked him up at the bus stallion and got him settled in my apartment. I told him that Jug Day was a madhouse at Delaware and we’d have to get up and get there early to beat the crowds.
I was up and ready to go on Jug morning but the simple tasks that I performed routinely took Ralph so much longer. It was a valuable lesson for me in the challenges that a disabled person faces each day.
But Strike Out set a world record winning that Jug and we had a fabulous time. Our friendship got stronger and we exchanged letters discussing arcane topics of interest only to a couple of harness racing junkies. I have a treasure trove of Ralph’s letters in my files.
Whenever harness racing was conducted at tracks in Illinois, chances are you’d find Ralph with a ringside seat. He was particularly fond of the Grand Circuit stakes at Springfield.
In 2009, the State of Illinois honored Ralph for his steadfast loyalty to harness racing and he was brought to the winner’s circle and saluted with warm applause from the spectators. Surely many of them recognized and knew Ralph as a fervent harness racing fan.
That same year, Hanover Shoe Farms named two colts — a trotter and a pacer — in honor of Ralph.
Gauwitz Hanover by Yankee Glide was later renamed Celebrity Gauwitz and got a 1:57.3f trotting mark.
R Gauwitz Hanover by Modern Art was an Ontario Sires Stakes winner at age two and now has won 46 races and more than $450,000. His took mark of 1:49f when he was a 6-year-old and he’s still racing at age 11.
R Gauwitz Hanover was won faster than 1:55 for 10 consecutive seasons — and I wonder if any horse has ever done that. Ralph follows R. Gauwitz Hanover each time he races.
For most of his life, Ralph lived with his parents in Peoria but in recent years he has resided in nursing home facilities in that area. He still has many friends, including Fred Elmore who speaks with Ralph regularly. When Elmore owned part of a pacing colt by Somebeachsomewhere, Ralph was the colt’s biggest cheerleader, although he never saw him race in person.
Racing veterans Kendra and Al Casselman are other longtime friends.
Bill Wright, a prominent standardbred owner in Illinois, has been a staunch supporter for Ralph over many years.
Ralph made a lot of friends in the sport over his decades of love for harness racing. It was always easy to find him at The Red Mile each fall as his spot in the railbird seats gave him a great view of the passing parade.
His 80th birthday celebration will be subdued because life in nursing homes is lonely and strained during this time of the COVID-19 crisis. Ralph, however, has already received many calls and cards from his friends in the sport.
When I think of true-blue fans of harness racing, I will always think of my friend Ralph Gauwitz.