Thirty-six reasons the Woodrow Wilson was a critical part of harness racing history

by Bob Heyden

Why does the Woodrow Wilson matter? Well, every time you watch a race — anywhere, anytime, anyplace — remember that the six richest standardbred races ever contested were all Woodrow Wilsons.

The race for 2-year-old pacers was a mid-August staple for years at the Meadowlands from 1977-2012.

A century has passed since Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and it has been eight years since the last Wilson was contested.

Here’s a close look, by the numbers, at the 36 colorful and eventful years of the Woodrow Wilson.

1. It’s been 36 years since the 1984 Wilson that carried a purse of $2,161,000 and was won by Nihilator with Bill O’Donnell driving for the first time for trainer Billy Haughton. That purse remains the sport’s high water mark.

2. The three times the Wilson was the richest race ever contested to that point was: 1979 — $862,750, 1980 — $2,011,000 and 1984 — $2,161,000.

3. The two smallest Wilson purses were the first and last — 1977 — $280,000 won by No No Yankee and 2012 – $309,500 won by Captaintreacherous.

4. No other race in harness history has ever gone for $2 million — and the Wilson did it twice — 1980 Land Grant won the $2,011,000 event (becoming the sport’s first single-season millionaire overnight) and the aforementioned 1984 Wilson.

5. Only Niatross, Nihilator and Captaintreacherous won the Wilson and the Meadowlands Pace. And there was a 27-year gap between Nihilator (1984-1985) and The Captain (2011-2012).

6. Fifteen lengths, then 16 lengths? Times change, for sure, but the three Wilson winners who went on to capture the Meadowlands Pace improved on their predecessor by three seconds and all were track records:

1979 — Niatross 1:55.4
1984 — Nihilator 1:52.4
2012 — Captaintreacherous 1:49.3

7. The richest race not named the Woodrow Wilson was the $1,520,333 Hambletonian won by Muscle Hill in 2009.

8. From 1980 to 1987 the winning driver of the Wilson never before or again won a bigger purse:

1980 — Del Insko $2,011,000 Land Grant
1981 — Billy Haughton $1,760,000 McKinzie Almahurst (Haughton did train a bigger winner — Nihilator 1984)
1982 — Eldon Harner $1,957,500 Fortune Teller
1983 — Carl Allen $1,700,000 Carls Bird
1984 — Bill O’Donnell $2,161,000 Nihilator
1985 — Ray Remmen $1,3440,000 Grade One
1986 — Buddy Gilmour $1,561,000 Cullin Hanover
1987 — Ben Webster $1,422,000 Even Odds

Richie Silverman added his name to this list in 1990 with Die Laughing $1,043,500

9. Twice a Wilson winner in the 1980s paid $100 or more! — Grade One ($100.40) in 1985 and Land Grant ($141.60) in 1980.

10. Five of those nine names just mentioned as having won their biggest pot did so in a close photo:

1980 — Land Grant (head)
1981 — McKinzie Almahurst (nose)
1983 — Carls Bird (nose)
1985 — Grade One (head)
1990 — Die Laughing (nose)

11. Niatross is the last horse and only one in modern history to twice win the sport’s all-time richest ever race:

1979 — Woodrow Wilson $862,750
1980 — Meadowlands Pace $1,011,000

12. Ten of the 11 editions of the Wilson from 1980-1990 went for $1 million plus, then never again.

13. The last five Wilsons went for a combined $1,905,250. Three Wilsons individually went for more.

14. Sugar Dust and Denali both were third in the Wilson from post 11 — 1977 and 1979, respectively. Million-dollar races stopped having 12-horse fields as of 1989.

15. Free-for-all legend Genghis Khan, the two-time track record setter at the Meadowlands and the winner of the first World Cup in 1982 at age 6, was fifth in the 1978 Wilson.

16. The richest Wilson and Meadowlands Pace came in the same year (1984) Nihilator won the former for $2,161,000. The Pace had a pot of $1,293,000 and On The Road Again won it. He also edged Nihilator for Pacer of the Year honors.

17. A Down Under-bred, Testing Times, raced in the very first Wilson but tired to finish 11th. He remains the only Wilson starter to have race lines from the previous year on his card.

18. Niatross was not favored in either his elim or the final of the Wilson in 1979 — Whamo, the runner-up, was.

19. How big a deal was winning the Wilson? From 1985-1989, the Wilson winner earned 26 times more at 2 than what he would earn at 3:

1985 — Grade One $873,208 at 2, $1,940 at 3
1986 — Cullin Hanover $857,654 at 2, $37,501 at 3
1987 — Even Odds $950,108 at 2, $26,575 at 3
1988 — Kassa Branca $724,793 at 2, $14,100 at 3
1989 — Sam Francisco Ben $529, 415 at 2 $60,600 at 3

$788G per Wilson winner at 2 for a total of $3,940,178

$28G per for that same Wilson winner a year later at 3 for a total of $140,716

20. John Campbell, the all-time leader in Wilson wins with five, didn’t get any money in his debut in the 1979 Wilson with Burt Paloma against Niatross.

22. Can you identify the only trainer to win the Wilson and then the 2YOCP division title and also have the companion freshman pacing filly of the year in the same barn that year? In 1995, Liz Quesnel had A Stud Named Sue and the filly Chippies Ruler.

22. Wilson driver scorecard (winners of more than one): Campbell 5, Brian Sears 3, Ron Pierce 3, Luc Ouellette 2, David Miller 2, George Brennan 2 and Mike Lachance 2.

23. Hall Of Fame trainers who won the Wilson: Joe Holloway, Jerry Silverman, Bob McIntosh, Billy Haughton, Del Insko, Clint Galbraith and Bill Popfinger.

24. When Land Grant won the 1980 Wilson, eventual divisional winner French Chef was not in there. He didn’t make it out of the elims. Land Grant and Niatross won the first two seven-figure races in the sport’s history that year, but French Chef would attract the love vote for Horse of the Year in 1980 that did not go Niatross’ way.

25. In 1980, the Wilson went for $2,011,000 the same year the Kentucky Derby purse was $336,000.

26. Eleven of the 36 Wilson winners also won their division.

27. Jeremys Gambit won over $1.1 million lifetime greatly aided by his $800,000 Wilson score of 1996. He was the 1997 Breeders Crown runner-up. But, get this, he never won a race outside of the Meadowlands, All 10 victories came in East Rutherford. He is the only millionaire ever to win at just one racetrack.

28. Back-to-back Wilson winners did not race at 3: 1999 Richess Hanover and 2000 Whitefish Falls. The latter was put up via DQ in 2000 when The Firepan was disqualified.

29. The average purse of the first 18 Wilsons was $1,206,819. The average purse of the last 18 Wilsons was $535,125. The average purse of all 36 Wilsons was $870,910.

30. Billy and Peter Haughton each drove in the first two Wilsons in 1977 and 1978. Billy was 6th and 9th with Wellwood Hanover and Social Outcast, while Peter was 4th both times, with Worthy Blue Chip and J Js Metro. The relevance? 1977 was the year of the richest ever pacing event where a father-son driver combo finished 1-2: Jack and John Kopas in the $286,300 Cane Pace with Jade Price and Nat Lobell.

31. Trainer Tony Alagna won the last two Wilsons in 2011 and 2012 with Major Bombay and Captaintreacherous, respectively.

32. The first four Wilson favorites did not get it done: Keystone Topper at 5-2 was off the board in 1977… Sonsam was second at 3-5 in 1978… Whamo was 6-5 and second to Niatross the last time Niatross would not be favored in any race and Slapstick was fifth at 4-5 for Jack Parker, Jr. and Lee Broglio in the first ever $2 million contest, the Wilson of 1980 won by a 69-1 shot Land Grant.

33. How’s this for turning the tables? In 1980, Lee Broglio trained the 7-for-7 favorite Slapstick who was fifth, beaten by a $100 horse Land Grant. In 1985, Lee Broglio won the Wilson with a $100 horse Grade One, who is a son of the 1980 Wilson favorite Slapstick — and the favorite finished fifth after going into the race 7-for-7 — Sherman Almahurst.

34. Buddy Gilmour was and is the only driver to twice win a better than million-dollar race from post 12:

1984 Meadowlands Pace — On The Road Again
1986 Woodrow Wilson — Cullin Hanover

35. The 1978 Woodrow Wilson winner Scarlet Skipper sired the 1986 undefeated Horse of the Year Forrest Skipper. Three times this has happened. Niatross did it with his son in 1985 (Nihilator) and Magical Mike, the 1993 Wilson winner, sired 2000 HOY Gallo Blue Chip.

36. Areba Areba was the only filly to compete in a Wilson final in the 36-year history. In 1980, she was fourth for Jack Kopas.