The Meadowlands continues John Manzi’s vision to honor civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a race reserved for African-American drivers.
by Debbie Little
Today’s column is the first in a series in recognition of Black History Month.
To kick things off, we’re taking a look back at this year’s Martin Luther King Remembrance Race, which took place in January at The Meadowlands, as well as the history of the event.
It was Hall of Fame publicist John Manzi who put on the inaugural event, then known as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pace, at Monticello Raceway in 2001, featuring African-American drivers.
“Some people call me a trailblazer, but I just wanted to put on good races,” said Manzi. “At the time, no one else was doing the stuff I was doing. I’m really proud of the Heritage Drivers Series.”
The Heritage Drivers Series included several races, such as the Passover Pace, St. Paddy Pace, Maple Leaf Mile and, of course, the Dr. King Pace.
Manzi was glad to hear that The Meadowlands is carrying on the Dr. King race tradition. Monticello was the host track for 14 years until Manzi’s 2014 retirement.
In 2018, driver Jim King Solomon, who won the event in 2009, was hoping to find a new home for the MLK race. But to make that happen, he had to have a conversation with then Meadowlands race secretary Peter Koch.
“I passed by his office four times and I said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m going in here,’” said Solomon. “And then my wife told me, ‘Baby, if you don’t go in there, you’ll never know. The worst thing he can say is ‘no.’’ So I said, ‘Maybe I will.’ Because I never thought a place like The Meadowlands would do it.
“I walked in there and said ‘Peter Koch, what do you think about having a Martin Luther King race?’ He said, ‘What a great idea.’”
Koch remembers that Solomon felt strongly about doing something to honor Martin Luther King from a harness racing perspective.
“The Meadowlands is kind of the focal point of the business, so to have a race like that at The Meadowlands seemed like a good idea that we could bring some attention to Martin Luther King and give some drivers that are going to participate in it a chance to race on the big stage,” said Koch.
“This year, it was a great story that the driver that won it, it was his first pari-mutuel win and he flew up from Florida for the race. Guys [also] came in from Indiana and Ohio, so it’s really gotten rolling from kind of a regional thing to more national.”
This year’s winner, Devon Tharps, who works for trainer Tony Alagna, had only been driving since 2019 and going into the MLK race, had 52 starts and no wins.
“For whatever reason he hadn’t won a race yet, but he drove a good race and I was glad he won,” said Koch, now the track’s presiding judge. “I think it’s kind of cool that it’s become an annual race and I think it will continue. The race holds up fine as far as betting is concerned and we didn’t have any infractions so it’s good by me.”
If you watched this year’s race without sound, you might have thought Joe Bongiorno finished second, and you’d be partially correct since his colors certainly did.
Driver Randy Crisler, who flew in from Indiana on the day of the race, received a text message when his plane landed in New Jersey that his luggage would be delayed.
“So, I go to the baggage claim office and she says my luggage will be delayed and I say, ‘When will I get it because I need it at least by 6 o’clock’ and she was like, ‘Possibly that’s not going to happen,’” said Crisler. “And I said, ‘What do you mean it’s not going to happen?’ So, she gave me a confirmation number to track my luggage and my luggage never left Indianapolis.”
On the taxi ride to the track, Crisler thought about the different scenarios that he could be facing.
“I was wondering what if they won’t let me drive in someone else’s colors?” he said. “It would have been real messed up for me to make those plans and book the flight and do all that stuff and just be out there not able to drive. I would have been really mad.”
Crisler even considered finding a driver with similar red and black colors, but the only one he could think of was Montrell Teague, who is four inches shorter than him, so that wouldn’t work.
Luckily for Crisler, both the judges and Joe Bongiorno were accommodating.
“It was extenuating circumstances so we just had [race caller Ken Warkentin] announce that [Crisler] would be driving in Joe’s colors,” said Koch. “It certainly wasn’t his fault. With something like that you just do what you can to make things work out.”
For Crisler, driving at The Meadowlands was a dream come true.
“I’ve always wanted to drive on that track ever since I was a little boy,” said Crisler. “When my dad would go to work, he would have me up at 10 p.m. recording the races from The Meadowlands.And when I got invited, I was really excited about it.
“When I was young, I used to get nervous before the race but when I got behind the gate it would go away but I was a little nervous racing on that track because there were a lot of people watching that race from everywhere. It was definitely an experience.”
Crisler said he hopes to get invited back next year, but he’ll need to contact race secretary Scott Warren early because there is a lot of interest.
“This was my second one and this year those out-of-town guys reached out to me two or three months in advance about it,” said Warren. “I had a couple more calls after we were filled up for this year. I said, ‘Hey, if you want to be in it for next year contact me a couple of months in advance because there’s quite a bit of interest.’
“A few of the local guys actually sat out this year because we had enough drivers. Depending on next year, what avenue we go, whether it’s one race, multiple races or multiple divisions on the same night, a couple of the ones that drove this year may have to sit out if it’s just one race.”
Twenty years ago, Manzi and Monticello Race Secretary Eric Warner worked as a team to put the MLK race together.
“John got the drivers and I was responsible for getting the horses,” said Warner. “We never had trouble filling a field.”
These days, Warren is responsible for both drivers and horses, but says Jim King Solomon was a big help.
“[Solomon] reached out to me early and we got our heads together and it just went from there,” said Warren. “We increased the purse [to $15,000] and the horses that finished sixth through 10th still got $500. I had more than enough horses drop in the race this year.”
It’s Solomon’s mission to continue to make the race better. As a result, this year he invited Senator Shirley K. Turner, the first woman and first African-American to be elected as Senate President Pro Tempore in the State of New Jersey, to present the trophy.
“I’m trying to get better drivers, better horses and make it a better race for the public and it turned out good,” said Solomon. “To me, it keeps the Martin Luther King name alive. It brings people together and it’s good for everybody. He fought for justice and peace, he didn’t fight for all this violence. I don’t know what’s going on now but it’s got to change. Hopefully it changes because it’s getting bad.
“He fought for all of us. God didn’t put us here to fight each other. He put us here to get along. That’s the way Dr. King carried it out.”