In praise of the plainly rigged

by Dean A. Hoffman

I once stood in a stable area and watched a trainer take a horse to the track for a warm-up mile. The horse wore a blind bride, shadow roll, head halter, two burr headpoles, martingale, knee boots, tendon boots, bell boots and hobbles.

I looked closely and thought to myself, “I think there is a horse under all that equipment, but I’m not really sure.”

I understand that the purpose of racing is to win, not necessarily to look good while doing so. It is horse racing, not a horse show or beauty contest.

Yet, I think many people agree that it’s wonderful to see a horse good-gaited and so good-mannered that it wears basically the harness and nothing. It also helps if that horse is fast enough to win.

I think we can also agree that horses are beautiful animals and yet when they are covered in enough equipment to be a walking billboard for Big’s D Catalog, some of the natural equine beauty is lost.

Again, the purpose of racing is to win. I’d rather have a horse covered in equipment win a race than one that wears practically nothing and finishes 11 lengths up the track. Pretty is as pretty does.

But my highest admiration is reserved for those horses that can display their great ability without being encumbered by lots of equipment.

In 1985, I recall seeing the Swedish wonder horse Meadow Road sweep to victory in the Statue of Liberty series at the Meadowlands. When he came back to the winner’s circle, I noticed that he wasn’t wearing any shin boots.

“Wow, they got those boots off him in a hurry,” I said to myself. It was only later that I realized that Meadow Road didn’t wear any shin boots. But such trotters are rare.

I once heard — but never confirmed — that the great trotter Rodney hit his shins so badly that he needed a new pair of shin boots every time he started. Good thing Rodney won a lot of money.

Yet Speedster, a son of Rodney, was so clean gaited that he didn’t even wear shin boots. Go figure.

The master horseman John F. Simpson, Sr. won two Hambletonians and two Jugs before vision problems sidelined his driving career. His horses often raced without breast collars or head halters. I once asked Simpson why he did this and he quipped, “Breast collars and head halters are just excess leather.”

We all know that it’s almost automatic for pacers to wear hobbles, but some of my favorites from the past went sans the straps. Two fillies that I did not see race but saw plenty of photos were Good Counsel and Countess Adios.

Frank Ervin had trained and raced Good Time and he loved that little bugger with all his heart. He told me that the fastest pacer sired by Good Time was not a colt, but instead the flying filly Good Counsel.

“She could be pacing a quarter at a 28-second rate and, if you chirped to her, you’d better brace yourself or she’d pull the sulky right out from under you,” Ervin told me once.

Remember, Good Counsel raced was 65 years ago.

Ervin drove Good Counsel to a world record mile in 1:58.1 in 1956, which just astonished onlookers. What astonished me was the photo of Good Counsel flying through the air without boots or hobbles.

Countess Adios may have claim to being the best pacing female of the post-World War II era. Certainly, no other pacing female won two legs of the Triple Crown back when the Triple Crown was really special. Countess was a pacing marvel, but she wore knee and tendon boots and I therefore don’t put her in the same category with Good Counsel in appearance.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m not a fan of trotting hobbles but that matters little to the trainers who regularly rely on them. There was a time when race meetings advertised that “No hobbled pacers permitted to race” at a certain track. Those days are long gone.

I love to see photos of horses campaigned by the old master horseman Ben White (1873-1958), a legend even during his lifetime. Harness shops would go broke if all trainers were like Ben. Few wore breast collars or head halters. Ben White’s best wore the basic harness and bridle — and little else.

I would love to own horses that wear the basic harness and little else. I would also love to own a horse that won all its starts and wore every boot in the book.

If I had to choose between a plainly-rigged slowpoke and a fully-outfitted champion, I’ll take the champion any day. Wouldn’t we all?

I recall seeing Keystone Ore beat Armbro Ranger in a slam-bang duel in the 1976 Adios. Keystone Ore wore the harness and only a blind bridle and light bell boots.

Six years earlier, I saw Most Happy Fella win the Jug and he wore just lots of boots and head rigging. Yet he became a great sire, while Keystone Ore was a nothingburger.

Most Happy Fella was the first colt that signaled how special Meadow Skipper was to become as a stallion. Following in MHF’s hoofprints was Albatross and he also raced to his greatest wins by Stanley Dancer. Albatross wore no boots in front and just a Kant-See-Bak bridle. Dancer tried to get Albatross to wear a shadow roll, but the pacer was having no part of that.

The purpose of racing horses is to get to the finish line, but from my perspective I value most the horses that race plainly rigged.