From caretaker to the Hall of Fame.
by Murray Brown
There cannot be too many individuals who can speak of occupying as many important and especially diversified positions in our sport as newly installed Hall of Famer Tom Charters. What better time than Hambletonian week could it be to speak of the face of the Hambletonian as its president for 20 years.
He is still employed there as its executive vice-president after his “so called retirement.” As he said, “Can you imagine being replaced by no one less than the legendary John Campbell? That’s the gold standard in harness racing. If that isn’t a great honor, I don’t know what is.”
This scribe has known Charters for over 40 years. But I learned more about him and his experience in our sport in a recent two-hour phone discussion than I knew in all the previous time. This interview will be interspersed with vignettes learned in that discussion and may sometime stray from the person and the story.
Tom Charters began his harness racing career as a teenager working for Dick Hackett, brother of the legendary Jim Hackett, the developer of numerous champions including Best Of All.
While working for Dick, he became friends with John Eades who began his career working for Delvin Miller in Pennsylvania under assistant trainer Foster Walker whose greatest claim to fame might have been as the man who Miller dispatched to California with Meadow Skipper at the end of his 2-year-old season. Mr. Walker’s job was to race the colt a few times out there and then have him gelded and prepped for his 3-year-old season. Joe Lighthill became his driver. Foster told him, ”he can’t leave and hates having dirt hit him in the face, other than that you are on your own.” Lighthill hit him and he quickly developed the ability to leave. He equalled Overtrick’s season record of 1.59.4, which was extremely rare for a 2-year-old. The decision to geld him was put on hold. Can you imagine what the breed would be like if they had gone forward with the plan?
But I digress, as I likely often will. Eades was somewhat of a conduit for Charters to Delvin Miller.
Charters wanted to get deeper into the sport and wrote to Miller, who answered with a handwritten note within a few days. Thus began a lifetime association with the best friend a person could have. As Charters said, “For the rest of my life, he was my patron; I never had to look for a job again.”
He went to work for Miller as a groom for one summer, but was drafted into the army the following winter. He served for 22 months including 10 months in Vietnam before he went back to school. As he describes his experience in Southeast Asia, “I served in the Signal Corps, where I got shot at on occasion, but I wasn’t very combative myself.”
On returning, he worked three more summers for Miller while attending school in the off season. The best horse he took care of in those days was a Hickory Smoke colt by the name of Spitfire Hanover. The colt was owned by Whitey Ford and Arnold Palmer. He wasn’t great, but he was solid and very good. Among his wins were the Yonkers Trot. He was one of Miller’s well-known bargain buys. Memory fails me. I know for sure he brought less than $10,000. He might have even brought less than $5,000. He was then sold to Italian interests for significant money. To those of you who may have read Ford’s autobiography, in it he gives Miller great credit for rescuing him from near financial ruin through his purchase of Spitfire Hanover. He was in bad shape financially and Spitfire came along at the right time.
Of course we got to discussing Delmonica Hanover. Delmonica was given to Charters to take care of. She was a lot of work, but Charters said Aime Choquette thought she was that good and would justify the time spent on her.
“However, she was far from the best 2-year-old filly in the country when I got her,” Charters said. “She wasn’t even the best filly in the Delvin Miller stable. Yankee Mama and Keystone Bride were significantly better early in the season. Delmonica Hanover had her problems mostly relating to maturity and growth issues. Moving to the big tracks on the western circuit was to bring out the best in her. All along, Aime said, ‘Give her time, she will be the best before it’s over. She’s got the gait.’”
Charters in his understated way said, “I took care of her for two years, as a 2-year-old and then as a 5-year-old — the only years she didn’t win any big races. Bernie DuFour took care of her at 3 and 4.”
Although Charters went to Europe with Delmonica in 1975, Choquette went with her to France the previous year, the year that she won the Prix D’Amerique, the first American-owned or trained to win Europe’s greatest trot. Charters says that Choquette went because he was a far better horseman and had the experience having been to Paris-Vincennes before with Great Lullwater in 1959. That is probably very much the case. However, the likelihood was partially that Choquette was perfectly fluent in French, his native language.
“The next year I took her to Europe, where she didn’t do nearly as well. She did the European Grand Circuit winning a couple of minor prep races in Germany for Hans Fromming. We then went to Berlin, Naples, Milan, Munich and Stockholm. She was getting checks, but she was getting tired. I thought it was because of too many ‘first over’ trips and too little sitting in holes or allowing her to go on to the top. Can you imagine my effrontery. I told Hans Fromming that. Me telling a man who had won 5,000 plus races before Herve Filion was probably born how to drive a horse. He took it well, though. He was very nice about my ‘advice.’ Timothy T was by far the best trotter in the world then. We knew she couldn’t beat him. Delvin decided to skip France and we came home. For two years she was great, but I didn’t have her. She won the Roosevelt International two years consecutively. I got her back the following year. She won a division of the Maple Leaf Trot and her final start at Hollywood Park in taking her lifetime record of 1.59.2. Can you imagine that? The greatest trotting mare in the world with a lifetime record on 1.59.2. My how things have changed.”
One more vignette about Delmonica. It was a few years later. Charters was the assistant racing secretary at The Meadows. Ed Ryan sent him, Tom Rooney and a few others in a mini bus for a picnic in Hanover. We had a cookout at my house and of course visited the Farms. The first item on Charter’s agenda was to visit his old friend Delmonica, who was in residence. We dared him to see if he could recognize her. He was sure that he would. There was a field of maiden mares. Charters went in the field and didn’t see her. He thought to himself, ‘That Murray Brown is trying to pull a fast one on me. She isn’t even here.’ He approached a mare with a star similar to his old girl’s, but stopped when he realized it wasn’t her. Then he felt a nuzzle on his hand from behind. Charters hadn’t found Delmonica Hanover, but she had found him.
“She always took care of me at least as well as I took care of her,” he said.
The plan had been for Miller to give Charters three horses to train and race for himself. However, Charters realized he was a few credits short of getting his degree from the University of Kentucky. So when the mare was retired, Charters flew her back to Meadow Lands Farm in Pennsylvania by way of Lexington, where he jogged her in the morning and went to the library in the afternoon to write the outstanding paper to finish his course work.
He then returned the mare to the farm and went back to Ohio where a surgery interrupted his plan to start that training career of his own.
“I called Delvin and told him I’d be laid up for a while and he’d better give the horses to someone else.”
Within days, he got another call from Miller. Kenny Marshall was the racing secretary at The Meadows. Miller thought that he would make a good assistant and that it might open the door to future opportunities. He took it and was Marshall’s assistant from 1976 to 1979. That year, Marshall took the now vacant job at Pompano and Detroit when his mentor Bill Connors retired. Charters succeeded Marshall at The Meadows and stayed until 1982.
Gary Buxton called him about perhaps taking the racing director’s job at the newly opened racetrack in Macau.
“It will be a great adventure,” Buxton told Charters.
Charters decided to do it. He wasn’t married. he wanted to see the world. When he told his bosses at The Meadows, Ed Ryan and Joe Hardy about his decision, they agreed that he should grab it, it was a great opportunity.
“I wasn’t sure how to take that,” Charters said.
He stayed there for 18 months, extending his initial one-year contract. It certainly was a great adventure. “They built a beautiful track with a great modern grandstand. Unfortunately, that was the first time that I realized that when it came to wagering, most people preferred the nearby casino than they did betting on harness horses. The handle was minuscule.
“The highlight of my tenure was when I received a call from Stan Bergstein asking if we would be interested in hosting the World Driving Championships that year. I presented the proposal to my superiors and they approved it. We got great drivers from all over the world. Robert Cameron from New Zealand eventually won it after he got lost and disappeared in Singapore and Hong Kong en route. Great European drivers who came and are familiar names to North Americans were: Olle Goop, Steel Juul, Pekka Korpi and arguably the best driver ever Ulf Thoreson. Bill O’Donnell was supposed to represent the United States but he ran into passport problems in making it. I received a phone call from Stan Bergstein. ‘I’ve got bad news and good news,’ Stan said. O’Donnell won’t be able to come, but we got Joe O’Brien to take his place. The news was unbelievable. All the other drivers were excited. They barely knew or knew of O’Donnell at the time, but Joe O’Brien was a legend. In reality, Joe was dying of the cancer that ultimately took his life. As sick as he was, he still performed in the incredibly competitive manner that Joe O’Brien was known for. Little did anybody know it was the very last time that Joe O’Brien would race a horse in competition, or for that matter, according to his step-son Stan Bayless, it was the last place O’Brien ever sat up behind a horse.
“I soon came home. Delvin had sent me a card that said don’t do anything about a job until after you speak to me. Because of the slowness of the trans-Pacific mail I hadn’t received it by the time I left. He finally caught up with me and told me that a series of races called the Breeders Crowns was in the works. ‘I think that you should apply to administer it.’ I said ‘Sure.’ Andy Grant called and advised the same. I was to be interviewed for the position in Florida. There was a special meeting of the Hambletonian Society at Pompano about starting the Breeders Crown and afterwards I was met by John Cashman; there was no interview. The decision had been made. I was going to administer the Breeders Crowns.
“Cashman managed to put together as disparate a group of people imaginable to get together to set up the rules for the new series. Andy Grant, Alan Leavitt, John Simpson and Fred Van Lennep. Some might think that it might be difficult to get these four to agree whether it was night or day. It was quite interesting.
“Early on, I was lucky enough because of a series of incredible circumstances to have the opportunity to hire Moira Fanning as my colleague.
“Andy Grant had been president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society succeeding Max C Hempt. In June 1998 he called me and said that he was ready to step down as president and was going to recommend me to succeed him.
“I was elected by the board. It has been quite a ride for the 20 plus years since.
“I’m proud of the many accomplishments during my three-and-a-half decades with the Society. We established the Breeders Crown and maintained and enhanced the Hambletonian as the premier event in our industry. We also resurrected the Hambletonian Maturity for 4-year-olds — now renamed, the E.T, Gerry Jr. Hambletonian Maturity. There were others, many critical issues for the industry, including expanding the Society’s portfolio of serviced races throughout the industry.
“We also took on the lesser ‘fun’ tasks such as identifying the colors of the winning drivers of the Hambletonian, not easily accomplished when the first four decades of the race were recorded in black and white.
“Lastly, as a former groom, I also attempted to identify the caretakers of the Hambletonian winners. We already had the grooms of the Breeders Crown champions, but the Hambletonian, the Oaks and the Maturity were more of a challenge, especially from the early years. We completed the Oaks, got most of the Maturity and to date identified 90 of the 96 Hambletonian champions. Still working on those last six.”
It all culminated with your installation in the Hall of Fame three weeks ago. How did you feel about that?
“I was and am overwhelmed. I have to give all the credit for it to harness racing and Delvin G Miller, the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
Tom, you’ve been fortunate to have known most of the harness greats of the last couple of generations. How about a few words in no particular order on some of them?
Aime Choquette — “A great horsemen and a wonderful person. He was one of the five people I mentioned my Hall of Fame induction speech for any of the success I’ve enjoyed.”
Norman Woolworth — “We all wish we had Norman’s life. Few people enjoyed life and harness racing more.”
Ebby Gerry — “A great leader. When Ebby Gerry speaks people listen. If they didn’t, they missed the boat.
Andy Grant — “Someone who understood and respected precedent and duty. A mentor that I spoke with several times a day for two decades.”
John Cashman — “Loved and understood more facets of the sport than anyone I’ve known.”
Margareta Wallenius Kleberg — “Makes going to Sweden a joy. She has contributed more to Swedish and to a lesser degree American breeding and racing than anyone I know. It was Margareta’s idea to add the two 2-year-old trots to the Hambletonian Day card which enhances our International simulcast.”
Moira Fanning — “Someone who I have been fortunate to have known, helped by and worked with for the largest part of my career. She is a great asset not only to the Society but also our entire sport.”
Jim Simpson — “A hard worker. Very hands on. I’ve known Jim since we were both in the shedrow.”
Frank Antonacci — “Very practical. He and his family have been committed to the sport for more than half a century.”
Mike Kimelman — “Persistent. Pragmatic. As you told me quoting his father Oscar, ‘My son will come up with 20 ideas, 19 of them will be crazy, but the remaining one will hit it out of the park.’”
Ted Gewertz — “A great mind. You don’t realize how brilliant he is until you’ve worked with him.”
Fred Hertrich III — “His perspective from being head of the Breeders’ Cup brings great knowledge to the society.”
Seth Rosenfeld — “Very sharp guy. Very bright gambler. Works hard in his role in the society. My go to adviser for simulcasting.”
George Segal — “Always thinking. Maybe has more long-term focus than anybody I’ve known.”
Dr. Glen Brown — “Great guy. His heart is in the business. Loyal member of the Society.”
Charlie Keller — “Great chairman of the Society executive committee. Good business sense. More than anyone responsible for the three track series of Breeders Crown races in Indiana, New Jersey and Ontario.”
John Simpson — “Forceful. Master businessman and politician. Could be both tough and incredibly charming.”
Max Hempt — “Well grounded. Passionate about tradition. Business misses him.”
Fred Van Lennep — “Loved the business. His wife, Frances Dodge Van Lennep, and he invested greatly in the sport and made good things happen.”
John Campbell — “The greatest driver ever, which is an assessment Delvin also expressed to me in one of his letters. Honored to have him succeed me. He would have been successful at anything he attempted in life.”
Delvin Miller — “In just two just two words: The Best.”
Have a question or comment for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.