Dazzling Dozen — HRU picks the best of 2021

Dazzling Dozen: HRU picks the best of 2021

December 30, 2021

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In the inaugural edition of The HRU Awards, our contributors make their picks for the very best of the year in a dozen categories.

Harness Racing Update is proud to present the inaugural edition of The HRU Awards.

We asked our contributors to give their picks for the best of 2021 in 12 categories, plus an honorable mention, if they had one.

Keep in mind, we purposely left the interpretation for each category up to the contributors. Some chose to think nationally or globally, some chose to think more regionally, focusing on the area they cover or to which they are most familiar. Contributors that could not provide an educated opinion for a question left it blank.

  1. Horse of the Year

Murray Brown: “Test Of Faith. Overwhelmed her opposition. Consistent. Took on all comers and defeated them handily and consistently.

“Honorable mentions: Venerable and Niki Hill. The best of their respective classes in my opinion. Niki Hill, only one loss in a race with little meaning. Venerable was able to beat the boys in the million dollar trot at Mohawk. Made a rare miscue in elimination of the Breeders Crown and was defeated on the square in the Goldsmith Maid, otherwise she swept the table.”

Brett Sturman: “Test Of Faith. No worse than second with 14 wins out of 16 starts as a 3-year-old, she repeatedly beat outstanding competition in the 3-year-old filles division.

“Honorable mention: Niki Hill. Only lost once and it was in a race that wasn’t relevant, super 2-year-old filly warrants heavy consideration but comes up just shy in my opinion.”

Bob Heyden: Test Of Faith. Grandsire Artsplace and his sire Abercrombie were HOY in 1992 and 1978.

“Honorable mention: Niki Hill who was nothing short of a sensation in 2021. It’s going to be a busy night live-streaming to New Zealand in February as Chris Ryder, Brett Pelling, Nifty Norman and Dexter Dunn are all set to carry home the hardware.”

Jay Wolf:Test Of Faith. I vote in the weekly Top 10 poll and for year-end honors. She was #1 for me for much of the season. Fourteen wins in 16 starts and won on all size tracks.

“Honorable mention – Niki Hill. I guess it was the year of the filly.”

Debbie Little:Test Of Faith was dominant in a tough division.

“Honorable mention: Niki Hill was almost perfect. How could I not mention her?”

Dean Towers:Jujubee – If staked to everything I have a feeling he would’ve won most of the big races and amassed a very nice record.

“Honorable Mention – Let’s go with Test of Faith and Niki Hill, because I don’t think I’ve seen two horses more closely matched for the honor in quite some time. Whichever you voted on is fine in my book.”

Melissa Keith: “Face Time Bourbon. It’s not just what he won (six European Group 1 races, including the Prix d’Amerique and Gran Premio Lotteria), but how he won. A horse with obvious personality to match ability.

“Honorable mention: Test of Faith. A near-perfect record in a year of exceptional 3-year-old filly pacers, dancing all the big dances. Consistency at the highest level in a 14-win season.”

Garnet Barnsdale:Test Of Faith. Her body of work is the most impressive.

“Honorable mention: Niki Hill. She showed several flashes of sheer brilliance, one I witnessed at Mohawk Park in the Shes A Great Lady Stakes. If she had been undefeated, I think she would have been Horse of the Year.”

Trey Nosrac: Charlie May — Just a great ‘out of the clouds, little guy makes good,’ story. Plus, our colt was his ‘training buddy’ from day one.”

Adam Hamilton: Ladies in Red. The best 3YO filly Australia has seen in more than 20 years. Raced 10 times as a 2YO for nine wins and a second and followed (so far) this year with another eight starts for six wins and two seconds. Won the big Victoria Oaks/Breeders Crown double and still (potentially) has the Vicbred final to come on New Year’s Eve.

“Honorable mention to our best performed open-class star King Of Swing. His 16 starts this year have netted 11 wins, four placings and almost $A900,000 in earnings. Completed back-to-back Miracle Mile wins. Slight blip came when only fifth in the recent Inter Dominion final.”

Frank Cotolo: Astra: Delivered the highest win price ($81.80) I suggested to readers.

Honorable mention: Jericho Willie: Penultimate win price ($78.50) for readers.”

Thomas Hedlund: “It’s obvious for me that Face Time Bourbon will top the 2021 list. The French-bred trotter wins almost every time he enters a track, and he wins in toughest possible context. A true champion that will be big favorite in Prix d’Amérique even in 2022.

“Honorable mention: Önas Prince was the most successful horse in the northern European countries 2021, both in terms of victories and earnings. Runner up in the $835,000 Derby, winner in $230,000 Kungapokalen, $225,000 Sprintermästaren and $350,000 Breeders Crown.”

  1. Person who made the biggest contribution to harness racing in 2021

Murray Brown: “Steve Heimbecker. It is just so great to see a person who has so much confidence in the future of the sport come in and make such a meaningful investment.

“Honorable mention: The activity of France’s LeTROT president Jean Pierre Barjon at both Lexington and Harrisburg in both the yearling and breeding arenas. It’s nice to see one of the leaders in French trotting show such confidence in North American breeding.”

Brett Sturman:Jeff Gural. The oft-controversial owner of The Meadowlands continued his behind-the-scenes push to clean up racing. Additionally, he took his driving colony to task this year to race more aggressively.

“Honorable mention: Tim Tetrick. The driving Hall of Famer was able to attract mainstream media multiple times this year for harness racing. From a highly-publicized match race at Yonkers against UFC champion Charles Oliveira to garnering attention from ESPN with NBA MVP Nikola Jokic attending races at The Meadowlands, Tetrick was a leading ambassador for the sport this year.”

Debbie Little:Marvin Katz made the Breeders Crown Charity Challenge bigger and better in 2021. The connections made between the host track and their community are invaluable.

“Honorable mention: Jeff Gural for everything he does for harness racing in New Jersey.”

Dean Towers: “Marvin Katz and Al Libfeld continue to be great stewards of harness racing, as witnessed with this year’s Breeders Crown Charity Challenge.

“Honorable Mention – I think John Campbell is as engaged with the administration of the sport as he was in the sulky. The sport is lucky to have him.”

Trey Nosrac: Eric Cherry — His OnGait has been around for years, but this year it made a quantum leap in the harness horse marketplace in 2021.

Honorable mention, his sidekick Maurice Chodash.”

Adam Hamilton: Kate Gath: Not only is she the pin-up female of Down Under harness racing, but she’s got layers and is so superbly marketable. Set to defend her Victorian metro driving premiership with a runaway win. Speaking of running, she recently completed her first marathon (Melbourne Marathon) and did it in a staggering 3hrs23mins – that’s about a 4min50sec pace. Give that a try yourself.

“Honorable mention to Pat Driscoll, the leviathan and visionary owner/breeder. Pat’s transformed the quality of trotters in Australia with his passion and financial commitment to the best global stallions and massive “Yabby Dams” racing and breeding operation. What an impact and what a legacy he’s building.”

Frank Cotolo:Dave Briggs: Tireless editor/writer reporting every angle of the sport’s news.

Honorable mention: Dave Little: Broadcasts galvanizing editorials on every race of every kind.”

Thomas Hedlund: “A tricky one. I would like to mention a collective. All the owners in the business that continue to spend money at sales all over the world. Without them the sport would face worse times.”

  1. Trainer of the Year

Murray Brown: “Nifty Norman. A career year. Trainer of two HOY category winners (IMO) in Venerable and Bella Bellini, in addition to a power-packed stable including world champion Amigo Volo.

“Honorable mention: Brett Pelling. If it was a dead heat, I’d say these two former partners. Trainer of Horse of the Year (IMO) Test Of Faith, Older Pacer Allywag Hanover (IMO) and Older Mare Trotter contender When Dovescry —all coming from a relatively small stable. Another even smaller stable worthy of mention would be that of trainer Joe Holloway with Perfect Sting and Governor’s Cup winner Early Action.”

Bob Heyden: Brett Pelling. His numbers are off the charts this year: .467 UTRS. A peek at The Meadowlands fall numbers and I saw 41 18-6-7 for a .577 number. Wow!

“Honorable mention: Nifty Norman with a huge season. No reason to even try to separate these two who worked in tandem from 1988-2005 culminating in a HOY trophy for Rocknroll Hanover.”

Brett Sturman:Brett Pelling. In addition to Test Of Faith, he also trained divisional winner Allywag Hanover and sported over a miraculous .460 UTRS, accomplishing a ton with just 330 seasonal starts as of print.

“Honorable mention: Nifty Norman. First trainer to ever campaign a pair of million-dollar trotters in the same season, Venerable and Bella Bellini. Masterful job campaigning both.”

Jay Wolf: Nifty Norman. Will train two Dan Patch award winners in 2021 – Bella Bellini and Venerable.

“Honorable mention – Todd Luther. Not only did he have a good year ($2.5 million in earnings), he saved a horse’s life by selflessly jumping into a pond at Northfield Park.”

Debbie Little:Brett Pelling had an incredible year. From only a 25-horse stable, he hit the board 63 per cent of the time and won 105 times from just 330 starts.

“Honorable mention: Nifty Norman had his best season that included two million-dollar earners.”

Dean Towers: Ron Burke – From a statistical standpoint, isn’t he always?

“HM Chris Ryder – His horses look happy and sound, and they win races. What a wonderful horseman.”

Melissa Keith: “Richard “Nifty” Norman, for his best-ever season by earnings and ongoing success with top trotting fillies, including 2021 Hambletonian Oaks winner Bella Bellini and 2021 Mohawk Million winner Venerable. (I voted for Bee a Magician as my O’Brien Horse of the Year for her 2-year-old season, back in 2012.).

“Honorable mention: Danny Romo, because he’s been developing stakes colts and fillies for decades in Nova Scotia but never seems to get recognition on a wider scale. Randy Waples praised him on the Woodbine Mohawk Park simulcast recently, so I’ll add my voice: Romo’s Truro Raceway stable may be small, but he just had his best season by earnings since 2010 and second-best annual UTRS (last year’s was .450). He’s developed well-known and accomplished horses like Firms Phantom, The Rev, and most recently, Woodmere Stealdeal.”

Garnet Barnsdale:Nifty Norman. Venerable, Bella Bellini, Grace Hill, Fire Start Hanover, Lilbitalexis; Nifty was the king of filly trainers in 2021 it seemed and he had two divisional Dan Patch Award winners whom he kept in top form all year.

“Honorable mention: Greg Wright, Jr. I think he deserves some recognition for the phenomenal job he did with 3YO trotting colt Jujubee that culminated in a Breeders Crown win.”

Trey Nosrac: “Most everyone with a stable of fewer than six horses, gotta love these strivers.”

Adam Hamilton: Belinda McCarthy: Just gets the nod over Victoria couple Emma Stewart and Clayton Tonkin. It’s McCarthy’s dominance at the very top end, headed by superstars King Of Swing and Expensive Ego, which makes the difference. All while she and husband, Luke, are building their own breeding empire at their Cobbitty Equine Farm.

“Honorable mention to Emma Stewart and Clayton Tonkin. Their dominance, especially in 2- and 3-year-old racing in Victoria, continues to grow and is something to behold. An intimidating force.”

Frank Cotolo: Bret Pelling: Returns to North America and rebuilds his success.

Honorable mention: Jacob Cutting: Youngster with remarkable ability emerging.”

Neil Milbert: “Honorable mention: Terry Leonard, the father of Casey Leonard, reclaimed the Hawthorne title he won in 2018 and 2019 after finishing third in the 2020 standings.”

Thomas Hedlund:Ron Burke. He must spend so much time getting all pieces together considering all horses ha has and all starts they have, which almost always results in 1,000 wins per year. He is outstanding and the gold medal belongs to him.

“Honorable mention: I know how good Åke Svanstedt is as a trainer (and driver in my opinion) and he has belonged in the top of the world for so many years now. A super trainer. No coincidence that he has claimed two Hambletonian titles since he moved to USA.”

  1. Driver of the Year

Murray Brown: “Dexter Dunn. I find this young man to be truly amazing. By just a little bit, stands above one of the greatest all-inclusive group of drivers ever.

“Honorable mention: Tim Tetrick. Always there and always a factor.”

Bob Heyden: Dexter Dunn. Three straight in three full seasons here. Leads Tim Tetrick by $200G heading to the last 11 days.

“Honorable mention: Tim Tetrick. Ready? In 2022, it will then be nine years since the last time he was voted Driver of the Year.”

Brett Sturman:Dexter Dunn. The leading money winning driver this year, he won more big-money races than anyone else. Driver of divisional winners Niki Hill, Bella Bellini and Manchego.

“Honorable mention: Yannick Gingras. Near the top of the earnings list as usual, his drive with This Is The Plan from post 8 in the Borgata Pacing Series final might have been the drive of the year.”

Jay Wolf: “David Miller. Still going strong at the age of 57, going toe-to-toe against the ‘young guns.’

“Honorable mention – Dexter Dunn. One of the top ‘young guns.’”

Debbie Little:David Miller had Perfect Sting, Test Of Faith, Venerable and When Dovescry, among others.

“Honorable mention – Dexter Dunn put up consistently good numbers for the third-straight year.”

Dean Towers:Dexter Dunn – Sorry to my favorite driver Yannick Gingras, but Dex came to play in 2021.

“Honorable Mention – Yannick Gingras, of course!”

Melissa Keith:James MacDonald, whose star has been rising seemingly forever. Even after his World Driving Championship title in 2017, he remained under the radar. This year, he’s winning about one in every five races he drives at Woodbine Mohawk Park. Just today, he drove roughly half the winners (6 of 13) on Mohawk’s Boxing Day card. Under the radar no more.

“Honorable mention: Dave Miller, for driving Test of Faith in every race in what could be a Horse of the Year season, and managing the unpredictable Beads, North America’s fastest trotting stallion of 2021, better than any other driver: All four of Beads’ pari-mutuel wins were with Miller in the sulky.”

Garnet Barnsdale:James MacDonald. His career really took off in 2021 and he dominated at Mohawk Park all year long. Even as I write this, he is coming off a card where he recorded a six pack of wins that included a $23 winner and two $10 winners. He seems to be winning with anything from every conceivable kind of trip. It would be a travesty if he was not the unanimous winner of the ‘O Brien Award for Canada’s top driver. He has been that dominant.

“Honorable mention: Dexter Dunn. He continues to excel in North America, especially as a big money stakes driver.”

Trey Nosrac: “One of the drivers named Smith in Ohio — there are about 18 of them, and they all are terrific.

Honorable mention — one of the other 17 drivers named Smith in Ohio.”

Adam Hamilton:Peter McMullen. Plays largely in his own backyard in Queensland, but he would hold his own anywhere. Topped 300 wins in a season for the first time and is zooming towards his first Australian driving premiership. Known as “Leader Peter” for his dashing front-running successes, McMullen is a gun.

“Honorable mention to Gary Hall, Jr. Sadly, COVID-19 travel restrictions have kept the West Australian champ at home, but we’ve still been able to watch from afar as he dominates in his own backyard. Pound-for-pound, as good as any driver in this part of the world.”

Frank Cotolo:Jacob Cutting: Impressive early success against proven veterans.

Honorable mention: Austin Siegelman: Under-rated as partner to his mounts.”

Neil Milbert: “Honorable mention: The demise of the sister tracks, Balmoral Park and Maywood Park, at the end of their 2015 meetings has left the Chicago circuit with only one track that offers harness racing, Hawthorne Race Course, and its major races are restricted to Illinois-bred events. Casey Leonard has succeeded the retired Dave Magee as the premier driver in Illinois–he won his sixth straight Hawthorne driving championship and on the biggest night in Illinois racing, the Night of Champions, he drove four of the 11 champions.”

Thomas Hedlund: “I will likely get enemies attacking from the west, but this is not about feeling sympathy for the ‘home team’ in Sweden, but there are some really good drivers on my side of the Atlantic Ocean. Björn Goop and Örjan Kihlström fight for the title in northern Europe, while Eric Raffin and Jean-Michel Bazire battle in France. Kihlström is my choice for the top spot. Victories in the Elitloppet, Kriteriet, Derbystoet, Breeders Crown (2) and Stochampionatet are just some of Kihlström’s big wins in 2021.

“Honorable mention: Eric Raffin is my choice. The French top driver showed, by winning with Delia du Pommereux at Åby during the spring, that he can adapt to different racing conditions.”

  1. Owner(s) of the Year

Murray Brown: “Dave McDuffee. A great person and an ultra-loyal owner who enjoyed his best year ever, highlighted by, but not limited to the super trotting fillies Bella Bellini and Venerable.

Honorable mention: Brad Grant. A true gentleman and supporter of all aspects of the sport — from overnights, to stakes horses, to the very top open events.”

Bob Heyden: “I want to combine this with the person who has made the biggest contribution, too. On both counts, David McDuffee in a landslide. Long overdue. He almost was looking at two straight owners trophies, but higher powers had a different plan for superstar Papi Rob Hanover. McDuffee is a fixture at his horse races and at yearling sales. He’s not sitting on his big years, he’s right back in. Oh, did I mention he bred Bella Bellini, who was winless at 2 but a million-dollar winner at 3? Breeder, owner, buyer, attendee, recognition is long, long overdue McDuffee, who has had as big an influence over the industry as anyone in the past 35-40 years.

“Honorable mention: Weaver Bruscemi have had a long and quite prosperous run with Burke and we tend to overlook their body of work.”

Brett Sturman: David McDuffee: With limited horses, he both bred and owned Hambletonian Oaks winner Bella Bellini. He also co-owned fellow million-dollar trotter, Venerable.

“Honorable mention: Knutsson Trotting: Campaigned Hambletonian winner Captain Corey in partnership, and Breeders Crown winner Felicityshagwell S as sole owner. Banner year.”

Debbie Little:Dave McDuffee had several top horses in 2021, including homebred Bella Bellini, who he was willing to give enough time to become the impressive 3-year-old filly she is.

“Honorable mention: Tom Pollack/Jeff Cullipher, who won their first title this year at The Meadowlands.”

Dean Towers: “George Millar – George has done things the right way for a long, long time. I was so happy for his monstrous year in 2021. Congrats George!

HM – Pollack Racing – How many horses does he have now, an entire foal crop? It’s mind-boggling how much Tom invests in the game.”

Trey Nosrac: My pal Jim — a fun guy on the same wavelength.”

Adam Hamilton: Bill and Anne Anderson. Wind the clock back to when Bill and Anne decided to buy some superbly bred North American mares with a vision of raising the bar Down Under. What a stunning success story it’s been. Champion filly Ladies In Red is their headline act, but 4YO Honolua Bay could be anything, maybe even the best pacer in the land in the next 12 months. They’ve got so many other stars or budding stars as well.

“Honorable mention: Pat Driscoll. His Yabby Dams operation is a phenomenal backbone of the Down Under trotting industry as outlined above.”

Frank Cotolo:John Otto: Lessee of Astra.

Honorable mention: Jennifer Safford: Owner of Jericho Willie.”

Neil Milbert: “Honorable mention: Flacco Family Farms, LLC is another big fish in a small pond. The farm’s patriarch, Dr. Richard Flacc, saw three of his homebreds win races on the Night of Champions.”

Thomas Hedlund: “The owners of Hambletonian winner Captain Corey. Robert Lindström, Malin Åberg, Petri Salmela, SRF Stable, Knutsson Trotting and Kenneth Liljamaa. Victory in one of the biggest races in the world where many, to the sport, devoted people can share the success is always a nice fairy tale.

“Honorable mention: Scuderia Bivans S.R.l., Italy. With horses like Face Time Bourbon and Vivid Wise As, Scuderia Bivans has experienced some great moments at the tracks around Europe during 2021.”

  1. Breeder(s) of the Year

Murray Brown: “Fred Hertrich. Mostly because he is the breeder of the HOY Test Of Faith (IMO), but also, because he is at or near the summit as a breeder of both standardbreds and thoroughbreds.

“Honorable mention: Hanover Shoe Farms. The sport’s perennial leading breeder which once again set a new earnings record from their production.”

Bob Heyden:Hanover Shoe Farms. For the 11th time, but likely just the second time without having a HOY the same year (2015 and 2021). Their dominance goes all the way back to 1948 and Rodney.

“Honorable mention: Steve and Cindy Stewart. Their numbers at the top level, especially come Hambletonian time, have been extraordinary.”

Brett Sturman:Don Tiger: Breeder of just a single 3-year-old of 2021, the Tiger-bred and owned Charlie May was one of the top stories this year for blue collar connections.

“Honorable mention: Steve Stewart. Third in earnings this year as a breeder behind only powerhouses Hanover and Winbak, his top success includes older trotter of the year, Forbidden Trade.”

Jay Wolf: “Joe McLead and William Walters. It’s too easy to pick the large farms. McLead and Walters bred two Ohio Sire Stakes champs (Herculisa and Gulf Shores), Sling Shock ($239K) and Fantasy Life (1:52.3f).

“Honorable mention – Diamond Creek Farm. Their stallions are starting to take over.”

Melissa Keith:Steve and Cindy Stewart & Partners/Hunterton Farm. Collective earnings of nearly $9 million this year from only 246 starters, plus they have bred and/or raised BOTH of the two Mohawk Million winners to date (Venerable and Venerate), 2021 Breeders Crown champions Joviality S and Rebuff, and 2021 Dan Patch Older Male Trotter of the Year Forbidden Trade.

“Honorable mention: Woodmere Standardbreds, PEI. Bruce Wood and Bronwyn Crane bred and sold the top-priced Maritime-bred yearling of all time at the 2021 Atlantic Classic Sale, Arthur Blue Chip colt Woodmere Xspeedia ($68,000). They were major consignors at the record-breaking 2021 edition of the sale, which brought in $1.7M for 103 yearlings. On the racetrack, Woodmere Skyroller, Woodmere Ideal Art, Woodmere Stealdeal, and Woodmere Alvin were among the Woodmeres who made headlines.”

Trey Nosrac: Marvin Raber — beautiful farm, beautiful people, beautiful horses.”

Adam Hamilton: “Same as the Owner of the Year.”

Frank Cotolo:Lindy Farms of CT: Productive horses successful at all levels.

Honorable mention: James Wilhite: Remarkable percentage.”

Neil Milbert: “Honorable mention: Once again, Flacco Family Farms gets my vote. In addition to boasting the three Night of Champions winners he owned, Dr. Flacco had three third place finishers.”

Thomas Hedlund:Brixton Medical AB, Sweden. Yes, I work for the company, but one can’t ignore facts about the stable’s year, both as an owner and breeder. Don Fanucci Zet (Elitloppet winner) and Francesco Zet (Kriteriet and Breeders Crown winner) are just two of Brixton Medical AB’s trotters that have had a successful year 2021. Winning the two biggest races at Solvalla in one season qualifies for the top spot as a breeder.

“Honorable mention: Menhammar Stuteri AB, Sweden. Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg’s dear stud farm has been the leader of breeding for many years. Menhammar is an important vein for the sport word wide. Champion trotter Calgary Games (4-years-old) is bred at Menhammar Stuteri.”

  1. Rising Star (human)

Murray Brown: “Todd McCarthy. The third member of the Down Under invasion of exceptional drivers joining Dexter Dunn and brother Andrew McCarthy.

“Honorable mention: Edison Hatter. So nice to see a brilliant young person becoming involved as a race caller at Freehold, occasionally at The Meadowlands and as a race analyst at The Meadowlands.”

Bob Heyden:Todd McCarthy. Number nine in the standings at $7,454,501, which is a huge number considering 18 months ago he was not known here at all. Brother Andy is #5 for the second straight year, this time at $8,722,473.

“Honorable mention to Joey Putnam who had a breakout year at Hoosier Park. His Rockin Nola completely dominated the older mare pacing ranks. Joey won well over 100 races there at just 23.”

Brett Sturman:Todd McCarthy. Though already highly accomplished prior to coming to North America, McCarthy was a fresh addition to The Meadowlands’ driving colony. He immediately clicked with Allywag Hanover when given the chance to drive him in July and the rest was history.”

Jay Wolf: Frank Fraas. Frank is the outreach and PR coordinator for the Ohio Harness Horseman’s Association. He came into this sport without much racing knowledge, but quickly learned and is willing to do anything to promote the sport in Ohio.

“Honorable mention – Trevor Smith. He was known in Ohio, but thanks to his win in the Kentucky Filly Futurity, others are taking note.”

Debbie Little:Todd McCarthy had an incredible first full year in the U.S.

“Honorable mention: Lucas Wallin for the marvelous job he did with Cuatro De Julio, as well as his own his stable.”

Dean Towers: Ryan Willis — Twitter handicapper and bettor extraordinaire. There are too few young people playing harness racing and he’s firing each and every day, supporting the sport through handle. I have to show the young bettors some love.

“HM — Hunter Myers – the Northfield driver is doing the hard work and having some success, banking over $3 million in purses in 2021.”

Melissa Keith: “2020 O’Brien Future Star winner Austin Sorrie. December 7, 2019, he made his first-ever drive at Woodbine Mohawk Park a winning one, with his own trainee Bugsy Maguire. This year, he’s among Canada’s top ten drivers by earnings and wins. He even picked up a catch drive for Nancy Takter in Georgian Downs’ $100,000 Four-Year-Old Invitational Pace this August, finishing second to Tattoo Artist with Fortify.

“Honorable mention: Tony Elliott and Nathan Bain, who were involved with various Ontario tracks over the 2021 season: Tony in assistant management roles at Hanover and Clinton Raceways this summer and currently as racing manager at The Raceway at Western Fair; Nathan in announcing and promotions roles, based mainly at Leamington Raceway. The reason: Their understanding of the role that these smaller, often seasonal, tracks play in bringing newcomers to the sport and fostering goodwill in the larger community.”

Garnet Barnsdale: Jessica Otten. I think the Dan Patch Awards got this right. I worked with Jessica on some radio broadcasts when she was first starting out and she has shown tremendous growth in a short time. She has developed into one of the best interviewers in the business very quickly and she is well-liked by all it seems.

“Honorable mention: Edison Hatter. A multi-faceted announcer, broadcaster, handicapper, should be 1 to 9 to take this award next year. He is just that sharp.”

Trey Nosrac: “An unknown advocate in boardrooms, state legislatures, national legislatures, expanded gambling meetings, the USTA, or Standardbred Canada who fights, twists arms, begs, or whispers into ears in support of the sport.”

Adam Hamilton: Emily Suvaljko. This pint-sized West Australian hasn’t just had a breakthrough season, but she’s stamped herself as THE top young driver in the country. And that’s saying something in a season of incredible emerging talent.

“Honorable mention: Cameron Hart is stiff not to get the top seeding and many would have him there. The moment Toddy McCarthy left for the U.S., Hart seized the opportunity and stamped himself as ‘new Toddy.’ Complete package, horses run for him and love him. A rare talent.”

Frank Cotolo: Edison Hatter: Energizing his roles.

Honorable mention: Ray Cotolo: Continues to rise.”

Neil Milbert: “Honorable mention: Nicole Agosti, Harness Racing Replay’s 2018 Caretaker of the Year, got her training license that summer and in 2021 she finished eighth in the Hawthorne standings with 19 winners and had a 21 per cent winning percentage and a 50 per cent in-the-money percentage to show for her 89 starts. Her soulmate is Kyle Wilfong, the second leading driver in Illinois, and his father, owner/trainer/breeder Brett Wilfong, considers her and integral part of his strong stable that campaigns in Illinois and Indiana.”

Thomas Hedlund:Magnus A Djuse, 21, is not a new name in the sport, at least not in northern Europe, but 2021 became the year when he started to be a part of the biggest races for real. Over 200 sulky wins and number 5 in Sweden this year tell us something about this young man’s future in the sport. The biggest victory came in Jubileumspokalen with Aetos Kronos.”

  1. Sire of the Year

Murray Brown: “Walner. No other sire in my 65 years in the sport has ever made as great an impact from his first crop. He leads in earnings, stakes winners and just about all areas of importance from his first crop of 2-year-olds.

“Honorable mention: Bar Hopping. From two small crops, most of them from relatively undistinguished mares, he has in this scribe’s opinion risen to the being the top trotting sire in Pennsylvania and near the top in North America standing only behind Chapter Seven in money earnings by his 3-year-olds. Alternate honorable mention for the all-age leader Chapter Seven.”

Bob Heyden: Captaintreacherous. Twenty-two of the 60 pacers who raced in the Breeders Crown called the Captain their sire and an amazing 14-of-30 female Crown participants.

“Honorable mention to Always B Miki, whose three divisional champs are a first — Perfect Sting Monte Miki and Niki Hill. This is just his second crop folks.”

Brett Sturman:Walner. First-crop sire has already established himself as a premier trotting sire. 2021 crop included divisional winners Venerable, King Of The North and a host of other high-earnings 2-year-olds.

“Honorable mention: Googoo Gaagaa. Already one of the hottest sires in Sweden, he added the Hambletonian to his growing legend this year in 2021.”

Jay Wolf: Downbytheseaside. His first-year crop made a splash in Ohio and on the Grand Circuit.

“Honorable mention – Walner. Another first-year sire. His 2-year-old’s average earnings were just short of $50K.”

Debbie Little: “Can anybody touch Walner? I don’t think so.

“Honorable mention: Chapter Seven. For siring Walner.”

Dean Towers: Downbytheseaside – Not only because everyone will pick Walner, but also because he’s been sensational!

“HM – Walner, because he’s Walner. Outstanding debut!”

Melissa Keith:Bettors Delight. His longevity and relevance as a stallion is incredible. He’s going on two decades at stud, with a dozen yearlings bringing six figures at the 2021 North American sales. He’s number one for all-age pacers by earnings this year, in the top 10 sires for three-year-old pacers, and top 20 for two-year-old pacers. What a reign.

“Honorable mention: Majestic Son. After he quietly left North America in the late 2000s, he became a breed-changing sire of Southern Hemisphere trotters: New Zealand’s record-setting FFA star Sundees Son; Oscar Bonavena, who had his first New Zealand Group-1 win in November; Australian Group-1 winner Majestic Man; and top Australian two-year-old Plymouth Chubb are among his current notable offspring. In North America, Majestic Player A took on the best older trotters in several Grand Circuit races, finishing second by a nose to Manchego in the 2021 Cutler Memorial.”

Trey Nosrac: “Long Tom, for fiscal reasons. Hey, there are dozens of amazing candidates, but I have a LT going to sale next year so…”

Adam Hamilton: “Bettors Delight gets the nod, yet again. His Down Under dominance has been mind-blowing. At last count, his progeny had won 1,102 races this year and banked almost $13 million – almost $4 million more than nearest rival Art Major.

“Honorable mention: Get me a Majestic Son trotter please! He’s been a total standout with 105 individual winners scoring 256 wins and banking almost $2.65 million.”

Frank Cotolo: “Cantab Hall: Crop after crop earns money. Honorable mention: Bar Hopping: Great crop introduced.”

Neil Milbert: “Honorable mention: Flacco Family Farms’ trotting stallion, Lou’s Legacy, sired an amazing 40 per cent of the contestants, 19 of the 47 contestants, that appeared in the five trotting races on the Night of Champions. Three of them were winners.”

Thomas Hedlund: “Readly Express dominated the Swedish 4-year-old crop totally with horses like Calgary Games and Honey Mearas and even among the 3-year-olds he has produced stakes winning trotters. Readly Express has even showed that his offspring compete well in America.

“Creatine’s offspring have caught my eyes this season and he is worth to be mentioned, not least after Jujubee’s successes in America 2021.”

  1. Race of the Year

Murray Brown: “Governor’s Cup. Three colts right there. Early Action the winner, after a tough duel with Hammering Hank, barely holding off a fast closing Mad Max Hanover.

“Honorable mention: The Metro Pace won by the relatively unknown at the time Monte Miki, who in my opinion will be the 2-year-old of the year.”

Bob Heyden: “1:46.4 Allerage Red Mile. Allywag Hanover erases any doubt if any single person wasn’t sure who the best older pacer was. Post 9, a shuffle to the stretch, weaving inside to clear against the best of the best to win by open lengths.

“Honorable mention: the Breeders Crown 3YOFP won by the likely HOY Test Of Faith. All she had to do was to keep this field in her sights-and then launch. Right into the history books, solidifying her status at #1.”

Brett Sturman:Little Brown Jug. This turned out to be one of the best Jug finals in years, if ever. It was highlighted by Gingras’ gutsy decision to pop the two-hole at the half to go first-over against Perfect Sting and then beat that rival in the final stride.

“Honorable mention: Cutler Memorial. In just her first start of the season off an unimpressive qualifier, Manchego went a brutal trip and at no point until late in the mile did it appear she could win; amazing determination.”

Jay Wolf: Little Brown Jug. Okay, I am a homer, but they were three-wide down the backstretch and Lou’s Pearlman and Perfect Sting paced in tandem to the wire.

“Honorable mention – Meadowlands Pace. That race had people talking (and debating) for months.”

Debbie Little:The John Cashman Memorial where Manchego refused to lose.

“Honorable mention: Mohawk Million for Venerable winning, and for King Of The North showing what a badass he is, finishing fifth after getting knocked offstride.”

Dean Towers:Bob Loblaw’s Ontario Sires Stakes Super Final for Ken Middleton was pure magic and everything harness racing should be.

“Honorable Mention – Allywag Hanover’s 146.4 in the Allerage at the Red Mile was a real barnburner.”

Melissa Keith: “The Dec. 12 Prix du Bourbonnais, when Etonnant‘s perfectly-timed upset of Face Time Bourbon unfolded as the crowd roared.

“Honorable mention: Sunny Billion taking a new 1:58.2h lifetime mark this July 11 at Truro Raceway, because of what he’s overcome in his previous life. (Full disclosure: I am part-owner.)”

Garnet Barnsdale: “North America Cup. The ‘little guys’ win the big one! The story that writes itself.

“Honorable mention: The Metro Pace — Monte Miki’s coming out party. You don’t often see horses come from where he did to win a major stakes race in their first try. (Also, I handicapped him on top to win and he paid $33, so there’s that…)”

Trey Nosrac: Pure Poetry breaking her maiden. She was a horse that resulted from a Poetry Contest I dreamed up.”

Adam Hamilton: The Inter Dominion Pacing final, but not the reasons you would think. The race itself was fairly ho-hum, but the drama that followed was remarkable and historic. Young star Expensive Ego was first across the line, but runner-up Boncel Benjamin protested to stewards, alleging he would’ve won except for being cut-off for an inside run by Expensive Ego’s driver David Moran. After a 35-minute inquiry, televised live on TV, the result was overturned and Boncel Benjamin was declared the winner. It’s the first time in history of our greatest race (which started in 1936) the result has been overturned by a protest.

“Honorable mention: The Group 1 Blacks A Fake at Albion Park in July. Kiwi stars Copy That found the lead, but his driver Anthony Butt was later suspended for cutting off champion King Of Swing, causing him to gallop for a few strides. Expensive Ego breathed fire into the race with an attack for the front through the middle stages. Meanwhile champion Kiwi mare Amazing Dream (headed to the US to continue her career very soon) stalked them and used the sprint lane to win. It was an epic.”

Frank Cotolo: Astra: April 10, Race 9, Northfield : Astra (see #1). Honorable mention: Jan. 28, Race 3, Monticello: Jericho Willie (see #1).”

Thomas Hedlund: “It’s easy to get blind of things happening outside your home country, but anyway, the Elitloppet is always a race that fans look forward to and when Don Fanucci Zet hit the wire in the fastest mile in the race’s history (1:50.4), after a strong three wide finish, the 2021 year’s edition qualified for a high spot on the list.

“Honorable mention: The Jubileumspokalen for 5-year-olds at Solvalla, when Aetos Kronos was totally outstanding in mile rate 1:52.2 over 1.3 miles. Excitement? Not so much, but a race to remember anyway.”

  1. Best thing you saw in harness racing in 2021 overall

Murray Brown: “Despite all logic dictating otherwise, the success of the sales, whether they be for yearlings, breeding stock or racehorses.”

Bob Heyden: Ake Svanstedt winning his second Hambletonian with Captain Corey. He is the first trainer/driver to do this twice since Billy Haughton in 1977 and 1980. He was also the oldest driver in the race, too.

“Honorable mention: Greg Wright, Jr. appearing from out of nowhere to campaign a stellar colt — Jujubee — and take it to the veteran conditioners on the Grand Circuit.”

Brett Sturman: Woodbine Mohawk Park in September. There’s become no better month in harness racing than September, highlighted by the rescheduled North America Cup and Mohawk Million, still in its infancy. For four straight weeks the best horses in the sport shine.”

Dave Landry: “Desperate Man winning the NA Cup. It spurs hope that the little guy can still win in this sport.”

Jay Wolf:Fans back at the races. I was fortunate enough to go to several fairs and all the pari-mutuel tracks in Ohio. It was great to see the fans back and excited.”

Debbie Little:Marie Ortolan Bar hugging Lucas Wallin on the track after Cuatro De Julio lost in the Hambletonian final. The photo of the moment, taken by the talented Vicki Wright, is award worthy.

“Honorable mention: I know it may change in the near future, but it was wonderful to see maskless people in the winner’s circle again.”

Dean Towers:Little Brown Jug Week – Wind, rain, ugly weather, but people showed up and this sport raced. It was symbolic: in harness racing we show up to work.

“HM – Any race at Northfield Park. They race all-out there and it’s quite entertaining.”

Melissa Keith: The Maritime provinces’ 3-year-old male pacers of 2021, putting on a show and rewriting track records across PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia: Maritime-breds Rotten Ronnie, Bettim Again, Woodmere Stealdeal, Woodmere Alvin, and Dustylanegoliath had charisma and a genuinely exciting rivalry all season. Dustylanegoliath and Woodmere Stealdeal have respectively won at The Meadowlands and Woodbine Mohawk Park after the recent conclusion of their stakes careers.

“Honorable mention: Fans and bettors allowed to attend the Gold Cup and Saucer again, using a coloured bracelet system to follow COVID-19 protocols about social distancing and numbers at the track. It just wasn’t the same in 2020.”

Garnet Barnsdale: “North America Cup: See above.

“Honorable mention: James Macdonald’s ascension – because he is a nice guy and at least some of them should finish first, despite what the old adage says.”

Trey Nosrac: The awesome training session of our 2-years-old trotters a week before qualifying, after that, things went sideways.”

Adam Hamilton:THAT photo after the Inter Dominion pacing final. Owner/breeder Steve Duffy named the winner Boncel Benjamin after his late father (Boncel Benjamin Duffy). On his way to the races he stopped into his father’s grave to tell him he was off to try and win the Inter Dominion with ‘his horse.’ The next day he returned with the winner’s trophy and sat it on the grave with a bunch of flowers. “’We did it, dad,’ Duffy said.

“Honorable mention: Everything star 3YO filly Tough Tilly has done for awareness of the debilitating condition EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa) and harness racing in general. Strongly backed by Pearl Jam front-man Eddie Vedder and his wife Jill, the EB Research Partnership found the ultimate ambassador in Tough Tilly as she won a swag of races and showed fighting qualities.”

Frank Cotolo: “See #10.”

Neil Milbert: “When corporate owner, Churchill Downs, Inc. decided to discontinue racing at the iconic Chicagoland thoroughbred track, Arlington International Racecourse (described by Architectural Digest as “the world’s most beautiful racetrack”) and sell it for demolition the once toddling’ racing town was left with Hawthorne as its only racetrack. Showing an exemplary spirit of cooperation the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association’s president, Marty Engel, and executive director, Tony Somone; the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president, Mike Campbell, and executive director, Dave McCaffrey; and Hawthorne president Tim Carey reached an amicable time-sharing arrangement for 2022, the first year in Chicago racing history when only one track has been in operation.”

Thomas Hedlund: “Probably the Derby Day at Jägersro on Sep. 5. Two brilliant 4-year-olds claimed big trophies, doing the job outside the leader, respectively and both Calgary Games and Honey Mearas dressed the day in Malmö in pure gold. A memorable sunny day where the sport peaked at its highest level.

“Honorable mention: Sales! It seems like the interest of buying horses into the sport is big — and growing bigger —- and as I mentioned earlier, this is a very important factor for keeping the industry alive.”

  1. What concerns you most about the future of the sport?

Murray Brown: “The lack of attendance, especially by young people at our racetracks. If the sport dies, this will be the main reason why. It was going to the racetrack and the love of seeing these wonderful athletes perform that made me and I am certain thousands of others come to love harness racing.

“Honorable mention: Combined with the above, the diminishing handles, especially on track handle which was the lifeblood of the sport. Now, the vast majority of racetracks are kept alive only through casino subsidies.”

Bob Heyden: Several. M Kelley Young resigning from NYSS (New York State Agricultural Breed & Development Fund) state job and moving out of the industry. We cannot afford to let standouts vacate. The lack of an intern program at racetracks is alarming. The only thing worse than lack of interns is last of internships offered. Tracks are essentially waving the white flag-hoping nobody is looking-and saying: ‘Hey, we have slots and casinos and won’t be doing too much in that area anymore. Oh, we had a $500G race last spring without a winner’s circle. And finally, the abandonment of public relations and feel-good stories and pretty much any human interest stories about our business. The ‘SODDI defense’ is common in law enforcement: Some Other Dude Did It. We seem to have the same outlook: Somebody else will write about it. You can clearly see where that has gotten us.”

Brett Sturman:Attendance. Lack of fans in the grandstands and small handle is a concern; at some point the sport is going to have to stand on its own if subsidies are ever pulled.

Increased competition. The sports gaming expansion reflects increased competition for harness racing.”

Dave Landry:Rising costs to participate in the sport which may eliminate many of the small players in the game.”

Jay Wolf:Government. I don’t trust politicians and they have the ability to really damage our sport.”

Debbie Little: Casino companies that don’t care about our sport.

“Honorable mention: Losing Pompano. We can’t afford to lose anymore tracks.”

Dean Towers:Lack of handle. When handle is large, good things happen. We need more handle.

“HM – Too few owners. The big barns seem to own everything. We need more grassroots investment to keep things interesting, just like the old days with stakes finals with nine or ten different owners, from all over North America taking a shot.”

Melissa Keith: The continued plans for closure of racetracks with character-filled grandstands and backstretches, like Pompano Park and Fredericton Raceway, because they are irreplaceable. Demolition by neglect at racetracks would also fall into this category.

“Honorable mention: Social licence for sports involving animals is wearing thin, with Florida’s greyhounds eliminated this year and Arkansas’ final dog races coming up in December 2022. Every person who creates an unrepresentative, negative perception of the sport through their own poor treatment of Standardbred racehorses, whether during or after the horses’ racing years, is contributing to the problem.”

Garnet Barnsdale: “There are just too many issues for frequent customers — computer bettors that get a better deal than them through rebates for starters. Then there is high takeout, jackpot bets that, in my opinion, do nothing to grow the game, horses odds dropping after a race starts, post time drag etc. At some point, we need to make an effort to fix some of these issues before it’s too late. As more states and provinces get online sports wagering, harness racing becomes more up against it.

“Honorable mention: Aging owners and bettors. As they dwindle, who replaces them?”

Trey Nosrac:Expanded gambling, AI, aging demographics.”

Adam Hamilton: “No doubt the challenge of the rising tide of Sports Betting is the biggest threat. Long gone (especially Down Under) are the days where betting on racing was the primary outlet for people so inclined. Sports betting has become huge and racing, let alone just harness racing, is in a fight for its life to remain relevant and keen some serious skin in the game.

“Honorable mention: The lack of innovation. If you stand still, you die in today’s rapidly evolving world. And Down Under harness has been far too stuck on tradition and the good old days. Every sport is becoming faster, slicker, sharper and more entertaining. It’s time for some urgent ‘outside the square’ thinking.”

Frank Cotolo:The need for innovative approaches to attract bettors.

Honorable mention: The need for innovative approaches to heighten sport’s profile.”

Neil Milbert: The reason Churchill Downs, Inc. is selling Arlington for demolition — even though a 2019 Illinois gambling expansion act would allow it to become a racino — is because the parent company wants to eliminate competition for another of its holdings, Rivers Casino, that is only a 20-minute drive from the racetrack. Not only is this doing enormous damage to thoroughbred racing in Illinois it is having a devastating impact of harness racing. I fear that in the future other greed-driven corporations with both harness racing and casino holdings will follow CDI’s example and kill racing to increase casino profits. Arlington is just one example; we are seeing the same thing at Pompano Park, once a Florida bastion of harness racing.”

Thomas Hedlund: “The small issues that could make the entire business tremble in its foundations. For example, catch drivers’ suggestion that they will bill trainers/owners a fee of $50 every time they drive a horse in a race (Sweden), in addition to their profit-share from price money. It’s a fragile line between costs and incomings for the owners like it is today. It’s probably not a good idea to cut off more money from owners who already pay quite a lot to have their horses in training.

“Honorable mention: Few horses in the races is an issue that worries me and it has not been an actual topic in Sweden before, but unfortunately we now see a pretty serious decline when it comes to number of horses in our races. Breeding has to be stronger, overall if we want to keep the sport strong in every link of the chain.”

  1. What gives you the greatest optimism about the future of the sport?

Murray Brown: “I wish I could say that I feel optimistic about the sport’s future, but I am at a loss to say how. There are occasional glimmers of hope, but they are to a great degree overcome by the lack of or lowering of interest in the sport. Just guessing I would say that over half of the populace, literally do not know of our existence. The shame is that it is still a great sport. Interacting with the horses the wonderful creatures that make it possible is such an invigorating experience. The challenge is how to expose people, especially our youth to that experience.”

Bob Heyden: “Yes, but not everywhere. But certainly the very well attended horse sales give me hope — especially with new faces dipping in. Full fields and large handles on big race nights is definitely encouraging. Big gatherings in the winner’s circle to the point of shoving and posturing is fun to watch. We just need more of it.”

Brett Sturman:Slow shift towards horseplayers. A year ago almost no tracks were able to offer free programs and now most of them actually do.

“Honorable mention: New blood. Changing demographic at some tracks reflect newer, younger management that understand new challenges to adapt to.”

Dave Landry:The strong horse sales in North America. Considering strained political and economic conditions within North America the standardbred horse sales yielded exceptional results in 2021.”

Jay Wolf: The youth. Young horsemen (under 40 years of age) and stallions are starting to make names for themselves.”

Debbie Little: Youth, both on and off the track.

“Honorable mention: The TV coverage that exposed our sport to a thoroughbred audience.”

Dean Towers: “Sports betting, online gaming, in-person gaming and everything else is competing with harness racing, yet it keeps chugging along.

“HM – None.”

Melissa Keith: Fractional ownership is such an excellent way to allow people without the circumstances or funds to buy a Standardbred racehorse alone to do it anyway, on a smaller scale. The smaller tracks especially seem to benefit from these fractional stables, in terms of attracting more owners and filling races. This form of ownership is also an educational and social opportunity for the small-scale owners, plus the track photographers love it when a fractional horse wins.

“Honorable mention: As chair of the USHWA Youth Membership Committee, I’m always amazed at the young people (21 years of age or younger) who have a love for and knowledge of harness racing, like new 2021 Youth members Justin Turnbull, who has written a guest column for Atlantic Post Calls recently and will be a special guest at The Meadowlands next season, and Dylan Daugherty, who is a Pennsylvania fair announcer, racehorse owner and aspiring driver. I keep hearing how kids don’t care about harness racing, they don’t need or want to be at the track, etc. but the (my) empirical research suggests that’s more stereotype than fact.”

Garnet Barnsdale:It’s still an exciting sport combined with the handicapping puzzle that makes horse racing unique.

“Honorable mention: The horses, the people. There are so many interesting stories every year. But we need to always focus on selling it as a betting game and teaching people how to win.”

Trey Nosrac: The resiliency of the participants and the potential of the Internet.”

Adam Hamilton:Strangely, COVID-19 has been a huge ‘win’ for Down Under harness. While many other sports and leisure activities ground to a halt, harness continued and grew a new audience and/or had a major reset which reconnected it with fans lost many years ago. Betting turnover is up (big time) domestically and international on Aussie harness. The challenge now is to keep people connected as we move back to normality.

“Honorable mention: Our amazing group of young drivers. Not just their talent, but how well they present and handle themselves publicly. They are the future and everything they do talks to the brand of the game. Cameron Hart, Emily Suvaljko, Jack Callaghan, James Herbertson, Jack Laugher, Angus Garrard, Jack Trainor and so many more. Super exciting.”

Frank Cotolo: “The remaining powers that be to whom the importance of innovation produces fresh attempts at success.”

Neil Milbert: “Despite all of the dismaying developments in Illinois, I see people like Engel, Somone, the Flacco family, the Leonards, the Wilfongs, Doc Walker, Ed Teefey, Hosea Williams and Roshun Trigg keeping the faith and doing their best to preserve harness racing. After Hawthorne completes its transformation into a racino in 2023, thereby providing a major infusion of purse money, and if the harness track/casino in Chicago’s south suburbs that was authorized by the 2019 gambling expansion legislation eventually comes to fruition Illinois racing will be poised to embark on a renaissance movement.”

Thomas Hedlund: “When active horse people around the world understand that we are dealing with living animals that are doing their best to please us in an entertaining industry. The foundation of our business is the horses and when I notice that we show appreciation for the animal, it gives me hope that the sport can live on.

“Honorable mention: When people read these lines. That means that there exists an interest for our sport.”

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Harness Racing Update