by Debbie Little
An underexposed portion of harness racing’s society stepped squarely into the spotlight last weekend at The Meadowlands as the track paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But this year’s event was different. Since 2018, there had annually been one race honoring the civil rights pioneer, but this year there were four, and they took place over the weekend, not just on one night. The races were sponsored by trainer Tony Alagna, and all winners were given a commemorative blanket, trophy and gift basket.
Also, for the first time, and in keeping with Dr. King’s message, two of the dashes were multiracial.
“I think he would love to see people coming together because we need that now more than ever before, when we see the condition that the country is in,” said New Jersey State Senator Shirley K. Turner. “And people seem to have forgotten Dr. King’s philosophy and his message that you don’t judge a person by their skin color, you judge them by their character.”
Senator Turner was first asked to present the trophy for the 2019 MLK Remembrance Race and has done so ever since.
“I didn’t really know that they were going to have a special race in commemoration of his birthday,” she said. “But I couldn’t wait to get here because I wanted to be here for that august occasion of the celebration of his birthday here at The Meadowlands, in particular because I don’t think people think of racing as being a sport where you find minorities participating, African-American minorities in particular.
“This is something that I feel brings people together here honoring him and it started out much smaller than what it is now. And I think it’s significant that it’s been expanded at a time when our country needs healing. And Dr. King’s message resonates so much more now than ever. I think it’s a wonderful occasion to be able to have a race here at The Meadowlands in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King and also to showcase our many African-American drivers.”
Driver Jim King Solomon coordinates the race each year working with Meadowlands’ race secretary Scott Warren and his predecessor, Peter Koch. Last year, Solomon mentioned that he would like to see more than just African-American drivers competing because that’s what Dr. King stood for.
In his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”
That dream was the impetus for the creation of the GSY/MLK race on Friday (Jan. 14) and The Meadowlands Pro/MLK race on Saturday (Jan. 15).
Prior to the race card on Friday, Solomon was interviewed on “In The Sulky,” which is part of The Meadowlands pregame show and explained these choices.
“Because Martin Luther King was for everybody, not just for African-Americans,” said Solomon. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The GSY Amateur Racing Club competes regularly at The Meadowlands and were happy to support a race in memory of Dr. King.
GSY member Dave Glasser owns only one amateur horse and he was the first to drop in the GSY/MLK race with that horse designated for an MLK driver. Fellow club member James Slendorn did the same.
“Obviously, supporting the legacy of Dr. King in his remembrance race has meaning and I’ve always tried to teach my kids about not being a bystander and not thinking, oh, other people will do it,” said Glasser. “You’ve got to do the right thing. You’ve got to walk the walk. You can’t just talk. If you want to see good things happen and right things, you have to do them. Be a part of it.”
In a speech at Ohio’s Oberlin College in the mid-1960s, Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
Dave Yarock, GSY club co-founding member, who competed in the GSY/MLK race, was born in 1952 and has memories of Dr. King.
“I remember 1968 and it was a devastating,” said Yarock. “First, you had Dr. King and then you had Bobby Kennedy, one, two, and it was like a punch to your sternum. And you said what the hell is going on in this world. It was terrible.”
Meadowlands’ regular driver Mark MacDonald was pretty happy to win a race honoring Dr. King and he understands the significance of what the great man stood for.
“It hasn’t come too far, has it?” said MacDonald. “The division in the country right now is tough. My grandfathers fought in World War II. You go all the way back and people were fighting different things then. They were fighting Nazi Germany and people weren’t getting along and you hate to see the division in any country because it can lead to unrest all over the world.”
Driver Devon Tharps, who garnered his first lifetime victory in the 2020 edition of the King Remembrance Race, wore a mic in one of this year’s races https://www.facebook.com/meadowlandsracetrack/videos/957531895193593 and even though he didn’t win this year, he told The Meadowlands’ Jessica Otten that he appreciates the opportunity to compete again at The Big M.
“It definitely means a lot as an African-American to be able to compete, especially on the biggest stage in a race like that for a guy who’s done so much for this country and my race,” said Tharps. “So, it’s definitely special.”
Devon’s cousin Eric Tharps Jr., who drives nightly at Ohio’s Northfield Park, got his first win at The Meadowlands in one of the King races on Saturday.
“It’s awesome,” said Tharps, Jr. “Without [Dr. King] we wouldn’t be able to do any of this. We’d never have the opportunities to do anything of the sort that we can do today. It’s not as great as it should be but we’re getting by.
“Everything’s an opportunity. You’ve got to seize the moment. You’ve got to live for what you do and if you love what you do then go out there and get it. Hopefully, people back home see that I’m capable of driving with the guys and hopefully it leads to more opportunities, more drives, more wins.”
A total of 11 African-American drivers – Ray Burton, Jr., Randy Crisler, Michael Cruse, Jamaal Denson, Christopher Petrelli, Newton (Yogi) Sheridan, Solomon, Devon Tharps, Eric Tharps, Jr., Chad Washington and Adrian Wisher, Jr. – competed this year. All the races were competitive and well bet and Solomon has high hopes for the next year.
“If it wasn’t for COVID-19 we’d have had more [African-American drivers participate],” said Solomon. “I think we could get 20 next year.”