A conversation with the inimitable Bill “Showbiz” Popfinger

A conversation with the inimitable Bill “Showbiz” Popfinger

February 6, 2022

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by Murray Brown

He will be 86 years old next fall. The primary item on his mind nowadays is where he will be training his stable of horses during the next off season. That was the first question he asked of me.

If one were looking for lifers in this sport of ours, Bill Popfinger will be one of those names who would appear at or near the top.

Popfinger and his older brother Frank come from the small Western Pennsylvania town of Wexford, situated just north of Pittsburgh.

Their father was a butcher who usually had a pony or two in his backyard. The boys rode the ponies and would race against each other.

Before too long, they discovered that there was an opportunity to race these ponies for real money at the nearby Butler County Fair. You got $5 for actually racing them and $10 if you won the race.

While at the fair, they came upon these horses pulling carts that were known as harness horses. They would race, as did their ponies, but the stakes were for big money — a few hundred dollars.

Bill and Frank quickly decided that this was for them.

They both became grooms and rose through the ranks where they each separately assembled a few horses to race at Buffalo Raceway, where they first trained and drove their horses. That was the norm back then. Virtually all trainers were drivers as well. The days of the omnipresent catch driver were way down the road.

They remained at Buffalo for a few years, but something came up where they didn’t see eye to eye with those in the race office. They decided to leave. Imagine that? Horsemen having problems with the race office.

From Buffalo they headed east to the newly opened Monticello Raceway, where Bill received his big first break. He was hired by Ben Slutsky of the famous Nevele Resort Hotel and Nevele Racing Stable to become their contract trainer/driver.

Both brothers had reasonable success at Monticello. They each had horses that graduated through the ranks and were good enough to compete on the big time — the Yonkers-Roosevelt Raceway circuit.

Bill’s affiliation with the Nevele team was what resulted in his moving to Florida and setting up headquarters at Pompano Park.

Ben Slutsky and his brother Julius had winter places in South Florida and thought it would be great if they could see their horses train and race at nearby Pompano Park. Thus Billy Pop, known throughout the business as Showbiz, started a career at Pompano from its beginning.

The culmination of a great career, which according to Popfinger is nowhere near over, occurred this past July at Goshen when he was inducted into the sport’s Living Hall of Fame.

Let’s start with your induction to the sport’s pantheon, its Living Hall of Fame. How did that affect you? I know you were nominated several times, but never quite made it until this past year.

“Of course, it was great. It’s the greatest honor a person in our sport can possibly attain. I was somewhat humbled. But to be absolutely frank with you it was a bit of an anti-climax. As you mentioned, I was nominated several times. Each time, I was told that I came just short of making it. I just missed by a single vote or stuff like that. I had pretty much given up hope on getting in. Then, when I finally made it in 2020, COVID came along. The induction ceremony for 2020 had to be cancelled and I wasn’t able to be inducted until 2021. But, all good things end well and I got my ring this past July. I was very happy and honored.”

Talk about some of the best horses you had a role in developing. Who was your best?

“That would undoubtedly be Lady B Fast, a horse that unfortunately time has mostly forgotten. She was a truly great trotter who raced against and was able to consistently hold her own against all of the great trotters of her generation.

“She beat Nevele Pride taking the worst of it in a free-for-all trot at Yonkers. Fresh Yankee was also in that race. I was one proud dude. Billy Popfinger from little Wexford, PA, was able to have a hand in beating two of the sport’s giants — Stanley Dancer and Joe O’Brien — who were driving two of the sport’s greatest trotters ever, Nevele Pride and Fresh Yankee.

Lady B Fast was remarkable in that she kept getting better. I think she had a record of around 2:07 as a 2-year-old. I thought she was okay, but just okay. At 3, she was considerably better. It was as an older mare that that she really blossomed. We shipped her to California where she won the $75,000 American Trotting Derby. That was huge money back in those days. She won several in a row out there. But the brain trust behind her, Bob Bregman and John Cashman, decided that shipping me out there to race her was too costly, so they decided to use Eddie Wheeler. She got beat. Undoubtedly through no fault of Eddie’s, but that was her only loss. The next week I was back aboard.”

How about some of the others?

“There were quite a few. Some that come to mind are Happy Escort, Say Hello, Kassa Branca (who won the Woodrow Wilson), Happy Motoring, Spellbound Hanover, Shirleys Beau Crackers and Praised Dignity. I was also the first trainer to have two $100,000 winning pacers in the same year — Say Hello and Spicy Charlie.”

Let’s talk about some of them.

Happy Escort — “I’m guessing that most people think of my winning the Little Brown Jug with him over heavily favored Falcon Almahurst and Flight Director was my biggest claim to fame and my best drive ever. I guess it’s probably my biggest claim to fame, but it wasn’t my best drive. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and things worked out well at the Jug. I just took the shortest way around the Delaware Ohio track and things turned out for the best. My best drive came in a race that I didn’t even win. We’ll get to that below.”

Say Hello — “He was just a real nice racehorse who had early speed. I won the Fox Stake with him when that was the most prestigious 2-year-old event in North America. He might have become a whole better if he didn’t have a breathing problem which they couldn’t treat near as well back then as they do now.”

Spellbound Hanover — “She was just a little itty bitty filly, but no one ever told her she was too small. She earned 38 thousand short of a million dollars. She is probably better known today as the dam of Marion Marauder, who won the Hambletonian and earned more than three million dollars.”

Crackers — “He was quite aptly named. Actually, I think he was named that because he exhibited his nutty and mean traits from an early stage and his owner Leon Machiz changed his name to match his personality. I had a disagreement with Mr. Machiz regarding him that resulted in my losing his horses. Machiz wanted to race him in the Lawrence B Sheppard at Yonkers. I told him that I felt that was a mistake. Crackers hit his knees and wouldn’t be able to get around a half-mile track. He decided to take him there anyway and gave him to the Haughtons to train. He performed as I thought he would. He just could not handle those turns.

“He might have been the only horse I’ve ever had who might have been what I would describe as bad, meaning mean and miserable horse. We kept a long rope on his halter, so that he could be caught. Once you caught him, he was manageable. Never easy, but manageable. Without being caught, he was a terror. One time, we shipped him to Wolverine and he had somehow lost the rope. My people couldn’t catch him for over a day. I went into his stall to try to get him. Fortunately I was wearing a sports coat, which he grabbed and ripped to shreds. I thought to myself, ‘That could have been my arm.’”

Praised Dignity — “He gave me my best drive ever. I drove him in the 1984 $2,161,000 Woodrow Wilson, which is still the richest harness race ever contested. I believe that at the time it might have been the richest race of any breed ever. Nihilator was the class of the field by far. He won the race by open lengths. I was sitting ninth past the quarter pole and followed the speed the entire mile hoping that some of them would die off. They did and I managed to get up for second. His share of the purse was over half a million dollars, considerably more than any other race that I ever even won. Praised Dignity finished that season with earnings of over a million dollars.”

Let’s talk about the Popfinger brothers, you and brother Frank. Who was the better horseman?

“Undoubtedly me. Blush. But Frank is smarter. He was smart enough to marry a rich wife. He just celebrated his 90th birthday this past summer. He is still smarter. I still have to work to make a living, while Frank continues to enjoy the good life.”

Speaking of working. You are 85. You are still one of the hardest workers in the game. You are and have always been among the first to get to the track in the morning. You are at the track every time one of your horses races. Will you ever stop?

“What else do you expect me to do, stay home and fight with my wife each morning, especially when I can never win an argument? That’s not for me, nor is it the type of person I am. I’ve always been, make that I’ve always needed to be, active. I’m a busy guy. I love sports and participating in them. The day I stop being active will probably be when they bury me. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve certainly slowed down somewhat. There was a time where I had as many as 50 horses in my stable. Now I’m down to four, all of which I train and own. In addition to not driving for quite some time, I don’t even go warm up miles with my racehorses anymore. I don’t believe today’s horses need them or maybe I’m just getting a little lazy. I think that the post parade and scoring them down, which allows them a chance to empty out is enough.”

Who are the best horses that you’ve ever seen?

“I’m not really much in tune to today’s horses enough, but going back to my glory years, I’d have to include Adios Butler, Bret Hanover, Albatross, Niatross and Nihilator in any conversation.”

How about trotters?

“I would guess that Mack Lobell and Moni Maker would have to be in that discussion.”

What about drivers?

“You’d have to say that considering all that he has done John Campbell would have to be the best ever. All you’d have to do is look at the record book. Back in my time, Joe O’Brien, Carmine Abbatiello, George Sholty, Del Insko and Herve Filion would have to be in the discussion. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that weight isn’t a big factor in making great drivers. Look at all those guys I mentioned. All of them fit into a given physical prototype. Pretty much the same applies to all of today’s better drivers. I think that I was a fairly decent driver myself. But I was always at a disadvantage. I weighed about 170-180. I was always giving away about 30 or 40 pounds to the guys I was racing against, plus the wind resistance created by my height.”

How about owners?

“I’ve had more than my share of excellent ones. I’ve always said that being a successful horse trainer isn’t all that difficult. The two major requirements are common sense and getting good sponsors in terms of good owners. I’ve been very lucky with the latter, I’m not all that certain about the former. I’ve had some great owners including, but not limited to, Bill Mulligan, the Slutsky family, Bob Suslow, Leon Machiz, Jim Thomas, Bob Bregman and Irving Cohen.”

Aside from not wanting to fight with your wife in the morning, you’ve now been married to Betty for 59 years. Not too many have reached that goal.

“You know they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’ve been absent my share of the time. In all seriousness, it’s been a great run. We met at Batavia Downs where she was making a trophy presentation. She was a cheerleader for the New York Giants at the time. That was before I went to work for Uncle Sam in the United States Army for two years. When I got back, I looked her up. We’ve raised five great kids, make that, she’s raised five great kids. I’ve been mostly an onlooker. We have 11 grandchildren and now we have two great grandchildren.”

Is there anything that you are particularly proud of in a lifetime spent training and racing horses?

“If it came down to just one thing, it would be that in all the years I’ve spent in the sport, I’ve never had a single horse come up positive to anything. I like to believe that I’ve lived by and played by the rules.”

Any anecdotes that you’d care to share?

“It may have happened elsewhere, but I doubt it. Many years ago, Frank and I finished a race in a dead heat at Roosevelt. Two brothers in a dead heat at the top track in the country. Imagine that!

“Another thing that I’m guessing maybe only a guy like Herve might have done is that I once won races at three separate pari-mutuel racetracks in a single day. I won a race at Freehold in the afternoon, drove to Yonkers and won a race there and then drove to Monticello and won there. On my way to Monticello I got a speeding ticket in Chester, NY. Russ Carpenter who owned horses and was the breeder of Adios Butler, was the mayor of Chester. He took care of the speeding ticket.”

You are as well known by your nickname Showbiz as you are by your given name. You came by the name honestly by actually starring in a movie.

“I don’t know about ‘starring.’ They were making the movie Easy Money here in Florida. Part of it took place here at Pompano Park, which in the movie they called Hoover Downs. Rodney Dangerfield and Joe Pesci were the stars. They had me driving a horse that was supposed to win. It showed me putting the brakes to it. It was a lot of fun making the movie. Best of all, I got paid for my role. You can watch the scenes I’m in on YouTube.”

What does the future bode for Showbiz?

“Unless something should change drastically, I’ll just keep on, keeping on. When Tioga Downs opens, I’ll go and spend the racing season there. It’s one of the few tracks that still has its own stable area which makes it so much easier for the horsemen, especially an old guy like me. Then I don’t know. With Pompano about to close, I really don’t know what I’ll do next winter. I asked you when we first spoke to find me a place where I can train. You haven’t given me an answer yet.”

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