Hail to The Chief: A conversation with Hall of Famer Ray Remmen

by Murray Brown

It began for Ray Remmen mostly from the influence of his maternal grandfather Art Hunter.

Hunter was a farmer in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. In the course of his farming, he sometimes worked with horses.

Art Hunter was a World War I veteran. He had a son, Ray, who was a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. His plane was shot down over the Mediterranean in World War II. Life was never the same for Art Hunter.

To keep his life steady after the loss of his only son, he became involved with horses, first a thoroughbred which wasn’t any good and then some standardbreds. In 1947, his daughter, Irene Remmen, had a son who was named after his lost son.

Thus began a great journey between son and grandfather. Hunter and Remmen became inseparable. Remmen recalls going to the races with his grandfather from the age of 4.

Wherever Hunter’s horses were racing, young Remmen was to be found with him.

Though, it should be noted, that it wasn’t as if the family skipped a generation from Hunter to the Remmen boys. The boys’ father, Ivar Remmen, was a lifelong racing official in the sport in Western Canada.

As for the racing stable, the first several years of it were mostly unsuccessful.

“We went to the ill-fated Phoenix track when it first opened. We had no stock and we weren’t very competitive. From Phoenix we went to the Ontario Jockey Club tracks and did just as poorly. From there we went to the Buffalo-Batavia Circuit where we barely made enough to eat and pay the bills. Windsor Raceway had opened. With the help of the presiding judge Don Perfect, we were able to secure two stalls. Over some time our stable grew. We thought we were in heaven. For quite a few years, what a wonderful place to race that was. It had as great a colony of drivers as any track outside of the New York metropolitan area ever had. Even the stables were heated. Joe DeFrank, the greatest race secretary ever was running the show. It was wonderful.”

Then came The Meadowlands. Joe was going there to do for New Jersey what he had done for Windsor. He took with him most of the top stables that had been racing at Windsor. Ray Remmen and his younger brother Larry were among them.

Through the intervening years, Ray spent some time racing on his own turf in Western Canada. His resume includes the first 2:00 mile ever there with Storming Stephen in 1964 and four Western Canada Pacing Derby wins.

Q: What was it like first coming to The Meadowlands?

“It was glorious. We had all the best stables the best horses and the best drivers in the world. Bob Quigley ran the place. If there has ever been a better general manager of a racetrack I’ve never met him or her. The horsemen, the owners and most importantly the fans were treated as they have never been before or since. The aura of the place was tremendous and it sure showed in the numbers.”

Q: You opened the place by winning the first race ever held there.

“It was won by Quick Baron. a horse owned by the Whebby Brothers from the Maritimes. It was a great thrill. I like to think that there have been other drivers who have done more and better things than I have. But I’m the only driver to win the first race ever held at the temple of harness racing.”

Q: You mentioned the great driving colony that you had at Windsor Raceway, most of whom came with you to New Jersey.

“They were really exceptional. In addition to the greatest driver that ever sat behind a horse, John Campbell. He wasn’t that when he first got there but he evolved into it. We had Shelly Goudreau, Bill Gale, Ronnie Waples and Greg Wright. People have a tendency to forget how great a driver Greg was. He really drove one exceptionally well and took great care of a horse as well as anybody when driving it. He was exceptional. But two things in my opinion might have kept him from being considered one of the best ever. One was that he had his own stable and that prevented him from being used as a catch-driver as much as he probably could have. The second was the terrible accident he got into where he really messed up an ankle.

“We had our Windsor guys, plus all of the great New York based drivers like Buddy, Benny, Herve, Carmine — you only needed their first names — Ted Wing, Jimmy Doherty; the Grand Circuit Hall of Famers like Haughton, Dancer, Sholty, Insko and Beissinger. Then along came a guy from Saratoga named O’Donnell, who for a period of time might have been the best of us all. Those were the days. I consider myself quite fortunate to have been a part of them.”

Q: Tell us about some of your best horses.

“I guess the two that most people think about are Shiaway St Pat and Beach Towel.

“I think that people tend to diminish Shiaway St Pat and his win in the Hambletonian. He might not have been a great horse but he was a damned good one. I’m guessing the fact that he was a gelding and his pedigree was a somewhat unfashionable one had a lot to do with it. His win in the Hambletonian sure wasn’t a surprise. I think he went off at 7-2. He should have won it in straight heats. But I think I moved him too quickly and set up a perfect trip for Super Juan and Howard Beissinger. After the race, I was interviewed on national television by Howard Cosell. I think more people have asked me about Cosell than the race or the horse.

“Cosell did make me look good, though. The next season, it looked like the horse was going to come back really strong. He qualified well. In his first start, he won the open trot at The Meadowlands. That’s a pretty good feat — a 4-year-old beating the best trotters around in his first start at 4. After that race, he just was never the same.

“Beach Towel was a great horse. He had ability at 2, but he also suffered from a host of allergies. I remember training him at Garden State Park and his coming a last quarter in 26 seconds. That was unheard of for a 2-year-old, especially back then.

“Lana Rosenfeld, Seth’s mother, knew an allergy specialist at New Bolton Center, so we sent him there. She suggested that we give him lots of fresh air and try to keep him outside. We turned him out 24/7 in a paddock at Showplace Farms and the allergies pretty much disappeared.

“He came back really fresh at 3 and was simply outstanding. The best part of that was that his opposition knew he was the best and drove their horses accordingly, sparing Beach Towel any torturous trips. He was a pretty sound horse. I remember only doing his hocks before the Jug and the Breeders Crown. Other than that, he was pretty much vet free. He never went a bad race, although he usually raced much better with a week off between races. He was the very first horse to win $2 million in a single season. Aside from siring Jennas Beach Boy, he was fairly disappointing in the stud though. We got a lot of his offspring to train. I sensed from the beginning that he might be lacking as a stallion. I kept hoping against hope that I was wrong, but I wasn’t. One good thing though is in about 20 years from now, it will be hard to find a pacer that doesn’t carry his blood, since he is the sire of the dam of the great Somebeachsomewhere.

“Two other exceptional horses that we were fortunate enough to have in our stable were the great filly Halcyon and Shark Gesture, who in my opinion, when he was at his best could go with any horse ever. There were a bunch of other ones, but those four were probably the best that we have had.”

Q: You rarely use the word “I” when speaking about your stable. It is almost always “we.”

“My brother Larry and I have been a team from the beginning of our time at The Meadowlands. Gord was also with us during that period. He preferred to be on his own. He is the only one of us still training. He trains and races a few horses at Mohawk. Both brothers were exceptional athletes in Saskatchewan. They were not as early to get into the game as I was. People don’t realize that before he became a full-time horseman, Gord was a practicing attorney, specializing in real estate law. He realized that he liked being around horses and horsepeople more than he liked being round a bunch of lawyers. So he switched lifestyles.”

Q: You and Larry have now been retired for five years. Do you miss it? What do you guys do to keep yourselves occupied?

“I do. I miss it a whole lot. Most of all I miss the friendships and camaraderie. The downhill trend began when the stable area at The Meadowlands was closed. The sense of community was gone.

“As far as what we do, Larry has to be one of the greatest fathers and grandfathers ever. His kids and grandkids live nearby and he is able to spend a whole lot of time with them. Unfortunately, mine don’t live close and I don’t get much chance to see them. I still follow racing regularly. I live close to The Meadowlands and I’m often at the qualifiers. I find that I enjoy them as much as I do the regular races, especially when the babies begin to race.”

Q: Who are the best horsemen you’ve known?

“I’ll try to stay away from the obvious ones. For me, Doug Ackerman is a great choice. He did things his way and he did them right. He had a lot of common sense and he used it. Another that maybe doesn’t get the credit that he deserves is Bruce Nickells. He is best known as a great trainer of fillies. But before he got all those good fillies, he had some really good male horses like Batman and Kentucky. His philosophy when training fillies was different than most. Most people try to get along with the desire of the fillies and keep them sweet. Bruce believed that the fillies should do things his way. Another great trainer who’s achievements sometimes get overlooked is Bob McIntosh. Never does a year go by when his horses do not race consistently well. Not only does he train all of his good horses, but he also breeds and raises most of them.”

Q: You were a friend of Keith Waples.

“Yes I was and like most people, I really admired, make that, revered him. Our friendship began at a time when he wasn’t actively training and driving horses. What a wise man. He didn’t have a whole lot to say. But when he spoke, if you were smart, you listened.

“One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was when he would ship a horse to race at The Meadowlands, he would send it to our stable. Actually, we have often been honored in that respect. There have been so many great horsemen who through the years sent their horses to our stable. Among them were Delvin Miller, Jack Kopas, George Sholty, John Simpson and Glen Garnsey.

“I cannot think of a greater compliment than to be respected by your peers in such a manner.

“We’ve also been honored to train for many wonderful people. Among them were my grandfather Art, Wilbur Thompson, Seth Rosenfeld, the Whebby Brothers, Brad Grant and his father John and Charlie Myers.”

Q: You are a member of four Halls of Fame, Goshen, the Canadian Horse Racing and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.

“They were all great honors. One thing I’ve learned about
Halls of Fame is that it doesn’t hurt to have good backing. Of course, you have to have achieved something to get installed. But there are a lot of people who may have done as much, or more without getting there. I was nominated at
Goshen by Bruce Stearns and from my understanding strongly supported by Norman Woolworth. Neither one of them hurt my chances.”

Q: Yours was the first stable to reach a thousand wins at The Meadowlands.

“I won’t say that we didn’t work hard to get there, because we did. But we were also lucky. We often got the right horses at the right time. We had a great group of owners through the years who supported us — often through thick or thin. I’d like to think that we always did our best for them.”

Q: Ray, you’ve been around a long time through many phases of the sport. How has it changed?

“I’ll start with old guys refrain. It has changed very significantly, in most cases, not for the better. The good is the horses. Today’s horse is so much better than that of a generation or more ago. They are sounder, smarter, stronger, generally better conformed and most certainly faster. The latter, unfortunately has led to something that is not that good. They have the ability to carry their speed longer. This has led to what I believe to be more predictable and less interesting racing. With exceptions of course, in order to be competitive today you’ve got to be on top or close to it. The difference is in the horse. Today’s horse can cut it out and still be there at the end. In the early days of The Meadowlands, that type of driving was the exception. Now it has become the norm. I believe that it has taken a lot of the strategy out of racing. It is even more prevalent at the smaller tracks. If you are sitting worse than fourth at Yonkers, then there’s a good chance that you can tear up any tickets that you have.

“Another thing that I’ve alluded to elsewhere is the absence of stable areas at more and more racetracks. It has taken the sense of camaraderie away. It’s something that I believe we miss terribly.”

Have a question or comment forThe Curmudgeon? Reach him by email at: hofmurray@aol.com