by Murray Brown
When asked to name the first of the catch drivers, most people with knowledge of the subject would likely name the diminutive Hughie Bell.
At about the same time as Bell, there was another excellent driver whose name was Billy Hudson. Those two, together with Jimmy Jordan, were the three whose names would usually pop up on the far-from-frequent times when trainers would entrust their horses to men who did not also train them. The thought then was that in order to drive a horse one would need to also “know” it. Today it is not infrequent that when a driver first sits behind a horse it is the very first time he has had anything to do with said steed. Of course, it may be likely that he has perhaps discussed the horse with its trainer, but usually not much beyond that. Back then, it would have been unheard of for the driver to not have warmed the horse up prior to the race. Moreover, he would know its trainer and likely know the horse and its habits. That was the era in which Freddie Hudson, Billy’s son grew up.
Freddie Hudson literally was raised in the shadow of what numerous people believe to have been harness racing’s greatest track, Roosevelt Raceway. To quote Freddie, “Roosevelt wasn’t only a racetrack, it was a way of life. Everybody knew everyone else. We raced against one another. We socialized among ourselves. Unfortunately that all has been lost with loss of the backstretches at most of today’s racetracks.”
You’ve been around horses all of your life. Tell me about it.
“I guess that I have been one of the lucky ones. I was able to take part in what most people consider the two greatest eras in the history of our sport. I grew up when Roosevelt Raceway was the greatest harness track in all the world. I often think about what could have been. By that I mean if those four demons had not seized control of Roosevelt and in my opinion purposely ran it into ruination in order to be able to be able to gain personally by selling it for real estate development. That era was followed by the opening of The Meadowlands and for its first 20 years or so being the greatest harness track on God’s great earth. All the great horses, the greatest stables, the greatest drivers came there. There was never a track quite like it. I doubt that there ever again will be one comparable.”
Let’s begin with Roosevelt. What are some of your remembrances?
“It was a racetrack like no other. It was beautiful and incredibly well run. George Morton Levy invented nighttime harness racing and is called the father of modern-day harness racing. Just about all the great horses and horsemen would compete on what I considered to be its hallowed grounds. It wasn’t only a racetrack in the sense that most people today might look upon — that is a place to come to and bet on horses. It was more than that, much more. It was a great place to come to socialize and to see and be seen. There were few places on Long Island more glamorous than having dinner at its glamorous Cloud Casino on a Saturday evening. Through the ‘50s and ‘60s my dad was regarded as one of the sport’s top catch drivers and had one of the largest and most successful stables on the grounds. Then on an October night in 1963 it all came crashing down. There was a horrible barn fire in our stable. Dad was training 21 horses, 15 of them perished in the fire. It was the type of situation that takes forever, if ever, from which to recover. My dad was able to build his stable back up, but he never acquired the same class of stock that was lost in the fire.
“Throughout my youth I worked around the stables I did an apprenticeship with Joe O’Brien and George Phalen. It was a rare weekend or school holiday when I wasn’t there. During the summers when I was in my mid-teens my dad would send me up to Monticello with five or six head that needed education. During the Superfecta Trial I took 12 horses up to Monticello Raceway for Billy Mitchele and I did pretty well with them. I left Mitchele and took a one-horse stable to Roosevelt Raceway. The horse was owned by Tony Basillio the owner of the Mimmo’s Italian Restaurant that was directly across the street from Roosevelt. While on the track one day I am chatting with Del Insko and in that conversation he hired me as a trainer, and I then had my one horse stable join his. I worked for Del for four years from 1974 to 1977. It was there that I met Joe and Vinnie Barbera, owners in Del’s stable and, incidentally, uncles of Dr. J, Bridgette Jablonsky the vice president and manager of Hanover Shoe Farms. I am still friends with them to this day. Incidentally, after I left Del and had my own stable, Joe’s son Sammy, now a world-renowned cardiologist, came to work for me as a groom and assistant trainer. He was the very best groom I’ve ever known.
“I often look back on those Roosevelt days and think of what could have been. If not for those opportunist villains, I visualize Roosevelt as becoming the most successful racino in the world. You know what they say about ifs, buts and maybes. I will add that my childhood friends from Roosevelt Raceway, Billy Haughton and CeCe Levy, are still friends today.”
Then you moved across the river to The Meadowlands?
“When The Meadowlands opened in 1976, Del sent me over there with 33 head. Including a couple for Stan Banks and Daryl Busse. We then hired my dad as a second trainer and second driver. When the Meadowlands first opened, several of the New York stables split their stables and set up satellite operations in New Jersey. It wasn’t unusual for the best drivers to maintain a presence in both places. There were also some who would send just one or a very few of their horses to me to, in effect, babysit. I remember one evening where I had three horses from three separate stables to race in one race. They finished 1-2-3.”
From The Meadowlands what transpired?
“After I left Del I established my own stable training horses for Dave and Ruth Goldstein, the Barberas and I had all of the Nammsor horses. Some point along the way I started wintering in Pinehurst and Sam Fava started sending me his babies (about 10 or 12 a year) where I would break and prep them for their racing careers.”
Who were the greatest drivers that you’ve seen through the years?
“There were so many. From Hughie Bell to Del, Buddy, Herve, Carmine, Chappy, to the present where guys like Brian Sears, Timmy Tetrick, David Miller, Yannick Gingras, George Brennan, and of course the Down Under invasion of Dexter Dunn and the McCarthy brothers. I’m sure I’ve left out some, perhaps many. To them I apologize.”
What is it that keeps you occupied these days?
“I run a weekly podcast where myself, Bob Marks and Trade Martin interview horse racing personages in numerous areas of horsedom. I am the CEO of the U.S Harness Racing Alumni. In DC we lobby on multiple bills including HISA, The Safe Act, Sports Betting and several other equine related bills. I also publish a monthly periodical which I hope covers all areas of interest relating to horses. I am an advisor to several owners; I am assisting Greg Peck with the management of his stable and I am a spokesperson for the Standardbred Retirement Foundation. We, along with Jeff Gural, John Campbell, Steve Stewart, Andy Cohen, Jason Settlemoir, Gordon Banks and Linda Toscano, act as the bridge between our sport and HISA.”
You brought up HISA. What about it?
“As its presently constituted it isn’t perfect, but it is very much needed. As it moves along, it will gradually grow to the point where it confronts many of our sports problems. Unfortunately, our sport’s governing body, the USTA, have chosen, instead of working together with them to iron out our differences, to instead, bring suit against them, thus precluding the possibility of the two organizations working together with common goals of cleaning up our sport from the druggists and of placing more emphasis on the care and welfare of our horses. I am hearing through my sources here in Washington that another round of arrests are not far away. These would have happened sooner if not for COVID and its aftereffects. As the FBI has stated, this investigation has never been closed. It is an on-going investigation. As stated above, we communicate with HISA and try to work in the best interests of our sport.”
The best horses you’ve seen?
“Trotters: Muscle Hill. We will never know how great he might have become if he wasn’t retired after his 3-year-old season. Forget that he was never pushed as fast as he could go. Everything he did was accomplished with relative ease.
“Pacers: Niatross. My idea of what a great racehorse is. He took on all comers at all tracks at all times.”
What do you see as harness racing’s greatest problems?
“Four main ones:
“1. Nobody knows who we are. I’ve sat in on numerous equine organization meetings. Very few people know that we even exist. It’s pretty difficult to get improvements when people have no idea of what they are improving.
“2. Drugs, drugs and drugs. We have found that drug testing just doesn’t work. The chemists are ahead of the testing, often way ahead. It’s pretty difficult to test for drugs which you don’t know exist. The FBI has found that the best way to get rid of some of the miscreants is to follow them and pick up the threads of their evil deeds. The recent arrests have close to 100 per cent conviction rates. That was accomplished with not a single one based on the results of drug testing.
“3. The absence of youth participation in the sport. The entity that solves this will earn the everlasting gratitude of all involved in this wonderful sport.
“4. The leadership of our sport has to drastically change the status quo. We have to show the outside public that we are against the drugging of our horses, abusing them and then discarding them. Anyone who does so needs to be run out of the sport.”
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