Reflections on a life that’s been anything but Boring

A conversation with Chris Boring.

by Murray Brown

Standardbred breeder owner and Michigan native Samuel Abdoo says, “Chris Boring is the greatest, nicest human being ever.” Although some may not agree with the all encompassment of that statement, there is likely no one who will not agree with the thought process and the experience expressed by it. Simply put, one would have to travel a long time both in and out of harness racing to find Chris Boring’s equivalent.

Most people, myself included, think about Boring as being a Michigan native. He actually is a Hoosier born and raised. His father Leon and his paternal grandfather John come from Shelbyville, IN.

What brought the Borings to Michigan one might ask?

“Dad was a harness trainer and had the opportunity to come work for Al Linehan in Michigan,” Chris said. “Mr. Linehan was known as the proprietor of one of the top stables in the state. Therein lies the story of the first truly top horse that our family was privileged to train. Al had gone to Two Gaits Fam in Indiana and purchased a Hal Dale weanling for the then incredible price of $5,000. ‘Five thousand for a weanling?’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s crazy!’

“This was 1949 and that price was unheard of for a weanling. But that price turned out to be a great bargain. He became a terrific race horse. He took a record of 1:58.4 at a time when not too many horses went that fast. In addition to what Walter Mcklyo earned racing, Al sold him to Bob Parkinson for $32,500. I recall thinking that I was unable to envision that much money, let alone paying that much for a horse. I was just a kid, eight years old. It was during those formative years where I met my very best friend, Tommy Merriman. Now over 70 years later we are still the best of friends and we still speak almost every day.”

Your first great horse and the horse that many old timers, like yours truly, associate when thinking of you was True Duane.

“Actually, it was my dad who trained True Duane. I was just his chauffer. I was privileged to drive him for dad.”

How did your dad acquire this great giant killer?

“Mr. Oldfield sent dad to Lexington to look at the horse and to buy him if he liked him. Dad bought him for $5,000. After the sale, Phil Tully approached dad and offered him a profit. Phil said that he had intended to buy the colt but had stepped outside when he was selling. Dad called Mr. Oldfield who told him to disregard the profit and bring the colt home.”

Among the many feats accomplished by True Duane one stands out. He was one of the very few horses to ever defeat the mighty Bret Hanover. Not only did he beat Bret, but Bret was a seasoned performer at 4 and True Duane was only 3.

“True Duane was one of a class of 3-year-olds that was headed by the great Romeo Hanover. For most of the season we were mostly getting our heads handed to us racing for second money against Romeo. The week before the big season ending races in California, we were racing in New York. I believe it was The Messenger. Mr. Oldfield had supplemented True Duane to the race for $15,000. George Sholty driving Romeo parked me as well as he should have when driving the best horse. We only got a small piece of the purse finishing fifth. I was somewhat downcast. I had expected to do better. After the race, Mr. Oldfield surprised me. ‘We are putting True Duane on a plane and flying him to California to race in the American Pacing Classics out there.’ I thought to myself. ‘Doesn’t he know we will be in against Bret Hanover?’ But he’s the boss. He pays the bills.

“In the race, True Duane felt good. Bret was cutting the pace. My horse felt as though he had a lot left. They were going at a mile and an eighth distance. I dared to hope that I had a chance to win. I sensed that Bret might be faltering a bit. I shook loose and we went right on by. The feeling was indescribable. We had just beaten the horse that many people considered to be the greatest pacer ever. I still get goosebumps when I think of it. I remember after the race there was a reception put on by the track. I was still so nervous that I spilled a drink all over Doug Ackerman. Doug, being the gentleman that he was, just laughed.

“Here’s another story about Doug. I was walking by his shedrow one day and Doug seemed to be staring into space while a horse was in the crossties. I asked him what he was doing. ‘Just trying to figure out how to make this horse better,’ he said.”

Your next top horse was Colt Fortysix.

“He was originally a Hanover, I forget the name, but Mike Shapira changed his name. We bought him at Harrisburg for $80,000. That might sound like a lot of money, but $80,000 back then for a well-bred Albatross colt was probably in the lower strata of what well-bred Albatross colts were bringing. He was a big gangly colt, somewhat plain in appearance, with a set of questionable hocks. I remembered Jimmy Doherty having a half-brother to him that was a pretty decent pacer. He trained alright at 2, but I sensed that something was bothering him, maybe it was his hocks. I suggested to Mike Shapira that it might be best to quit with him and give him a chance to come back at 3.

“The next year, at first it appeared to be more of the same. I kept raising his head thinking that might be the solution. Finally, maybe in frustration, I lowered his head as much as I could. He became a new horse. I guess the freedom to move his head as he wanted to was what he wanted. It took me awhile to realize it, but I finally did. That season he set the world record at Springfield and then of course he won the Little Brown Jug.”

Then came Albert Albert.

“We also bought Albert Albert at Harrisburg. The price was $40,000. He was a beautiful horse. If he had any faults, I don’t know what they were. He also had a different name. Mike Shapira liked to name his own horses. (Editor’s note: Shapira was in advertising and is credited with the slogan “In Harness Racing, it all comes down to the Breeders Crown.”) [Albert Albert] wasn’t a particularly good training horse, but there was something about him that I liked. I really couldn’t pin my finger on what it was. That winter we were visiting with Archie McNeil. I mentioned the colt to him. [McNeil said] ‘If you like him, he’ll turn out okay. The Abercrombies don’t like to train, they like to race.’

“The week before the Fox Stake I thought I’d train him really well and give him a good tightener for the two heats coming the next week. The fastest I could get him to go was 2:07. Needless to say, I was disappointed. In the Fox he would surely have to beat 1:55. Wouldn’t you know in the Fox he set two world’s records winning the fastest heat in 1:52.4. The next week he won the very last Kentucky Pacing Derby at Louisville Downs. Archie, you were right. The Abercrombies liked to race.”

You used to train in Florida at Spring Garden Ranch. How long has it been since you were in Florida?

“I suppose it’s at least 10 years or so. I miss it tremendously. I loved it down there. I guess I mostly miss the warm sunny weather. It sure beats the cold weather and dark, dreary days up here. The track at Spring Garden was perfect for getting young horses ready to race. The then-new Simpson Training Center, now owned by the Pinskes, was just a half hour or so away. The track that the Burkes now own and where they train was just about 20 minutes northwest of us.

You have had a strong friendship with Chuck Sylvester through the years. I believe Chuck introduced you at your Hall of Fame installation.

“Yes, and Yes. I first knew Chuck back here in Michigan. Chuck’s dad owned a few trotters. Chuck was going to Bowling Green University when his dad suddenly passed away. Chuck quit school and took charge of the horses. He didn’t particularly come from a horse background. He was mostly self-taught. But he learned exceptionally well. He is a great diagnostician. He was as good at anticipating oncoming soreness as any other person I’ve known.

“I first started going to Spring Garden Ranch and Chuckie asked me about it. I told him it was great and that he ought to come down as well. He did. With an interlude between he is still there at 85 training his own stable of young horses. I spoke with him last week. He said that for the first time this year, he wouldn’t be coming north with the horses this year. He will stay down with his daughters and their families. He had a bit of a heart issue last summer. He thought it best that he send his stable to someone else.”

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, how about that?

“It was and is an incredibly great honor. Gordon Waterstone called to tell me about it. I was amazed. The whole weekend at Goshen was one that I cherish. The only downer was that my late wife Joyce, to whom I had been married for 65 years, was too ill to attend and share the joy.”

During your long time in the sport, you’ve known and encountered most of the greats in harness racing of the last century.

“Yes, I have been privileged to watch the best of the best. There are many, likely too many to recount. But one maybe stands out perhaps from the others. That would be Bill Haughton. I look upon him as being the most accomplished horseman of my lifetime. When it came to horses, there was nothing he could or would not do and do well. I think he worked harder and played harder, enjoying this game of life more than anybody ever. What a monumental life he lived. It was a terrible tragedy that he was taken from us so early.”

How about the drivers of today? How do they compare to your peers?

“They are different as is the entire sport. Drivers adapt. The sport is more speed oriented today, so they drive accordingly. I thought that the generation that included John Campbell, Bill O’Donnell, Mike Lachance, Ronnie Pierce and a sometime overlooked favorite of mine, Bill Gale, couldn’t be replaced. But look at guys like Dexter Dunn, the McCarthy brothers, Tim Tetrick, the venerable David Miller and another generation of stars on their way.

“Most everything is different today, especially the breed. Yearlings of today are significantly different from those of just a generation ago. You would have to look far and wide at a select yearling sale today to find a type of yearling that even remotely resembles Colt Fortysix.”

What is your life like these days?

“I’m quite happy with my life and very grateful for the opportunity to have lived as long as I have. I still go and watch my nephew Brian’s horses train each morning. When the weather warms up I might even jog a few. I still follow racing avidly and try to keep abreast of what is happening in the sport. Other than horses and racing, my main interest, is in watching college basketball. It’s now over for the season, but I look forward to the fall.”