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Rewind: The First Breeders Crown

Published: October 29, 2016 10:00 am ET

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In this week's Rewind, Robert Smith recalls the birth of the now famous Breeders Crown races which were first held in 1984. That first year just eight events were held, two of them on Canadian soil.

This artist's sketch advertises the coming of the newly created Breeders Crown Series of Races first held in 1984.

By historical standards the now prestigious Breeders Crown Races are pretty new as they were first staged in 1984, just a mere 32 years ago. The series was initiated by The Hambletonian Society in an attempt to provide a lucrative group of races for Standardbreds of all ages, and to perhaps establish a champion in each category.

Around 1980 Frederick Van Lennep, the master of Castleton Farms In Kentucky and also a prominent member of the Hambletonian Society, suggested and promoted the idea of the Breeders Crown Series. His vision was that a series of races would be held late in the season to serve as decisive battles and thus 'Crown' a champion in each division. In 1984 his dream became a reality and today the Breeders Crown is recognized around the globe as classic tests for the best of our breed.

On the evening of Sunday October 7, 1984, two-year-old filly trotters invaded Mohawk Raceway for Canada's first taste of "Crown" races. Conifer, driven by George Sholty for the famous Castleton Farm of Lexington, Ky. and co-owners Hanley Dawson Jr. and Wm. Simon was the winner.

Her mile time of 2:01.2 set a new season's record and also established a Mohawk track record erasing the one of 2:02 previously held by Armbro Blush. The purse for this race was $539,825 (Cdn.), the highest amount ever offered for a trotting event in Canada up to that point in time. Second was Supreme One (Howard Beissinger) and Maxine Lobell (Hakan Walner) was third. The hopes of a local filly taking the event were dashed when Vickis Carolynne, driven by Larry Walker made a break, taking the Harold Shipp-owned miss out of contention at the 1/4 pole; she eventually finished seventh.

Conifer, in rein to George Sholty, wins the first Breeders Crown race to ever be held at a Canadian track. It was just the second overall as the first was held two days prior to this at the Red Mile in Lexington, Ky. This filly, a daughter of Nevele Diamond out of the Stars Pride mare Lumber Starlet, was purchased as a yearling at Tattersalls for $52,000, thus making her quite a bargain.

This event was seen as important enough in the sport's world that it was carried on both ESPN and TSN. At this time each of the eight divisions were held at different locations unlike the later format that saw them all held at the same track.

A shuttle plane trip was arranged to transport contending horses from the East to the West when the first Breeders Crown was held at Edmonton's Northlands Park in 1984

The second Breeders Crown race to be held in Canada occurred one week after the inaugural on the afternoon of Sunday, October 14, 1984 at Northlands Park in Edmonton, Alta. A record crowd of 9,266 appreciative fans filled the stands. It was a Three-Year-Old Colt Pace for a purse of $670,000 (Cdn.) and was won by Troublemaker driven by "The Magic Man" Bill O'Donnell and trained by Ohioan Gene Riegle, who passed away back in 2011 at the age of 83. The winning owner was George Segal of Highland Park, Illinois. The 10-horse field pitted several great three-year-olds against each other and also did not include one heralded match up when Legal Notice retired prior to this race following a disappointing showing in the Messenger Stake.

The obvious choice of the local fans was the incomparable On The Road Again, owned by Gord and Ila Rumpel and handled by Buddy Gilmour. Just eight days earlier on October 6, On The Road Again had romped home a 10-length winner in the Western Canada Pacing Derby in 1:57.1 to tie the existing track record. Also entering the race as a recent winner was Troublemaker who was fresh off his 1:57.3 victory in the Messenger Stake.

Unfortunately for On The Road Again, this clearly was not his day. OTRA finished a well-beaten fourth behind Guts (McNichol) who was second and third place finisher Armbro Cadet (Doug Ackerman).

In a post-race interview Bill O'Donnell said "I found a hole and got a trip, Buddy didn't." The winning time this day was 1:56 even, a new Northlands track record by well over a full second. Driver O'Donnell made good use of the day winning a total of five races on the 10-race afternoon card. John Campbell, just 29 and in search of his first Breeders Crown victory, competed in this event as the pilot of sixth place finisher Present Laughter. Five days later at Maywood Park in Chicago he gained his first Crown win behind Amneris in the Two-Year-Old Filly Pace.

Pictured at Northlands Park following the win by Troublemaker are from left Tom Charters, Executive Dir. of the Breeders Crown; driver Bill O'Donnell; trainer Gene Riegle; and owners Mr. and Mrs. George Segal (Photo by The Standardbred)

The first ever Breeders Crown in Edmonton was more than just a race; it was a week-long happening that included cocktail parties, champagne brunches and a gala Breeders Crown Ball. The fact that this Western Canadian track was able to secure the prestigious three-year-old pacing colt division was largely due to the efforts of Colin Forbes, Northlands' Assistant G.M..

The following is a summary of the 1984 Breeders Crown Races. As can be seen no categories for "older" horses then existed. In 1985 two more events were added, an Open Pace and Trot bringing the total to 10. In 1986 the Open races were divided by gender thus adding two more annual events and elevating the total to an even dozen. In 1996 the Open Mares Trot was dropped from the schedule but was revived in 2003.

Race - Winner - Driver - Trainer - Time - Track
2YO Filly Pace - Amneris - John Campbell - Soren Nordin - 1:57 1/5 - Maywood Park
2YO Colt Pace - Dragons Lair - Jeff Mallet - Jeff Mallett - 1:54 1/5 - The Meadows
2YO Filly Trot - Conifer - George Sholty - George Sholty - 2:01 2/5 - Mohawk Raceway
2YO Colt Trot - Workaholic - Berndt Lindstedt - Jan Johnson - 1:57 1/5 - The Red Mile
3YO Filly Pace - Naughty But Nice - Tommy Haughton - Bill Haughton - 1:56 4/5 - Liberty Bell Park
3YO Colt Pace - Troublemaker - Bill O'Donnell - Gene Riegle - 1:56 - Northlands Park
3YO Filly Trot - Fancy Crown - Bill O'Donnell - Ted Andrews - 1:59 2/5 - Rosecroft Raceway
3YO Colt Trot - Baltic Speed - Jan Nordin - Soren Nordin - 1:57 2/5 - Pompano Park

An advertisement shows the various Breeders Crown races being held in that inaugural year of 1984 along with purses being offered and the track where each would be held. (The Standardbred)

Very early in the Breeders Crown history Canadian born drivers began to show extremely well. As an example, in 1985 nine of the 10 races were captured by teamsters from North of the border. They were John Campbell (four wins), Bill O'Donnell (two), Herve Filion, Buddy Gilmour and Mike Lachance with one each. The only U.S.-born driver to register a win that year was Mickey McNichol.

Canadian trainers have also been highly successful as evidenced in 1993 when master trainer Bob McIntosh scored three victories. In addition to his prolific showing that year five other Canadian trainers notched Crown wins. They were Bill Robinson (Expensive Scooter, Two-Year-Old Colt Pace), Rousell "Raz" MacKenzie (Wesgate Crown, Two-Year-Old Colt Trot), George "Butch" Elliott (Lifetime Dream, Open Mare Trot), Tod Sheppard (Swing Back, Open Mare Pace) and Chris Christoforou, Sr. (Earl, Open Trot).

In 1997 an unprecedented eight of the 11 Breeders Crown events were held at Mohawk Raceway. At this time the annual schedule was trending away from multiple tracks hosting events and for a number of years just two tracks were on the annual schedule. Both Mohawk and Woodbine and the many horse people who ply their trade there have been very involved as one looks over the Breeders Crown 32-year history.

Continued good fortune in this year's events.

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