In this week's Rewind Robert Smith takes readers back to 1970 as he recalls the details of the first ever World Driving Championship (WDC). This initial attempt to bring the leading drivers together for a competition from several countries proved to be a very successful and popular event that has been repeated many times over the last half century.
Riders on horseback opened the 1970 WDC by parading with flags from the competing nations (Hoof Beats photo)
In early 1970 officials from HTA (Harness Tracks of America) arranged the first ever WDC (World Driving Championship). Drivers from seven different countries were invited for the festivities. It was somewhat of a whirlwind tour that covered seven different tracks in both the U.S. and Canada over a span of just 10 days. The tour also saw them visit the famed Almahurst Farm in Kentucky where a luncheon was held to welcome this international group. While there they had a look at the farm's new stallion Golden Money Maker. They also visited Castleton and Walnut Hall on their whirlwind tour.
Participants By Country (See photos below)
The following notes on each driver were taken from the Issue of Hoof Beats magazine following the first WDC.
From New Zealand
Peter Wolfenden, race winning champion of his country for the last three years and the man who trained and drove Cardigan Bay to his greatest triumphs Down Under before Stanley Dancer brought the superb gelding to the U.S. and fame as the sport's first million dollar winner. Wolfenden, a very strong driver, won with March Flemington at Mohawk and was popular everywhere.
Kevin Newman, leading stakes winning driver of Australia and the top race-winner for the last three years in New South Wales, drove Halwes, considered by many to be the greatest of all Australian pacers. Blessed with an outlook and sense of humour that made him a perfect international competitor. He won four races and showed clearly that he can drive with anyone in the world.
From West Germany
Eddy Freundt, nine-time champion of Germany, was the hard luck driver of the tour. He continually drew outsiders, both in talent and post position, and his trotters gave him little chance to show his ability. When his luck did change, at Hazel Park, he won with Dr. Frank Todd's Sir Galahad with a bold and resourceful drive. He also showed, by question and comment, a keen intelligence and insight into the sport.
Although he was 18 years older, at 60, than the next oldest driver in the championship, Ernst Fischer made up with determination and drive whatever he may have lacked in reflexes and physical energy. Fifteen times the champion of Austria (and twice of Romania), he continually forged to the front (he had never driven a pacer in 32 years of driving before coming to the U.S.) and when the smoke had cleared he had won three races and was leading point-scorer in two of the seven legs of the tournament.
From the U.S.
George (Buzzy) Sholty, long acknowledged as one of the great race drivers in North American harness racing, showed why on the world championship tour. Starting slowly and getting no break in the draws, he came storming on in the later races, catching Filion in Montreal, only to lose the championship in the final race of the series when Filion drove to victory with an odds-on favourite. Sholty was tremendously popular with the foreign drivers, who also were lavish in their praise of his driving ability.
From the U.S.
Stanley Dancer, third in point standings behind Filion and Sholty, but leading race-winner of the tournament with five victories, showed his true championship qualities both on and off the track. He consistently supported the idea of the tournament from the start, through the early stages when he drew stock he normally never would drive, and right to the end when he roared into the thick of the title fight. He won four races, and, as always, he added quality and class with his very presence.
Herve Filion, the champion, impressed the foreign drivers from the start with his tremendous talent and determination. Gifted and competitive, he went after the title from the start, drove flawlessly, and was a factor in almost every race. When the opportunity presented itself to settle the issue in the final race, Filion coolly handled the assignment in championship fashion.
Powerful and popular, Nello Bellei has been Italian driving champion four times, and he demonstrated his skill on the HTA tour. Physically rugged, he is a good tactician and, although driving pacers for the first time, he adjusted quickly and was competitive from the very first race of the tour, which he won despite interpreting problems just three hours after his jet touched down at Louisville.
L-R: George Sholty, Stanley Dancer, Herve Filion and Nello Bellei at the inaugural 1970 WDC (Hoof Beats photo)
L-R: Peter Wolfenden, Kevin Newman, Eddy Freundt, Ernst Fischer at the inaugural 1970 WDC (Hoof Beats photo)
This event was the first world competition which brought together champions of major harness racing countries in sustained head to head encounters. The drivers were chosen on the basis of their performance in the national championships in their home country held in 1969 the previous year.
The competition started on a Friday evening in Kentucky at Louisville Downs. It then moved to Saratoga Springs, Liberty Bell Park, Cleveland, Hazel Park Raceway in Michigan, then on to Mohawk Raceway in Ontario. On Sunday the final day of competition was held at Blue Bonnets Raceway in Montreal.
Herve Filion Wins Championship
On Sunday afternoon April 19, 1970 a crowd of 15,813 gathered at Montreal's Blue Bonnets Raceway to watch the final day of the first ever World Driving Championship. After the first six events were held at six different tracks, the competition was so close that several drivers were in contention for the overall win. In the end it was hometown favourite Herve Filion who won in rather dramatic fashion. At age 30, he was the youngest driver in the field but handled the pressure like a true veteran. He triumphed in the fifth of five races that afternoon with a horse named Darnleys Raider. A win by either George Sholty or Stanley Dancer would have made them the champion. In the final race Sholty finished third while Dancer's horse made a break and finished out of contention.
WDC Picture Gallery
Herve Filion hoists the huge HTA World Championship trophy as his friendly rivals look on. New Blue Bonnets president Raymond Lemay and the track's able director of racing, Mike MacCormac, admire the trophy with the international champions (Hoof Beats photo)
Herve Filion gathers with HTA directors and his trophies after the final race at Blue Bonnets. From left, HTA's Jockey Club director Ed Bradley; president Pres Jenuine; Werner Hansen of the Recklinghausen, Germany, trotting track; Filion; Ernest B. Morris of Saratoga; Werner Korte, manager of Recklinghausen; Raymond Lemay of Blue Bonnets; Ray Birkbeck of William Penn at Liberty Bell; and Aime Desrosiers of Windsor. Each competing driver received the HTA medal, and Filion won three individual trophies for high point standings in legs of the tour. (Hoof Beats photo)
Herve Filion, the overall winner, is shown with (I to r) Allen Dickenson, president of Canadian Trotting Assn., J. P. Levesque, then president of Blue Bonnets Raceway, where the championship final was held; Pres Jenuine, president of HTA; Judge Reginald Tormey, president of the Quebec Racing Commission; and Stan Bergstein of HTA and USTA. (Hoof Beats photo)
Miss Blue Bonnets Mirelle Hotte and judge Sylvio Juneau make the draw for the final day of competition at Blue Bonnets in Montreal (Montreal Gazette archives)
Quote For The Week: "There is just as much horse sense as ever, but the horses have most of it." - Author Unknown
Who Is It?
Can you identify this rather young driver as he appeared very early in his driving career? Sorry for the picture quality but if I showed a clearer version it would be declared "No Contest." Give it a try, this is a tough one.
Who Else Is It?
Can you identify this very well known U.S. based driver from days gone by? He was not in the WDC described today but he did handle some very good horses in his heyday.
Closing Note: Much of the information and many of the pictures in today's Rewind were made possible thanks to the great archival work done by the late Don Daniels.