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Legendary ‘Crown’ Class Of ‘84

Published: November 21, 2014 2:55 pm ET

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In the fall of 1984, harness racing opened its doors to an innovative collection of stakes races known as the Breeders Crown. Borrowing in some ways from its Thoroughbred cousins, the Standardbred powers that be put together a series of races at tracks across North America designed to promote the sport and define champions.

Throughout 30 years the Breeders Crown has had many changes with races added and subtracted, and formats molded to fit the times. Yet looking back to 1984, and the inaugural Breeders Crown, it’s clear the year was significant both in its assemblage of horseflesh as well as a showcase for traditional trainers and the budding emergence of catch-drivers.

The very first Breeders Crown took place on October 5. It was the second week of the annual Red Mile Grand Circuit with two-year-old male trotters split into two elimination races and a final on the same day. Hard to believe looking back that two-year-old trotters were allowed to race twice in the same day, but there were no complaints, as Facebook and Twitter had yet to be invented.

Workaholic, a finely-bred son of Speedy Crown, captured the race-off and became the first Breeders Crown champion. The victory would showcase the enormous driving skill of Berndt Lindstedt. One of Sweden’s finest had been a secret to many in North America, but when given the reins behind a horse from the late-Hakan Wallner’s stable, he generally managed to pick up a few lengths.

That first afternoon of Breeders Crown action perhaps opened the door to a new way of thinking in the industry. In the very first Breeders Crown race, a still young but emerging superstar named John Campbell picked up the catch-drive behind the winless Sven Hanover and managed to guide the son of Super Bowl to a 26-1 upset victory. A week earlier, the accomplished trainer Jimmy Arthur had driven Sven Hanover in Grand Circuit action.

There were just eight Breeders Crown races held in 1984 with championships for the two and three-year-olds of both gaits and sexes. Just a week after Workaholic had made history, the stage was set for the apparent coronation of the brilliant Nihilator in the two-year-old pacing colt event slated for the Meadows. From the first crop of the great Niatross, Nihilator had been breathtaking in his first season at the races and entered the Crown unblemished the odds-on favourite.

Dragons Lair was a mercurial pacing colt trained and driven by Jeff Mallet from the first crop by Tyler B, a highly respected chaser of Niatross during his racing career but at the same time a full brother to the champion Tarport Hap. Ironically, Niatross and Tyler B would have the cream of their first crops duel in the first Breeders Crown event for pacers.

Nihilator entered the Crown with an entourage. Hailing from the powerful Bill Haughton stable, Nihilator, after winning his elimination heat, was joined in the final by stablemates Pershing Square and Flight Of Fire. What was significant on this night was the placement of Pershing Square and Tommy Haughton. While Nihilator had the rail position, Pershing Square had Post 2 and his driver would use it in what looked to be a search (for Dragons Lair) and destroy mission.

Without question on paper and on the track, it appeared as if all the cards were stacked against Dragons Lair. The Jeff Mallet-trained and driven colt lost his elimination to Nihilator and drew Post 3 directly outside elimination winners Nihilator and Pershing Square.

From the outset there appeared to be collective strategy from the Haughton camp. Pershing Square (also from Niatross’ first crop) and Tommy Haughton left with authority and appeared on a mission to keep Dragons Lair from seeing the front end. The early pace appeared suicidal for the times, with Dragons Lair needing a :26.3 opening quarter to get to the front. It’s hard to put in perspective just how fast that was at the time, but it would probably translate to :25 in modern times.

Needless to say, many in the crowd had to believe that Dragons Lair would be completely cooked by the opening quarter and would never be able to hold off Nihilator when that colt came calling.

To the surprise of many it wasn’t Dragons Lair that was short on air in the late stages but the rest of the field. Mallet had gotten a little bit of a breather and Nihilator put in a challenge on the backstretch but at no point did he appear eager to go by.

The victory by Dragons Lair was indeed a David vs. Goliath moment that put the Breeders Crown permanently on the map to stay.

“Even though I was on the losing end I have to say that it was an incredibly exciting time,” said Bob Boni, who selected Nihilator as part of choice group from Niatross’ first crop for Lou Guida.

It wasn’t that long after his triumph that Guida purchased a significant interest in Dragons Lair. While Guida’s investment appeared at the time to be a way of protecting his own interests, Dragons Lair would never prove to be up to the task of racing with Nihilator again.

Neither Dragons Lair nor Nihilator turned into successful stallions, with the exception of one significant colt by the name of Dragon Again. The son of Dragons Lair would etch his name in the history books as the sire of Breeders Crown winner and richest pacer of all time, Foiled Again, a legitimate contender to capture his second straight Crown at the Meadowlands on November 22.

Two sensational pacing fillies battled in the first Breeders Crown for juveniles, held on October 19 at Maywood Park. Stienam, the 2-5 favourite for Hall of Fame driver Buddy Gilmour, was upset by the Tyler B-sired Amneris, with John Campbell urging the Nordin Stable-entrant by in a photo finish. The two would rekindle their battle a year later with Stienam equalling the score earning the three-year-old championship.

Amneris would have limited success as a broodmare, but her rival would see her name appear on Breeders Crown champions to the current era. Stienam’s daughter, Stienams Girl, produced the 1997 Breeders Crown three-year-old filly pace champion Stienams Place. In 2010 Stienams Place’s filly Put On A Show would also capture the three-year-old filly pacing title event.

Sadly, none of the four winning fillies from the first class of Breeders Crown champions would have an impact on future generations. Conifer (Two-Year-Old Filly Trot), Fancy Crown (Three-Year-Old Filly Trot) and Naughty But Nice (Three-Year-Old Filly Pace) had brief broodmare careers and insignificant impact on the future of the breed.

The first three-year-old colt pace took place at Northlands Park in western Canada on October 14, on a cold and windy day. Perhaps this Crown race ushered in the era of the power of a catch-driver, as pre-race second choice Guts saw his regular pilot William O’Donnell elect to drive Troublemaker for trainer Gene Riegle and owner George Segal. O’Donnell’s wise decision led to an upset victory by Troublemaker and perhaps proved to the racing world how astute a catch-driver can be. O’Donnell followed race favourite and local hero On The Road Again’s cover and marched to a 6-1 mild upset.

On November 16, Baltic Speed gave Team Nordin its second Crown champion when he captured the three-year-old colt trotting event at Pompano Park. The son of Speedy Somolli led a one-two-three finish for the stable with Sandy Bowl and Giorgio D following him home.

Some 30 years later, another impressive stable with Swedish roots, that of Jimmy Takter, may be set up for a similar sweep with the top rated Father Patrick and Nuncio in the line-up at the Meadowlands.

Certainly the Nordin stable and that of Hakan Wallner had to have an impact on a young Jimmy Takter coming to America. While Takter early in his career was loyal to trotters specifically, he, like the Nordins, would adapt to American racing and influence the pacing side of Breeders Crown lore.

Baltic Speed was a good son of Speedy Somolli, but showed no similarity to the dominant racetrack ability of his sire. Had anyone been asked in 1984 to predict if any of the four male champions would go on to stallion duty and be successful, it’s hard to conceive Baltic Speed would have topped the list.

Looking back, it is crystal clear that Baltic Speed, the 1984 Breeders Crown champion, is the single most influential stallion in North America over the last 30 years. His very first crop included a pair of world-class horses in international champion Peace Corps ($4.1 million) and Valley Victory. While Peace Corps made a dramatic impact on the world stage as a racehorse, capturing four Breeders Crown events during her brilliant career, Valley Victory’s short-lived racing career (Breeders Crown two-year-old champ in 1988) is not what he’ll be remembered for most.

Valley Victory has changed the shape of trotting for years to come through his sons, grandsons and great grandsons, despite being a horse with serious fertility issues.
Valley Victory’s sons and daughters made a significant impact in the mid-‘90s with Victory Dream (’94), the filly Continentalvictory (’96) and Muscles Yankee (’98) winning the sport’s most coveted prize: the Hambletonian.

Valley Victory’s impression on the Crown was incredible during that period. He sired two-year-old filly champions Lookout Victory (’94), Continentalvictory (’95), My Dolly (’97), Musical Victory (’98), while his son Victory Dream continued with Dream Of Joy (’99) from his second crop.

Victory Dream produced Hambletonian winner Self Possessed (’99) from his first crop and after retiring from the racetrack, Self Possessed produced the sport’s leading trotting stallion Cantab Hall from his first crop.

Six of the last seven juvenile colt Breeders Crown champions are direct descendants of Valley Victory. His grandson Muscle Hill captured consecutive Breeders Crown events in 2008 and 2009 and has made his mark on the breed as the sire of 2014 Hambletonian winner Trixton.

Some memories last forever. For those old enough to have witnessed the epic Dragons Lair-Nihilator battle of 1984 it says everything about what the Breeders Crown started as and would become today.

(Hambletonian Society / Breeders Crown)

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