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SC Rewind: Bret At Blue Bonnets

Published: November 8, 2014 9:45 am ET

Last Comment: November 9, 2014 1:21 pm ET | 3 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

Fifty years ago, one horse was known throughout all of harness racing; his name was Bret Hanover.

Wherever he travelled, record crowds gathered and it seemed that he always won. In a career that spanned just three glorious years, he made a trip back to the winner's circle an amazing 62 times from 68 lifetime starts. He was only worse than second on one occasion and even then he finished third! In a word everybody LOVED him.

Purchased as a yearling in 1963 for what was then a record $50,000, he was destined for greatness from the get go. While not all of life's plans go as "planned", this horse literally never missed a beat. He went undefeated in 24 starts at two and went on from there. He won 35 straight races before tasting defeat.

Bret Hanover and Frank Ervin in a familiar pose. The famous trainer and driver was 62 at this time and was deeply involved with every aspect of the famous pacer's career. He selected him as a yearling and drove Bret during most of his 68 lifetime starts.

Late in his four-year-old season and near the end of his career, officials at Blue Bonnets Raceway in Montreal extended a very special invitation to the connections of Bret Hanover and a race was arranged to showcase this outstanding individual. Because of his superiority in class, Bret was barred from the betting. A field of six of the best horses available were assembled to face the world champion and the race was called "The Autumn Classic" (and would eventually become the Prix d'Ete). It was held on Sunday afternoon, October 16, 1966. It proved to be one of the truly great spectacles of the middle part of the 20th century, a time when harness racing was on the rise regardless of its geographic location.

As race day drew near Blue Bonnets officials were extremely concerned about just how well the visit of Bret Hanover would actually play out. Virtually all of their concerns were connected with the weather conditions. As most people know, mid to late fall weather in Montreal can provide a wide variation of offerings; not all are conducive to outdoor activities. All of the hoopla planned was carried out including helicopters towing signs all week long proclaiming the horse's upcoming appearance. Gaudy streamers fluttered in the wind at the track's entrances, making it pretty difficult not to know that something pretty big was about to happen.

The previous attendance record at Blue Bonnets stood at 15,078 while the all-time record for a Canadian standardbred gathering was 16,556 belonging to nearby Richelieu Park. The people at Blue Bonnets were hoping for at least a few miracles. When Mr. Ervin flew in for the appearance and heard what the weather forecasters were predicting, he too became concerned.

As the race day arrived, the weather was raw and windy, with winds at times gusting to 30 mph. However, one aspect that had been overlooked was the steadfast 'die hard' attitude and determination of the Montreal race fans. Wearing raincoats, topcoats or overcoats, some even carrying blankets, a huge crowd of 24,454 hardy souls filed their way through the turnstiles. Never had a bigger or noisier crowd ever assembled in Canada's largest city for a sporting event.

In a 1966 promotional photo Frank Ervin (on the far right) trainer and driver of Bret Hanover appears with Blue Bonnets officials Michael Mac Cormack (left) and Albert Trottier (centre) to announce the arrival of Bret Hanover in Montreal. In this era of racing a great deal of effort was extended by publicity people whenever a special event was held.

The race that so many had waited for was barely underway when the converted trotter Gerry Mir, driven by local favourite Marcel Dostie, tripped and fell. He remained sprawled in the middle of the first turn, immediately presenting a further stumbling block to a new record being set. Driver Ervin had left smartly with Bret Hanover and was completely unaware of any problems. On the second time around as they approached the turn, he saw the horse on the track and attendants in white coveralls waved Ervin and the field around the mishap. The horse was somewhat 'spooked' by the incident and veered widely toward the fence.

A precious second or perhaps more was lost. After pacing the first three panels in 1:27.4 he needed only a final quarter of 30.2 to set a new Canadian record . Unfortunately he could only muster 31.1 with the mile in 1:59 flat. It was a new track mark for Blue Bonnets but the bigger record was not achieved. Bret Hanover led every step of the mile and at the finish he held a comfortable six-length lead over the second place finisher Tactile, in rein to Johnny Chapman.

Immediately following the race, driver Frank Ervin returned to the front of the grandstand. The pair spent nearly 10 minutes there, entertaining the fans as his horse affectionately known as "The Big Bum" paraded up and down seemingly enjoying the attention. In a way Ervin felt badly that he had not broken or at least equalled the existing Canadian speed record of 1:58.2 set five years earlier by Adios Butler. It was just not to be; a cold and blustery day, strong head winds and a fallen horse all stood in the way.

As track announcer Raymond Benoit asked the question "Do you like racing in Montreal?" in both French and English, Bret nodded his head in the affirmative each time. It was a habit he had exhibited throughout most of his career and one that only added to his allure. The huge crowd who had been anticipating a new record soon forgot their own wishes and joined in on the fun. Also when it was learned that both the horse Gerry Mir and his driver Marcel Dostie were uninjured, a party atmosphere prevailed.

Despite the fact that no betting was allowed on Bret Hanover, a new all-time one-day record was set when the mammoth crowd sent $915,747 through the mutuel windows. This eclipsed the former mark by more than $235,000!! Almost lost in the excitement was the fact that the $12,500 earned that afternoon made Bret Hanover the first standardbred to earn over $900,000 lifetime as his bankroll reached just over $910,000.

This was to be Bret's 62nd and final victory as he went down to defeat in his last three lifetime starts in California. As most veteran fans know he went on to a phenomenal stud career at Castleton Farm. The horse who won Pacing's Triple Crown and was "Horse of the Year" in each of his three seasons died in 1992 at the age of 30. Although he was buried at Castleton Farm, his grave site now stands at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Around 1986, I had the pleasure of an afternoon long visit with Frank and Elizabeth Ervin at their beautiful home in Orlando, Florida. By that time, unfortunately, Mr. Ervin had suffered a serious stroke that left him with limited mobility and greatly compromised his speaking ability. Despite all of this, he was extremely helpful and with his wife's assistance at times, he took me back through his long and interesting career. As a thoughtful gesture, they gave me the Montreal photo that appears in today's offering as it was one of a very few they had from Canada. It was a special day for me and I was fortunate to later have a story published in the February 1987 edition of Hoof Beats titled "A Visit With Frank Ervin."

Final Results - "The Autumn Classic"

1 - Bret Hanover (Frank Ervin)
2 - Tactile (John Chapman)
3 - Cap Hanover (Duncan MacTavish)
4 - Ack Ack (Roger White)
5 - Gee Lee Hanover (C Warrington)
6 - Dancing David (Gilles LaChance)
DNF - Gerry Mir (Marcel Dostie)

Bret Hanover is shown here performing his customary bow which he often did following a winning performance. This photo was taken at Lexington following history's greatest mile as shown on the infield tote board.

November 9, 2014 - 1:21 pmI don't remember when or how

I don't remember when or how I first met Frank Ervin but I think it was while I was sitting in the Armstrong's box at the Red Mile talking to Jack MacArthur but any way for many years on my fairly regular trips to the Kentucky Futurity when he saw me at the Red Mile he'd call me over to sit in his box and we'd have some great conversations. Frank was a superb gentleman and a fabulous storyteller! I have no idea why he remembered me 'cause he was a fairly elderly "Hall of Famer" then and I was just a young nobody but these visits became one of the highlights of my trips. And thinking of Blue Bonnets when I had a business trip to Montreal I'd stay at the Capri Motel and all the guys I worked with thought I was crazy 'cause the expense account would have let me stay at any of the big high class hotels but at the Capri I could get back there after work, grab a beer and some supper and walk up DeCarrie to Blue Bonnets to the races.

November 8, 2014 - 1:34 pmNo other words can describe

No other words can describe your work, SIR, beautiful and wonderful.

November 8, 2014 - 11:46 amYour article brings back

Your article brings back great memories. I can remember one of my first flights was from Toronto to Montreal to watch one of Mr. Earl Rowe's horses race at Blue Bonnets. That's a long time ago. I believe a round trip ticket was about $55.00
Keep up the great work.

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