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Rewind: Memories Of Niatross (Pt. 1)

Published: December 28, 2019 10:39 am ET

Last Comment: January 2, 2020 1:38 pm ET | 9 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's 'Rewind,' Robert Smith recalls a few of the highlights of the career of the incomparable Niatross, one of harness racing's greatest performers of all time. His story will be covered in two parts and include a number of old photos and graphics that help to recapture the glory of this horse's heroics. The second edition will appear in an upcoming Rewind.

This will be the final Rewind for 2019 and thus time to send out a Happy New Year and Bonne Année to everyone in the reading audience.

As the calendar for 1980 came to a close so too did the fabulous racing career of the incomparable Niatross. This horse spent just two years on the racetrack but did he ever accomplish a lot in those two memorable years now almost 40 years ago. He either re-wrote or authored a lot of records and thrilled a ton of people during that relatively short span of time. A concise report of his lifetime accomplishments right up to his Greenwood appearance is shown below.

Left: Program cover. Right: The career of Niatross (click the image above to see a larger version)

Quite naturally much has been written about Niatross over the years and thanks to the Internet most of it can be retrieved and read by everyone. For that reason I have chosen to concentrate my two pieces more on the final strides of his career which took place in Canada. Niatross made just three lifetime starts on Canadian soil and needless to say won them all convincingly. His trio of appearances took place at Blue Bonnets in Montreal, Windsor Raceway and finally at Greenwood in downtown Toronto.

Niatross and driver Clint Galbraith originally from Tara, Ont. appear in the Greenwood winner's circle as a portion of the huge crowd looks on. It was a hero's homecoming for Galbraith who had started his lengthy career at this very track several decades previous to this when it was known as Old Woodbine. A closer look at this photo reveals that many in attendance brought their cameras that day to capture their own version of history in the making.

Today I will recall the Greenwood Raceway appearance in Toronto which occurred on Saturday December 13, 1980 thus getting close to 40 years ago. It was called "The Greenwood Special" and was undoubtedly one of the most heralded races in the track's long and storied history. In fact the race and its huge publicity lead up may have almost worked in reverse as it was later stated that many people may have stayed away that day to avoid the confusion and overcrowding that was anticipated. As it turned out a record crowd was in attendance and numerous wagering records were established that day. I would doubt that anyone that was there that day will ever forget this event.

The race attracted a field of the best Invitational pacers available at that time of year and despite the inevitability of the outcome of the race it was quite keenly contested. Niatross ignoring the coldest conditions of his career that afternoon became harness racing's first $2 million winning horse as he scored a 4-1/2 length victory over his five opponents in the $75,000 pace. Coming into the race he was already the sport's fastest and richest performer in the past 174 years (back to when records started to be kept) and that day he also cleared the $2 million hurdle ending his day at $2,001,713. It was his 17th consecutive win and the 36th of 38 lifetime starts. At this time Niatross was credited with 14 world records!

The crowd of 15,744 broke five track betting records and set a Canadian record for the overall handle. The Greenwood crowd wagered $1,775,732, eclipsing the track mark by some $200,000 and the former mark set on Boxing Day 1979. It also bettered a record held by Montreal's Blue Bonnets Raceway, set earlier this same year. A crowd there had wagered $1,742,514 the day of this year's Prix d 'Ete -- at which Niatross set the all-time Canadian record for one mile of 1:53.4. That record mile was not challenged on this cold December day.

The winner's cheque of $ 37,500 put Niatross in third place all-time money won for horses of any breed behind only thoroughbreds Spectacular Bid and Affirmed. A jubilant Clint Galbraith said after the race "I didn't think he would go that fast," his disbelief was based on the prevailing temperature at the time which was -6°C or 21.2°F. Never before had this horse raced in such cold conditions and it didn't seem to matter. "He's unbelievable; he is just something else." Galbraith was relieved that his super pacer had reached the $2 million mark.

Left: The program above displays the field for "The Greenwood Special Invitational" with the order of finish shown. Right: Clint Galbraith (click the image above to see a larger version)

The field of six burst out of the starting gate with Banker Fretz (Garth Gordon) and Armbro Turk (Harold Stead) the two horses just inside of Niatross battling for the early lead. Turk won that mini-struggle but was soon joined by a parked-out Niatross eager to gain early control. As Galbraith reached the quarter-mile marker a time of :28.4 flashed on the timer. From here it became clear that the battle was for second place as Niatross took control of the race. The pace slackened a bit as the field reached the half in 1:00.2 and the three-quarter mile station in 1:30. From here Galbraith stepped on the gas and Niatross paced home in 1:58.4 reaching the wire with a 4-1/2 length lead. Second went to Armbro Turk with Banker Fretz taking the show spot. Baron Reve, Aileens Tour and Holland (who made a break at the head of the stretch) completed the field.

In a post-race interview appearing in the Toronto Sunday Star newspaper one of the participating drivers Garth Gordon (who finished third) gave his spin on the day and the race. "It's a real thrill to race against this horse, even though it means you're going for second money unless something happens. But it will be an even bigger thrill in 10 years, because in 10 years we still won't have seen one like him."

The visit to Greenwood by Niatross, Clint Galbraith and his crew was a huge moment in the annals Canadian harness racing history. The genial Galbraith, known and admired by many in the audience, was gracious in his dealings with the fans. They pestered him for autographs as he walked back after the race and he gladly obliged them. He signed Niatross pictures, Niatross caps, calendars and programs, shaking hands with many eager fans. It was a feel-good day for everyone involved despite the fact that no win, place or show wagering was allowed. The thrill of seeing this great horse and driver was good enough on this day.

Niatross is out in front and headed for a win at Greenwood.

Quote For The Week: The pastor at a small country church was concerned by the poor attendance one Sunday morning just after the Christmas holidays. Winter fog and a sleet storm created icy roads making travel difficult and kept the numbers small; many pews were empty. After bidding the last parishioner adieu he checked the morning's collection basket. He was not pleased and uttered the words, "There were not many out today and the ones that were out were certainly not out very much!"

Who Is It?

Can you correctly identify these two individuals? If you think you can, please send along your answer using the comment section. The correct answer will be given during the upcoming week.

January 2, 2020 - 1:38 pmThis week's picture was

This week's picture was easily identified by several readers as Niatross and his long time caretaker Marie Carson. This photo was taken at Greenwood during their stay for the big race featured in this week's story. Thanks to Cass for updating us with her current status as Dr. Marie Gill Veterinarian. Also many thanks for the New Year's greetings. 

December 29, 2019 - 3:00 pmArmbro Turk, Baron Reve and

Garth Gordon SAID...

Armbro Turk, Baron Reve and Banker Fretz were three pretty good Invitation pacers but they were no match for the great Three-Year-Old Niatross. At the head of the stretch Clint looked back over his shoulder then shook the lines and Niatross pulled away winning easy. I remember after the races the races they had a reception in the clubhouse. Clint was walking around in his purple sports jacket talking to everyone and signing autographs. “What A Day”. Hard to believe it is nearly 40 years ago. Thanks again Robert for taking the time to bring back some great memories.

December 28, 2019 - 8:12 pmBonne et heureuse année Mr

Bonne et heureuse année Mr Robert Smith and to all readers.

December 28, 2019 - 8:00 pmThe horse is Niatross and the

Dale Leiska SAID...

The horse is Niatross and the groom is Marie Carson, I think. My brother Don was there but I had a cast on and could not attend, much to my chagrin.

December 28, 2019 - 7:35 pmAnother great article Robert.

Another great article Robert. Keep up the good work and keep the History coming. Happy New Year to you and your family. Health and Happiness to all in the upcoming New Year. ✔️

December 28, 2019 - 3:10 pmNiatross & groom Marie Carson

Niatross & groom Marie Carson (now Dr. Marie Gill--she married Tyler B's groom & is a veterinarian)

December 28, 2019 - 12:56 pmNiatross and his groom, Marie

Joe Wright SAID...

Niatross and his groom, Marie Carson.

December 28, 2019 - 11:31 amNiatross and his caretaker

David Darocy SAID...

Niatross and his caretaker Marie Carson. Happy New Year to all.

December 28, 2019 - 11:10 amNiatross and his caretaker

Gord Brown SAID...

Niatross and his caretaker whose name escapes me. Thanks Robert once again!

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