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SC Rewind: The Hat Man Of Connecticut

Published: April 18, 2015 11:52 am ET

Last Comment: August 4, 2018 10:22 am ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's rewind Robert Smith tells the story of a rather interesting relationship between a famous horse who had a hat named in his honour.

The scene following Demon Hanover's 1948 Hambletonian victory at Goshen

I suspect that I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the years looking at old harness racing pictures and reading a lot of stories that also contained old photographs. One consistent theme always seems to appear in most of the old stories. The male people involved are nearly all wearing felt hats. I have often thought what a great business it would have been back then to supply these old classics. After all, every man regardless of his station in life probably owned quite a few. When one wore out, another was purchased.

Well, there was a man who fared pretty well from the manufacture and sale of these old 'toppers'. He also occupies a very special place in the sport's long history as he had the honour of owning, training and driving Demon Hanover, winner of the 1948 Hambletonian. His name was Harrison Hoyt. Did he have a nickname by any chance? Yes he was known as "The Hat Man."

Mr. Hoyt was born in Brooklyn N. Y., in 1909, one of six children. His father earned a living working n the hat industry. Shortly after the Junior Hoyt's birth, they moved to Connecticut where their family had originated. His father continued in the hat and leather business. Following his schooling which included two years in Wyoming attending college, Harrison Hoyt followed in his father's trade. In 1935 he opened his own hat business in Danbury, Ct. Little did he know what would shape the future of his enterprise.

Around 1944 Hoyt decided to purchase a horse for a sort of family pet; to ride and pull a cart with his young family in tow. His choice for use as a saddle horse was a trotter named Louis Cobb. Once he saw the gelding in trotting mode, the decision was made to train him for racing purposes. Doing his own training and driving, Hoyt soon won a $500 Conditioned Trot at Westbury, N.Y. He went on to win four races that year and five more the following season. At just 5'6" and weighing a muscular 155 lbs., Hoyt had embarked on a new career. He was 'hooked' on harness racing.

In 1946 Hoyt headed to the Harrisburg sale where he shelled out $2,600 for a yearling colt named Demon Hanover. He was sired by Dean Hanover and out of a Volomite mare called Sorceress. A very successful two-year-old campaign followed which saw him win 14 races and take a mark of 2:05 at the Red Mile. Still doing all of his own training and driving, the sometimes haberdasher entered his colt in the 1948 Hambletonian then held at Goshen, N.Y. It was an unprecedented decision but one that paid off handsomely.

On Hambletonian Day which was August 11, 1948, Mr. Hoyt notified his employees at the hat factory that if they attended the race day they would be paid as if they were at work...if he won. Most of the 85 employees obliged and joined in the fun. They had every reason to be proud of their boss as he carved out his own piece of history. His share of the purse was $32,500.

The big race proved to be the usual exciting contest that drew thousands each year. The purse of almost $60,000 was the third largest in the 23-year history of the race. In a bulky field of 11, Demon Hanover won both heats and in fact made every post a winning one. He trotted unchallenged in the opener in 2:03.1. He came back for the second and again had things all his own way, cutting the mile in an even faster 2:02. A third heat would not be necessary. According to newspaper accounts, driver Hoyt looked back several times in both heats checking for challenging horses, but none were to be found. His winning times were well off the record of 2:00 set by Hoot Mon in 1947.

An interesting part of the history of this day's Hambo was the starting system then in effect. Although the mobile gate as we still know it today had been introduced in 1946, it was not yet in full effect. In use that day was the E. M. Smith starting gate with the well-known starter Dr. A.C. Goff of Ithaca at the helm. The 'contraption' moved along a board runway just inside the hub rail.

It was just one of many great victories for Demon Hanover and his amateur driver. For several seasons they toured the country, entering the top trotting races in the land. Wins and trophies were numerous as they touched down in Michigan, New York, and several other States. A couple of memorable victories over the great trotting mare Proximity topped the list. In 1949 Demon Hanover won a $50,000 Invitational at Roosevelt defeating the 'Queen of Trotters'.

Harrison Hoyt was a smart business man and quickly decided to capitalize on the successes of Demon Hanover. He launched a new product line called the 'Demon Hanover'. Most popular was the hat and it also included a tie. The items soon became popular, especially with people in the harness racing world. These fashion items were available by mail order and were extremely popular for holiday time gift giving. He also offered other 'horsey' items including a Louis Cobb hat in honour of his first horse and also a 'Harness Horse' felt hat marketed through the magazine of that name. His hat business thrived for several decades until the wearing of felt hats went out of style. Still today the hats and accompanying boxes rank high among collectors.

It took 49 years for an amateur to duplicate his feat and by then the purse structure had changed dramatically. On August 10, 1997 Mr. Hoyt made his first ever visit to the Meadowlands to watch that year's Hambo. At the age of 88 he was on hand to see amateur reinsman Malvern Burroughs win with Malabar Man in 1:55. The purse had risen from $59,000 to $1 million, but the thrill of winning remained the same. In a post-race interview Hoyt said of the 57-year-old Burroughs, "he drove the same way I would have taken him."

In the first 72 years just two amateur drivers became winners.

During his 35 years as a trainer and driver Hoyt won nearly 500 races and almost $1 million during the 'low purse' era. Many of his victories were in so-called 'Amateur' competitions held at Saratoga and other tracks. He died November 26, 2000 at the age of 91.

Hats Off to Mr. Harrison Hoyt, a man with a most unusual and interesting story.

Images of the famous Demon Hanover hat and accompanying box which today can sell for up to $500.

August 4, 2018 - 10:22 amGreat article! Especially

Bill Hoyt SAID...

Great article! Especially meaningful to me since I was in the winners circle as Charles Cobern presented the trophy. I was Harrison's 7 year old son along with my big brother Harrison Jr.
Very good research. Brought back wonderful memories.

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