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Hammer Celebrates 4,000th Win

Published: May 18, 2015 5:25 pm ET

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Roger Hammer notched career driving win 4,000 Monday at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino when he piloted Joevidal to victory in the sixth race.

Hammer said that as a young trainer/driver, he never imagined he would achieve such a lofty milestone.

“I never thought of the victories; I thought more of the money,” he joked. “I was just enjoying the races.”

Hammer’s involvement in harness racing, which now extends more than six decades, began when he was 6 and started helping his father, the late Clay Hammer, as the elder Hammer plied the Pennsylvania and Ohio fair circuits. Young Roger was 16 when he drove his first horse.

It wasn’t long before Hammer was amassing training and driving victories — at raceways to be sure, but particularly at PA fairs — and earning assignments from such renowned trainers as Harry Harvey. His career received a key boost when he formed a productive, long-lasting relationship with the late Max C. Hempt of Hempt Farms, an important breeder then and now. They became partners in many horses over the years.

“A big part of my career was Max,” Hammer said. “One thing about Max: Max never bothered you, never called you. He was just a true horseman. When he did call it was always after noon. He’d say, ‘You’re busy in the morning, and I don’t want to bother you.’ That’s the way he was.”

Hammer indicated the notion that Hempt would tab the best “Keystone” yearlings for their partnership is false.

“Everybody thought that, but that wasn’t Max. It was after I bought his yearlings that he would say, ‘Give me your list,’ and he would pick out the ones he wanted for our partnership.”

With that steady supply of capable young horses, Hammer began to roll up eye-popping numbers. He’s an eight-time North American UDR champion — usually in the 300-499 starts category — and his UDR exceeded .300 for a remarkable 26 straight years. On Sept. 9, 2003, he drove 11 winners at the York Fair; only Bruce Ranger (13 victories at Pompano Park on Sept. 5, 2009) has collected more wins on a single program.

But Hammer’s reputation as “King of the Fairs” underwent serious revision on Aug. 6, 2005, when he drove the gelding Vivid Photo, whom he trained and co-owns with Todd Schadel, to a stunning victory in the Hambletonian. That triumph — with a horse he campaigned at the Big Butler Fair and the Clearfield Fair, no less — proved that Hammer could, at the same time, be a throwback and a success in an environment dominated by catch drivers.

Consider how unlikely his feat was. In the Hambletonian’s first 25 years, 23 of the winners were driven by their trainers. In the most recent 25 years of the race, only five trainer/drivers have won: Stefan Melander (Scarlet Knight, 2001), Trond Smedshammer (Windsongs Legacy, 2004), Ray Schnittker (Deweycheatumnhowe, 2008), Jimmy Takter (Trixton, 2014) and Hammer.
Even now, Hammer has no second thoughts about having raced his future Hambo champion at the fairs.

“He was a mean horse in the stall, climbing the walls and running around biting himself,” he told USTA a few years ago. “We had to castrate him to keep him from damaging himself. Best thing that ever happened to him, but here’s the point. If I’d known how great he would become, I still would have raced him at the fairs at two. It’s educational, and if you pick the right fairs, it doesn’t hurt them.”

Hammer says winning the sport’s most prestigious race didn’t change him.

“It was the greatest thing, to win the Hambletonian, but it never changed my lifestyle, and it never changed my attitude as far as racing goes,” he said. “It was a pleasure winning that race, but I was right back to the fairs the next day. I was glad that Harry Harvey was there. I only wish my dad and Max could have seen it.”

Today, Hammer operates his farm in Bedford, PA, roughly 100 miles east of The Meadows, where he manages about 70 head, including racehorses, broodmares, youngsters and a few retirees. Among the latter are Vivid Photo and Shark Kosmos, another top trotter of yore for Hammer, who pal around in their own paddock. Hammer has cut back a bit, typically driving only at The Meadows while relying on catch drivers elsewhere.

“I like to torment the guys at The Meadows,” Hammer said. “I like to tease them here.”

He’s trying to reduce his equine holdings as well but is finding it difficult to do so.

“When you raise 10 or 11 yearlings a year, it’s hard to cut back because they accumulate too much,” he said. “I’m trying to get rid of most of my racehorses, just keep a couple around to pay the bills. I’d like to cut back to 15-to-20 head, but I don’t know what else I would do. That’s the thing that keeps me going.”

(The Meadows)

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