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SC Rewind: Memories Of Camper

Published: May 18, 2019 9:51 am ET

Last Comment: May 24, 2019 7:19 am ET | 8 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In the latest edition of Rewind Robert Smith takes a journey back to about 50 years ago to recall the rather short but brilliant career of a young trotter named Camper. While this fellow was rather small in stature he stood tall in many of his exciting performances during the 1968 and 1969 seasons. His memory remains despite the passage of time.

Camper is pictured above with veteran horseman Bill Habkirk of Aylmer, Ont. at the conclusion of the 1968 season. This three-year-old trotter was the recipient of a number of year-end awards and was named Canadian Horse of the Year as well as the top Three-Year-Old Trotting Colt that season.

In the spring of 1968 veteran horseman Bill Habkirk and his head trainer, wife Sadie Habkirk had high but cautious optimism for the upcoming season and their modest-sized stable. They had been in this business too long not to know the many hurdles and pitfalls that make up a long racing season. Occupying one of their stalls at their home track in Aylmer, Ont. was a very green trotter sired by Camp Hanover out of a mare named Miss Jerry. Bearing the simple name Camper, he was about as green and unproven as any young horse could be. He had a short but impressive resume, emphasis on the "short" part. He certainly was a "hopeful".

Brought out very late as a two-year-old, he raced just twice and was beaten only once. His speed record was not impressive, in fact it was 2:21.2, not a clocking that would turn too many heads. In his only defeat he finished second to a four-year-old mare named Genesee Ann driven by Peter Thibaudeau, who just might be a Rewind reader. In his second and final start at two he won a conditioned race at London for a purse of $500. His earnings as a freshman amounted to $350.00, just enough to cover his original purchase price of that exact amount he fetched at auction. His owners, Harold Swartzentruber of Kitchener and John Harris of Aylmer, had good reason to look toward the next season.

The 1968 season started early for Camper as he qualified on April 9th at Mohawk; second in a 2:11 mile was the result. One week later he made his first start for a purse of $1,100 and won in a respectable 2:10; quite a drop from his two-year-old mark. From here it was on to Greenwood for some added money events the first of which carried a purse of $9,300. After finishing third to Connie Herbert on May 1 he really hit pay dirt a week later on May 8th as he trotted in 2:05.3 in the Oakville Stakes, a $9,500 event. Things were starting to look pretty good for the connections of young Camper.

By early May it was back closer to home with three starts at London but all against aged company. After finishing second to the veteran trotter Eds Dream from the barn of Jiggs McFadden, Camper showed he belonged and won two straight turning in a nice mile of 2:04.3 over the Western Fair half-miler. In late May it was much further east to Montreal's Blue Bonnets where he met up with some of the best three-year-old trotters and finished second to Viscount Hanover (Roger White) in a very quick 2:03.4. In this one Camper made an early break but recovered in time to gain a second-place finish.

In July the schedule became busier with some big encounters at Greenwood in Toronto. On July 13th Camper made believers out of everyone as he captured the Greenwood Stakes trotting to a new record of 2:03.4 racing for his highest purse of the season - $18,800. After a win in the Invitation his next big test was in that year's Maple Leaf Trot. It was not his night and a seventh-place finish marked his first ever start without a cheque. Earl Laird was that year's winner. Apparently the experience had no lasting effects as less than a week later Bill Habkirk took his charge to Montreal's Richelieu Park where they won The Provident Trot in 2:05 and change and earned half of a nifty $10,000 purse.

The Greenwood winner's circle is the scene of this 1968 photo following Camper's stunning victory in that year's Greenwood Stake. From left: co-owner John Harris, presenter sports writer Milt Dunnel, co-owner Harold Swartzentruber, Camper, driver Bill Habkirk and trainer Sadie Habkirk.

After a lay off of several weeks Camper returned to action with two wins at Garden City, the second of which saw him take a season's record of 2:02.3 against aged company. His only late season defeat came at Windsor when he was interfered with shortly after the race started and had to pull up and was credited with a last place finish. Fortunately he was able to vindicate himself in front of the Windsor crowd but with a slightly different look.

On November 8th Camper made his final start of the 1968 season. He had been driven in every start by Bill Habkirk but just a few days prior to this appearance at the border oval Bill was injured in a racing accident in London while driving another horse. Who would step in became the question? Why not keep it in the family? And that was the decision. Bill and Sadie's 26-year-old son Robert was the logical choice even though at this time he was not employed full time in the racing business, having opted for a job at the Ford plant near his Aylmer home.

Headline from Windsor Star following Camper's victory with Bob Habkirk in the sulky

In any event the choice proved to a wise one as Robert steered Camper to his 13th victory of the season. It had been a long and productive year as the diminutive Camper started 19 times, finishing with 13 wins, two seconds and one third-place finish. His bankroll was an amazing $43,424 which translated to 2019 values was equal to around $316,000. His mile time of 2:02.3 set at Garden City would surely be reduced as an aged horse. It seemed there was nothing but good things in the offing.

A happy gathering celebrates the amazing 1968 season of Camper at the annual awards banquet. From left: Bill Galvin, Jockey Club publicity head joins Sadie and Wm. Habkirk and owners John Harris and Harold Swartzentruber (Photo courtesy of Wm. Galvin)

Great things were of course expected for his four-year-old season in 1969. That year began in late April with starts at Greenwood and a win in his very first start. Previously best known mainly on Canadian soil, after a few starts Camper crossed into the U.S. and immediately began to make a strong impression. Starts at Rosecroft Raceway, Atlantic City and setting a new track record at Brandywine in Wilmington, Delaware highlighted the early and mid-season activity. By early July Camper's picture graced the pages of national harness magazines being barely beaten by Nevele Pride and world famous driver Stanley Dancer in the $25,000 Marquis De Lafayette Invitation Trot. He was photoed out in 2:00.4 defeating the likes of Fresh Yankee, Lady B Fast and Sir Faffee. It was a proud moment for not only Camper's connections but for all involved in Canadian harness racing.

As a four-year-old Camper made a total of just 11 starts from which he won five of those trips behind the gate along with the one famous second and two thirds. He reduced his lifetime mile record to 2:01.1, a very respectable mark for the times. Racing for some fairly handsome purses he added $20,256 to his lifetime bankroll which reached $64,300. While this may not seem impressive by today's standards, when converted to 1969 dollars it amounted to approximately $451,000; a nice ROI as the accountants say meaning "Return On Investment". From a statistical standpoint there ended the career of this amazing little chestnut trotting machine.

On the evening of July 11, 1969 while warming up at Yonkers Raceway in New York as Canada's representative for the International Trot the unthinkable happened. The 1968 Horse of the Year in Canada broke a bone in his left foreleg and was retired for the season; perhaps for life. Unfortunately it was the latter and all of the hopes and dreams for this young horse were soon dashed; he never returned to the racetrack. His injury was such that he continued to live a fairly long life, passing away at about age 20 at the farm of his co-owner Harold Swartzentruber. His heroics on the track would be no more.

Despite his relatively short racing career (only about 32 starts) Camper set track records at London, Greenwood, Windsor, Richelieu Park and Brandywine Raceway in the U.S. Only a few horses capture the love and admiration of everyone as soon as they are seen and their performances watched, so it was with Camper. I can personally recall a lady that I worked with who was scarcely a fan of racing literally "falling in love" with Camper and wanting to see him race at every possible opportunity.

For those many in the reading audience including yours truly who remember those magical times of this great little horse, it's nice to think back of a special time in our sport when Camper thrilled a lot of people despite a career that was abruptly ended way too soon.

Camper in a winning effort during 1968 at Windsor with Bill Habkirk at the controls (Harness Horse)

Camper shares a moment with two close friends Bill and Sadie Habkirk at the Aylmer, Ont. fairgrounds many years after his racing career was over.

Who Is It?

Can you correctly identify this father and son combo? This photo probably should be titled Breaking A Colt. Stay tuned during the coming week for the answer.

May 24, 2019 - 7:19 amI remember sitting with my

Grant Hughes SAID...

I remember sitting with my father-in-law, Max Learn, in the grandstand at the old Greenwood Raceway & watching a race that included both Camper & Fearless Doc (driven by Ron Feagan).
As the trotters were going down the back stretch, Max some how lost sight of Camper & wondered what had happened to him. He had lost sight of Camper because he was trotting directly on the outside of Fearless Doc (who was twice as big as Camper) at that point in the race & Fearless Doc completely blocked our view of Camper from the grand stand. Camper eventually wore down Fearless Doc & won the race. Camper was a great little trotter who had the heart of a champion.

May 22, 2019 - 2:12 pmThis week's "Who Is It?" was

This week's "Who Is It?" was correctly identified by at least a couple of readers as the father - son combo of Keith Feagan on the right and son Ronnie at the horse's head. This photo appeared in the Oct. 1967 issue of "Harness Horse Happenings". I hope they got the job done.
A special note to Gord Brown. Thanks for your support and encouragement. Your man "Double G" possesses a very special ingredient in his comments; he writes "from the heart" a quality which makes his words seem very special.

May 19, 2019 - 7:02 pmI have only read 2 books in

Gord Brown SAID...

I have only read 2 books in my life. Trot and Canadian Sportsman! But what a read it would be if Robert and Double G got together. Definitely a must read!!

May 19, 2019 - 3:16 pmI know your story is about

Garth Gordon SAID...

I know your story is about Camper and he was a great horse. But I would like to comment on Bill Habkirk. Bill was a top trainer/driver in Montreal in the 50s and had three pretty good trotters in his powerful stable. Nathan Hanover and Anne Gallon were both F.F.A. Trotters and Vera Ridell a trotting mare he bought off of my father, Jack Gordon for a $1,000, wasn’t far behind. Bill's downfall was that he would drive a bad acting horse for anyone that would ask him which resulted in a lot of bad accidents. It seemed he had a broken leg or arm several times. One time at Richelieu coming down the stretch, Bill's horse fell down and the driver and the horse behind drove over top of Bill with the race bike wheel hitting Bill square in the face. He didn’t drive for a long time after that. I can remember like it was yesterday. Bill had come home to Alymer, Ontario to deal in his old car and pick up a new car. The year was 1958 and it was the last week of June and I just got out of school - I was 14 years old. My dad asked Bill if he would stop off on his way back to Montreal and pick me up and bring me back with him. I was upstairs in my bedroom with my suitcase packed looking out the window, when up our laneway drove Bill in his brand new Ford Fairlane 500 car. I ran downstairs and jumped in. We didn’t go very far because back in those days you had to change the oil in a new car at about 3 to 4 hundred miles. So we stopped at Colborne just about 20 miles east of Cobourg and changed the oil. There was no 401 past Oshawa in those days just number two hwy. Bill was a OHHA Director for several years in the London area fighting for the Horseman’s rights. On the sad side of my comment, one morning in the late 50s I was sitting having breakfast at Richelieu Park with Bill's head trainer. Bill came in and told the trainer that his oldest son George had been killed in a car accident and that he would have to look after things for a few days as he and his wife Sadie were going home to make funeral arrangements. The last time I saw Bill was in 1987 at Western Fair Raceway. I had raced Armbro Cruiser in the Molson Pace and they had a reception upstairs after the races. When I reached out to shake Bill's hand he could only shake with his left as he had taken a stroke and partly paralyzed on his right side. Bill was good horseman who lived a tough life, living in a house trailer going from track to track. And in the end didn’t have much to show for it.

The mystery photo is Ron Feagan at the front of the horse and his father Keith holding the lines.

May 19, 2019 - 12:18 amLooks more like Ron and not

Sheldon Rose SAID...

Looks more like Ron and not Gary. So my guess is Ron and Keith Feagan.

May 18, 2019 - 8:05 pmI'm with Cass on this one.

I'm with Cass on this one. Sure looks like Gary (Sam) Feagan and dad Keith. Sam trying hard to hold the colt down with all 90 pounds of body weight.

May 18, 2019 - 12:02 pmKeith and Gary Feagan

Keith and Gary Feagan Breaking the Colt (or trying)??? I used to wonder how GREAT Camper was. The driver weighed more than the horse! lol. The Habkirks were wonderful people and I would imagine much better friends than enemies?

May 18, 2019 - 10:57 amYves Filion and Justin?

Yves Filion and Justin?

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