Harness racing Hall of Famer Joe DeFrank left an unforgettable legacy at The Meadowlands Racetrack. Together with the Hambletonian Society, The Meadowlands made the decision to name the 2021 Championship Meet in honour of Joe DeFrank, who passed in December at the age of 87.
“The Meadowlands owes its tremendous success to Mr. Joe DeFrank,” said Jason Settlemoir, Meadowlands chief operating officer and general manager. “Honouring him on the biggest stage in harness racing is a fitting tribute.”
Joe DeFrank was recruited by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority management team tasked with opening the Meadowlands Racetrack in 1976, and general manager Bob Quigley went on the hunt for a rising star rather than cull from the ranks of existing talent.
He found DeFrank at Windsor Raceway, recognized his keen abilities to assess both horse and driver talent along with his fresh approach to racing, and convinced DeFrank to come east to The Meadowlands. DeFrank was the first and only race secretary at the flagship racetrack for 25 years. He created many popular winter series along with races such as the Meadowlands Pace and Woodrow Wilson, both of which offered purses of more than $1 million. The Woodrow Wilson purse also reached as high as $2 million, the most ever offered in the sport. The Meadowlands Pace, an instant classic, remains one of the most sought victories 40 years later.
DeFrank was also instrumental in bringing the Hambletonian from the Midwest to the Meadowlands in 1981. Always an innovative race secretary, DeFrank introduced a new concept to the Meadowlands in 1986 - a number of big-purse races for youngsters on the same night, called the Million Dollar Babies.
Joe DeFrank was inducted into the harness racing Hall of Fame in 1994, with presenter Stan Bergstein, a former race secretary himself, noting, “I realized quickly and instinctively that he was going places. I simply underestimated how far he was going, how fast he was going, and how impressively he would get there. No one in our business has mastered his craft more completely, elevated its power and stature, introduced more new ideas, commanded more respect or ruled with such absolute power as the man we now honuor.”
John Campbell, Hall of Fame driver and now president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society, stated in his Facebook tribute to Mr. DeFrank, “Every driver, trainer, owner, stallion owner and breeder in our industry today is deriving benefits as a result of Joe DeFrank's vision, innovation and presentation of major stake races. Harness racing had never imagined purses that the Meadowlands Pace and Woodrow Wilson were going for and, imitation being the best form of flattery, other tracks soon changed their outlook and approach to their stake programs. The Metro, North America Cup, Breeders Crown and many others all evolved after the success of Joe’s vision at the Meadowlands and he started the Final Four races at Garden State Park, as well.”
The 2021 Meadowlands Racetrack Championship Meet in honour of Joe DeFrank culminates Saturday, Aug. 7, Hambletonian Day.