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SC Rewind: Steady Star In 1:52

Published: September 11, 2021 10:58 am ET

Last Comment: September 16, 2021 1:08 pm ET | 10 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's edition of Rewind Robert Smith takes a journey back 50 years to 1971, a year referred to as a "Vintage Year" in the world of harness racing. His story touches on one of the many world records that were set that year; one that would stand for a rather long time in a sport that often sees short lived records.

Fifty years ago in 1971 Bret Hanover was the reigning speed king in the sport of harness racing, at least to start the season. His 1:53.3 mile clocked eight years previous in 1963 at Lexington was the fastest a horse had ever travelled for a mile. Setting records and winning races was what Bret and his rather senior trainer and driver Frank Ervin did best. That was about to change that fall as the calendar switched from September to October 1. While Bret Hanover was a household name his speed successor was not quite so famous but was certainly worthy of his new found fame.

Steady Star, a free legged pacer and driver Joe O'Brien set a new world speed record of 1:52 at Lexington in 1971. Caption reads "The World's Fastest Harness Horse"

The "star" of today's story was a horse named Steady Star. He was purchased in 1968 at auction for $5,000 and went on to startle the harness world multiple times. At two he recorded a mile in 1:58.4 in a thunderstorm. At three he set a world record by pacing a mile in 1:54 and at four he set the all-time record of 1:52 that would survive for close to 10 years. It took the efforts of the mighty Niatross to eventually seize the crown.

The scene of the new all-time record was understandably at Lexington's Red Mile, the place where so many record-setting performances had taken place over the past two centuries. After all this hallowed spot had been hanging out fast miles for nearly 100 years dating back to 1875. Heading into 1971 a total of 690 miles in 2:00 or less had been recorded at the Red Mile. Ironically the latest entry in the "golden" list belonged to a horse named Kentucky in the fall of 1970.

In 1971 another 58 speedy miles were added to the roster; either set in races or time trials. While the record shattering mile described here today headed that year's additions, another big name of the day turned in the next fastest. That honour belonged to Albatross who clocked two identical miles in 1:54.4 to set some records of his own. (Maybe a topic for an upcoming Rewind)

On the afternoon of October 1, 1971 there was apparently not a lot of build up or hype connected with Steady Star's record setting mile. A cool breezy day and other factors held the crowd numbers down. The master of time trial driving, Joe O'Brien was the driver just as he had been the previous year when this same horse set a new standard for three-year-olds. He circled the Lexington mile track in 1:54 flat, a full second better than the current record then held by Most Happy Fella. It was obvious that this horse had a lot of pure speed.

Steady Star with Joe O'Brien closes out his record setting mile closely pursued by two prompters (Hoof Beats Photo)

On this day those in attendance somehow felt that something extra special was in store just by the way O'Brien was approaching the time trial. Once away with a prompter on board they reached the quarter in :28.2. The pace then picked up reaching the half in :54.3 making it a second quarter in :26.1, speed that few were accustomed to seeing back then. The three quarters was reached in 1:23, and the mile in a scorching 1:52. Fans and everyone on the backstretch were in a state of semi-shock. The time on the infield timer was almost two seconds faster than Bret had gone!

Accounts of the time trial always seem to include the fact that driver Joe O'Brien made a special effort to position himself in the sulky in such a way that he would lessen the wind resistance he created sitting behind the horse. This was long before drivers routinely leaned back in the sulky for this reason. Observers and experts on such things seem to always agree that this tactic contributed to the outcome of this record setting effort.

After the record-setting performance, driver Joe O'Brien revealed the fact that he was close to calling off what turned out to be such a great performance. He was intent on making this a memorable event and was concerned that the wind that had blown most of that day was not conducive to the task at hand. In a Hoof Beats interview with writer Earl Flora he stated "No sir, we almost didn't go. I almost called it off. But the horse seemed ready and I finally told myself, well, maybe it will die down a bit by the end of the last race. We may as well go anyway. We can always try again next week."

Steady Star and caretaker Steve Heredy pose for a photo with driver Joe O'Brien following the record-setting time trial. (Hoof Beats Photo)

Following the completion of his four-year-old season Steady Star was retired from racing. His record as a racehorse was not considered spectacular by any measure but his overall resume warranted residence at Hanover Shoe Farms stallion barn. His forte was in the speed department, particularly performances against time but he also set a number of track records in races. His three-year bankroll totalled just under $132,000, a nice sum in those days but not worthy of accolades.

An October 1971 Lexington newspaper carried the front page story of the new world record set by Steady Star at Lexington's Red Mile track. (Courtesy of Dean A. Hoffman)

Longevity apparently was prevalent in the camp of Steady Star. The horse lived a long life. I am not sure just how old he was at his passing but he was reported "hale and hearty" at the age of 30. His owner Chester Ault passed away in 2019; he was a mere 104 years old at the time. His wife Katie the daughter of a prominent Georgia horseman David L. Brown preceded him in death in 1980.

Steady Star was described as a "blood bay," is shown here on the day he made harness racing history by pacing a mile in 1:52 flat for Joe O'Brien. He wore no hopples and a simple pair of ankle boots in front. (Hoof Beats Photo)

In 1997 a nice article about this horse (then 30 years old) and his owner Chester Ault (then 84) appeared in Sports Illustrated. A short excerpt from that story appears below.

"Today the former world champ snorts and whinnies beneath the boughs of beech trees in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. A shingle with his name hangs over the front porch of his small, white-framed stable. "A lot of faster horses have come along in the last 25 years," says Ault. "And a lot have won more races and more money. But none can match the joy he has given me."

Quote For The Week: "A young rather shy farm boy finally worked up the courage to have a talk with his father. He explained that his current lifestyle was way too dull, boring and slow. He said he wanted to leave and go where life was lived "in the fast lane", where wine flowed, women were wild and every day was lived on the edge. He closed by saying to his father "And don't try to talk me out of it!! The father replied..."Talk you out of it, what do you mean? I'm goin' with you."

Who Is It?

Can you correctly identify these two chaps? I don't think it was taken yesterday.

Who Else Is It?

Can you identify this fellow? This photo is from about 35 years ago.

A Blast From The Past

Can you name this famous Canadian born driver from a past era? Also, besides driving the winner of a race what else is he doing? Let us know your answers. (Harness Horse photo)

September 16, 2021 - 1:08 pmThis week's photo identities

This week's photo identities were all solved by our panel of "experts". The correct answers were as follows:
Who is it? ​- ​Steve Condren and Mike MacDonald (on the right)
Who else? This one drew just one correct response when David Darocy identified the young lad as John Ratchford ​(Good for you David!)​
Blast from the past was indeed Ralph Baldwin. He was taking a glance at his stopwatch to catch his winning time which was standard procedure back then.​ Guess what he saw? He was driving Excellent Chief, a two-year-old and 2:08 1/5 was the time.​

September 12, 2021 - 10:55 am1 Who is it? Steve Condren on

Paul moynagh SAID...

1 Who is it? Steve Condren on the left.
2 A Blast from the past... I will take a guess Harold McKinley. Looks to me like he is timing.

September 12, 2021 - 6:54 amWho is it? Steve Condren and

David Darocy SAID...

Who is it? Steve Condren and Mike MacDonald.
Who else is it? John Ratchford.
From the past could possibly be Doug Walsh looking at his stopwatch, which is a blast from the past.

September 11, 2021 - 11:13 pmNo 1: On the right Michael

No 1: On the right Michael Macdonald

September 11, 2021 - 6:01 pmPicture #1 Steve Condren #2

kent benson SAID...

#1 Steve Condren
#2 Sandy Hawley
#3 looking at his stopwatch

September 11, 2021 - 3:56 pmJust want to say Robert that

Garth Gordon SAID...

Just want to say Robert that I took a trip to P.E.I about 8 years ago. I went to Alberton where Joe O’Brien is from. They have a museum there. There is one area there they have Joe O’Briens helmet and colours and they have the stop watch that Joe used to time trial Steady Star. It is stopped at “ 1:52”.

September 11, 2021 - 3:42 pmSteve Condren and Mike

Steve Condren and Mike MacDonald
Ralph Baldwin

September 11, 2021 - 3:41 pmWho is it is Steve Condren

Garth Gordon SAID...

Who is it is Steve Condren and Mike MacDonld. Who else is it is Ben Webster. And a blast from the past is Ralph Baldwin looking at his stop watch to see how fast he had won with Striking Image.

September 11, 2021 - 1:25 pmSteve Condren, Mike Mcdonald,

Gord Brown SAID...

Steve Condren, Mike Mcdonald, Sanford Hawley. Probably wrong but will say Clint Galbraith. He is checking his stopwatch. Thanks Robert!

September 11, 2021 - 11:53 amA Blast from the Past Cannot

Tom Foley SAID...

A Blast from the Past
Cannot name driver but he is looking at his stopwatch to see how fast he went.

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