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The Day Niatross Broke the 1:50 Barrier

Niatross

Were you there? Did you witness one of the greatest feats in harness racing history, accomplished by maybe the greatest horse ever? Well now is your chance to go back in time and live that day through the memory of someone lucky enough to be at the Red Mile on that historical autumn afternoon.

Story by Dean Hoffman

I had no reason to be nervous and tense when I awoke this morning, but nevertheless that’s how I felt. It was just another day in the Bluegrass and I was going to spend the afternoon watching the races at The Red Mile. What could be better than that?

Except that it wasn’t just another day. The front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader told me it was Wednesday, October 1, 1980. It was the day when Niatross was going to time trial.

Would it be a disappointment? Would he beat his own mark of 1:52.4 he set in a race earlier this summer at Syracuse? How fast could he go?

As I had breakfast, I looked through the rest of the newspaper. President Jimmy Carter was in the homestretch of his re-election bid against Ronald Reagan of California. I read some of the latest polls in the presidential race. Like a horse race, however, they don’t pay off in the homestretch but instead at the finish line.

I read that Israel had switched its currency from the pound to the shekel. That made little difference to me. I don’t think The Red Mile accepted bets in pounds or in shekels.

Besides, my mind really wasn’t on racing. It was on Niatross. He was programmed in an effort to beat 1:52.4 because that’s what the rules stipulate. Everyone knew there was a greater goal. Everyone knew that the impossible might become possible this afternoon. Niatross might actually pace a mile in 1:50.

The numbers seemed odd and out of place. 1:50 for a standardbred mile? It wasn’t beyond belief that Niatross could go faster than 1:52.4, but those whose kicked around 1:50 in conversations must’ve been smoking that funny stuff.

To be sure, Niatross was a great horse. No one doubted that. But horsemen were skeptical by nature. Bret Hanover has been a great horse, too, and the best he did in a time trial at The Red Mile 14 autumns ago was 1:53.3

Sure, Steady Star came along five years after Bret and paced in 1:52 in a time trial, but that was a fluke. Steady Star was anything but a great racehorse. He was simply a free-legged speedball tailor-made for time trials.

Before leaving my hotel room today, I checked the weather forecast. It looked pretty good, but we all know how reliable weather forecasts are. It’s like predicting the winner of a race. So when I stepped outside, I looked to the skies. Yes, it looked pretty good. But the weather had to be more than just pretty good for Niatross to go today. It had to be perfect. The track also had to be perfect. Most importantly, the horse had to be perfect.

Perhaps the last of those concerns was the least of my concerns. Niatross was always perfect. He’d shown that time and time again on the track. But now he was facing a challenge far more merciless than a four-legged foe made of flesh and blood. He was facing the steady tick-tick-tick of the stopwatch, a stopwatch that waited for no horse and measured the greats and the imposters with equal disdain.

When I got to the track and bought a program, I looked over the card. Racing at The Red Mile was always the best show in harness racing for my money, but this wasn’t a day to showcase stars. There were a couple races for amateur drives and a few late closers.

The first race on the card was a $1,200 Free-For-All Open Pace with two starters. Can you imagine anything more boring than a two-horse race on a mile track? Or on any track?

That two-horse race went as a non-betting event, of course, was slated before the card. If I had any doubt about the condition of the track, that race settled it. Overkill dropped his mark with an eye-popping mile in 1:54.4.

The track was right, but was Niatross right?

Early in the afternoon, the great one appeared on the track. He made the short walk to the track from his first stall in the Castleton Farm barn near the draw gate for his first warm-up trip. He was hooked to a jog cart with Clint Galbraith in his purple-and-white colours and the king of pacing himself peering over a purple shadow roll. It’s said that purple is the colour of royalty and that certainly applies to Niatross.

The horse and Galbraith went the wrong way of the track a few laps, the big bay swinging in his easy pace and looking around. Pacer and trainer had jogged countless miles in the past two seasons. They were relaxed and casual. He was just one of many horses on the track, but to me he seemed like the only horse. Or at least the only horse that mattered.

When Galbraith turned him the right way of the track, he was the cynosure of all eyes at The Red Mile.

“There he goes,” I overhead one man say.

I’d never witnessed so much excitement over a mere warm-up mile. But this wasn’t just any warm-up mile and this wasn’t just any horse. It was Niatross.

I’d done my homework. I knew that Steady Star’s 1:52 mile in 1971 was the fastest ever. Before that, Bret Hanover set the speed record at 1:53.3. Before Bret came along, Adios Butler was the fastest ever by virtue of his 1:54.3 time trial in 1960.

But the horse that held the speed record the longest in this century was Billy Direct. His 1:55 mile in 1938 was matched by Adios Harry in a race in 1955, but not beaten for 22 years.

Some people gave Dan Patch credit for holding the pacing record the longest, but his record miles early in the century were taken behind a horse serving as a windscreen, a practice that was soon disallowed. Dan Patch’s records couldn’t fairly be compared to subsequent miles; it was almost as if Dan Patch had paced downhill in his miles.

All the horses that held the speed records for standardbreds were at least four years old or older. Niatross was a mere three-year-old. Were we expecting too much of him? Sure, he was a wonder horse, but he wasn’t fully mature. Besides, he’d been raced hard all season long. Was he starting to get dull? Would his two world record heats in the Little Brown Jug in his most recent start take something out of him? We’d soon find out.

I was ready for history to be made. My cassette recorder had fresh batteries and I had several rolls of film for my camera.

The time trial was announced for late in the day. Midway through the program, Galbraith brought out Niatross for his final warm-up. He was hooked to his sulky and looked magnificent. He went a mile that seemed to be evenly-rated; Galbraith felt no need to show off and brush him home. He’d save that for later.

When the moment for his time trial arrived, Niatross walked onto the track with the sun shining brightly. Galbraith loosened him up a little. They were ready.

The Ontario-born horseman took Niatross up the track and turned him just beyond the 1/8-pole. He brought the colt down the track the right way with Freddy Bach driving a prompter on the outside and Dennis Lacy with a separate prompter two lengths behind Niatross.

I taped Carl Becker’s call of the time trial, and played it back later. Becker said at the start, “As they thunder toward the quarter-mile mark,” and then recited the colt’s accomplishments.

The timer flashed :27.3, almost a second faster than Steady Star had gone his quarter. Was it too fast? I bit my lip and watched Niatross glide down the backstretch. Bach kept the prompter at the wheel of Galbraith’s sulky to encourage Niatross.

The half was in :54.3 – exactly the same time as Steady Star. Now beating Steady Star’s record rested on the final half. After such a torrid clip, Niatross had to get tired. Sure, he was a champion, but he was – in the end---just flesh and blood.

Bach urged his prompter on during the third quarter and Niatross responded. He felt the pressure and wasn’t about to be passed. He was a champion. He was Niatross.

When the timer flashed 1:21.4 for the three-quarter time, the crowd roared so loudly that I didn’t hear the rest of Carl Becker’s call. All I heard was the crowd. Even when I listened to the tape later, all I could hear is cheering and shouts of encouragement. And I was cheering as loud as anyone.

I know I held my breath as Niatross neared the wire. Could he do it? Had he done it? What would the time be? 1:51? Maybe even 1:50?

When the timer flashed 1:49.1, the noise level reached new decibels. I’d never seen so much pandemonium at a track. People lept into the air. People clapped. Strangers hugged each other. Everyone was beaming in disbelief.

I was shaking. I admit it. Tears came to my eyes. Was I in a state of shock?

I just hoped I held the camera steady enough to get decent photos, but I won’t know until I get the film processed.

As Galbraith brought the horse back to the grandstand, a wall of horsemen threatened to envelope him and the horse. I noticed a car coming down the outside of the track trying to get throughout without hitting anyone. Suddenly Marie Carson, the caretaker of Niatross, jumped out with joy and ran to greet her boy.

When all the photos were taken and the applause finally died down, I was still shaking. It was no longer because of anxiety but because the impact of what I’d witnessed was beginning to dawn on me. I’d seen real harness racing history made today. And I knew it was a day I’d never forget.

3 Comments

July 7, 2013 - 2:44 pmThe best part of the whole

The best part of the whole video is right at the end when someone says, "I think Del Miller was right, this horse skipped a generation." What a fabulous way to describe it. I wasn't in the horse game yet, but I have seen this video (or others of the event) many times, I get chills with the significance of the feat. Now it is the time to see a trotter do the same thing.
That will be awesome.

July 3, 2013 - 2:30 pmI WAS THERE !!!!!!!!!

I WAS THERE !!!!!!!!!

July 1, 2013 - 6:38 amIt wasn't even a horse race,

John Carter SAID...

It wasn't even a horse race, just a time trial but it was arguably
the greatest moment in the history of the sport, accomplished by the greatest horse to ever look thru a bridal. They were the true golden years of the sport.


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