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Albatross: Racing's Wonder Horse

Trot Feature - Albatross

This story of seven races (five wins) in just twenty days, capped off by two world record performances on the same Lexington afternoon, helps to show just why Albatross is one of the all-time greats.

Story By Dean Hoffman

For more than a century, the greatest stage in harness racing has been The Red Mile in Kentucky. Virtually all of the sport’s stars have showcased their talents over this hallowed oval of red clay.

The Hall of Fame pacer Albatross raced only two heats there in his three seasons at the races, but in those two heats, he blazed his way into the record books in a very memorable way.

In 1971, Albatross paced the fastest race mile in history in winning the opening heat of the Tattersalls Pace. An hour later, he came back and equaled that world record. No horse in history had ever set a world record, and equaled or lowered it that same day.

It was an even more astonishing performance because he jumped over leaves in the first heat and had stumbled off-stride in the second heat… both times recovering in world record fashion. The appreciative crowd in the Bluegrass State that day gave Albatross a prolonged ovation. They’d witnessed greatness, and they knew it.

Ironically, those world record miles by Albatross came just shortly after his loss in the Little Brown Jug, an upset that haunted Stanley Dancer to the day he died.

Dancer dominated harness racing in the 1960s and 70s. He trained and drove three Triple Crown winners, and in a 15-year period, he trained and drove horses named Horse of the Year seven times.

Despite all the honors, despite all the acclaim, despite all the records, Dancer lamented the loss of the 1971 Jug.

Albatross was the cynosure of all eyes in harness racing in 1971. He dropped a race early in the season, but then went on a tear that saw him rip the heart out of his rivals week after week. In a year when Speedy Crown ruled the trotting races and stars such as Fresh Yankee, Strike Out, and Silent Majority had their moments, Albatross put them all in the shadows.

Dancer had swept the pacing Triple Crown the previous year with Most Happy Fella and this year the glittering crown was virtually conceded to Albatross.

Dancer was a publicist’s dream and enjoyed the spotlight. He knew how to showcase a great horse. So when officials at Scioto Downs asked him to race Albatross in the Jug Preview 10 days before the Jug and Hazel Park asked him to compete in their Jug Preview five days later, Dancer agreed.

“I’d made commitments to both tracks and I couldn’t live with myself if I’d backed out of those commitments,” said Dancer later.

On the night of the Scioto race, monsoon-like storms swept over central Ohio. I recall that night distinctly and the rains made it miserable but Albatross still won.

I was doing county fair publicity that year for the U.S. Trotting Association and I was interviewed on a TV station in Ashland, an hour up Interstate 71 from Delaware. I urged viewers to drive down to Delaware to see the Jug.

“There is a horse in this year’s race that is so good that he can fall down not once, but twice, and still get up and win,” I said with confidence. “His name is Albatross.” (I fervently pray that all records of that telecast have been destroyed).

Albatross was so dominant that he was barred in the betting. Delaware officials could not risk the minus pool.

The Jug had two elimination heats and HT Luca won one. Albatross won his, but not in his usual style. He beat Nansemond, steered by Quebec driving sensation Herve Filion, by a nose. Stanley Dancer knew that this wasn’t the same Albatross he’d been driving all year. The horse was dull, and Dancer was worried.

In the second heat, Albatross led in the stretch, but when Nansemond attacked, Albatross had no answer.

The crowd roared with delight. It had been booing Dancer and Albatross all afternoon. As a native Ohioan, I was embarrassed. They resented Dancer’s success. Just as there were New York Yankee haters in that era, there were Dancer haters. But why boo a great horse and his trainer?

Filion was confident between heats. He told me and others that he’d just yelled at Nansemond in the final quarter. I asked if he yelled at Nansemond in French or English.

“He understands both,” Filion said with a smile.

Albatross, Nansemond and HT Luca now faced a third-heat raceoff. Filion candidly told reporters the only way Nansemond could win is by controlling the pace.

That’s what Filion did. He got Nansemond to the front, backed down the tempo, then stepped on the gas with a quarter-mile remaining. Albatross and Dancer got up to Nansemond, but never got past him.

I was the first person to talk to Dancer after that race and I asked him if it would have made any difference if he’d pulled earlier.

“No, he just got the jump on me and outpaced me,” Dancer said. He knew, however, his decision to race Albatross twice just before the Jug left the colt dull for the great race.

Nine days later, the Tattersalls Pace was featured at The Red Mile. After going three heats in the Jug, Nansemond stayed on the sidelines. Not Albatross. He, too, had gone three grueling heats, but Dancer wanted immediate redemption. Albatross drew post 12 in the second tier. Stanley Dancer and Albatross were on a mission

Dancer later told me, “Albatross was giving me lots of trouble warming up because he’d jump over leaves all the time. He wouldn’t jump shadows, but leaves frightened him.”

In the first heat, Dancer waited in the pack, then moved Albatross entering the stretch.

“I was starting to send him when he jumped over some leaves,” said Dancer. “Fortunately, he lit back pacing, but he was a long way back and still won in 1:54.4. There are many people today who still say it’s the greatest race they ever saw.”

It was certainly the fastest race they ever saw. The time may seem pedestrian today, but it left many spectactors in slack-jawed amazement. They recovered to give the champion a thunderous ovation. Albatross bounced bounce back from adversity and become even greater.

“I put a shadow roll on him for the second heat and scored him down with it,” said Dancer, “but he was tossing his head and I just knew he wasn’t going to try, so we took it off. But in the second heat he made a break leaving. He just thought he saw some-thing. He spotted the field a big lead, but came on to win again in 1:54.4.”

Seven races in just twenty days… capped off by two World Record performances on the same afternoon. Albatross had cemented his place as an all-time great, even with his loss in the Jug.

He never lost another race in 1971 and was voted Horse of the Year after winning $558,009, the most ever for a single season.

Stung by the boo-birds at Delaware, Dancer vowed that he’d not race a horse in the Jug until he could win. And he made good on that promise, not returning to the Jug until 1976 when he won in straight heats with Keystone Ore en route of Horse of the Year honours.

Albatross repeated Horse of the Year honors in 1972 and then went to stud at Hanover Shoe Farms, siring Jug winners in the mighty Niatross, Fan Hanover, Merger, Colt Forty-Six, and Jaguar Spur. He also sired such luminaries as Sonsam, Three Diamonds, Conquered, and Armbro Wolf.

On the track and in the stud barn, Albatross was truly a Hall of Famer.

1 Comment

June 8, 2014 - 8:20 pmA man for the time and a time

A man for the time and a time for the man!!

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