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The Blissfull Feeling of Success

Trot Feature - HOF Blissfull Hall

It’s been 20 years since the day that Blissfull Hall raced in the Little Brown Jug, taking on his rivals in an epic afternoon for the ages.

But for harness racing enthusiasts, and his connections, the memories of that day, remain vivid. By Paul Delean

Quebec businessman Daniel Plouffe still gets goosebumps watching replays of the 1999 Little Brown Jug final.

He was trackside that September day, one of the 50,000-plus to have made the pilgrimage to Ohio`s Delaware County Fairgrounds and witnessed a race that cemented the superstar status of his three-year-old pacer Blissfull Hall, elected this year to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Plouffe, owner of a chain of grocery stores in Quebec`s Eastern Townships, chartered a private plane and brought a party of eight to his first Jug.

"We got there the night before, slept in Columbus, then got to the track early the next morning because everybody told us you risk traffic problems otherwise. I got more nervous as the crowd grew, because you realized how big an event this was. There were people all around the track, campers all over the place. The energy was incredible," recalled Plouffe, now 58.

Blissfull Hall didn't start his three-year-old campaign until June 19, but he won two of his first three starts, including a nose-victory over The Panderosa in his elimination for The Meadowlands Pace. Starting from the rail in the $1 million final, he found himself mired in traffic the entire mile, and had to settle for a seventh-place finish. He rebounded quickly from that bad trip however, and came into the Jug with six wins and a second in his seven previous starts, among them an impressive victory in the Cane Pace at Freehold.

The Panderosa had dominated the division early in the year, capturing the North America Cup and Meadowlands Pace, but Blissfull Hall had emerged as a formidable challenger.

There were three elimination races for the Jug, and as luck would have it, Blissfull Hall and The Panderosa drew into the same one, with Plouffe`s colt in post seven and his arch-rival just inside him. Their post-time odds were virtually identical with Blissfull Hall at 4/5 and his rival at 1/1.

"I didn`t think The Panderosa was going to like the half-mile track," said Blissfull Hall's driver, Ron Pierce, whose first trip ever behind the colt was the 27/1 upset of The Panderosa in the Meadowlands Pace elimination.

The Jug's eagerly-anticipated duel was over in mere seconds. The Panderosa made a break right at the start. Only a deft manoeuvre by Pierce enabled Blissfull Hall to avoid interference and forge for the lead, which he maintained throughout a mile paced in 1:53. "I had to jump the bike over quick not to hook his wheel. It cost us a couple of lengths," Pierce said.

The top three finishers in the three eliminations qualified for the second heat, and Blissfull Hall was expected to cruise. But that's not what happened. Parked early by pole-setter Mystical Shark and driver Jack Moiseyev, Blissfull Hall got weary in the stretch and faded to third. Since unheralded Looking For Art won the second heat for driver Eric Ledford at odds of 13/1, the victors of the four preliminaries would come back for a third heat to decide the title.

"I remember going to the paddock after the second heat," Plouffe said. "I was disappointed. The horse had not responded as expected. I asked Ben (trainer, Wallace) what we were going to do for the third heat. Ben said, 'Don't worry, our horse is in good shape, nobody's got the speed he has,' and he then pointed at Ronnie (Pierce). He was sitting off by himself, head down, staring intently at the floor. He didn't look stressed, just focused. He had it figured out. He knew why he got beat in the second heat. Immediately, I felt a lot better about our chances."

In the four-horse raceoff, Pierce took Blissfull Hall to the back of the pack, and remained there through an unhurried first half. On the backstretch, he came out and followed Royalflush Hanover into the outer flow, then unleashed the move Wallace calls "as good a spectacle of horseracing as there ever was in a Jug final," brushing three-wide at the three-quarter pole to snatch the lead from Mystical Shark before the final turn and then holding off Looking For Art in the stretch to secure one the sport's most prized trophies.

"I knew we had the best horse, I just had to move him at the right time," said Pierce. "We relaxed, I let them do their thing up front, and then it was time for me to go."

Plouffe could scarcely believe his eyes.

"The speed he went by them was incredible. When it's your horse, the feeling is indescribable."

Not normally demonstrative, Plouffe let it all out that day. "He jumped in Ben Wallace's arms and then he lifted me off my feet," recalled friend and guest, Gord Pupil.

Plouffe said the history of the moment made it special. "You look at the names of the trainers and horses that have won the race before and they`re all the top names in the sport and now we're with them," he told The Montreal Gazette minutes after the race.

"What that horse accomplished that day was remarkable," Wallace said. "He actually was on the track four times, because I also blew him out once. They were dragging things out and I didn't want him standing around too long between races. I've never done that before, or since. That he raced as admirably and courageously as he did, after all that, definitely was the high-water mark of that summer."

Wallace said Blissfull Hall was "a complete horse. He had everything going for him. He was competitive, but a true gentleman on the racetrack and in the barn. His vet work that summer was insignificant; he was operating on his own constitution. Things didn't go right for him all the time, but damn near. I remember when we raced at Balmoral (in the American National stake). It was about 100 degrees, and a lot of horses were succumbing to the heat. He set a stakes record [1:49.2]. I went back to the barn to see how he cooled out. He wasn't hanging his head in the corner, he was standing in the stall tearing the feed bucket off the wall. I told Gilles (Roy, the caretaker), we've just got a great horse. He was dear to me from the start because I was there when we bought him and he was never taken from me. Dan (Plouffe) let me handle the whole thing. It was very rewarding. In the game we play now, a lot of owners think someone else`ll do a better job."

Three weeks after the Jug, Blissfull Hall captured the elimination and final of the Messenger Pace at The Meadows, becoming only the ninth horse to win North America's Triple Crown of Pacing and securing a $250,000 bonus.

"I`ve been in a lot of high-pressure races in my life, and usually the pressure doesn`t get to me much, but for some reason I felt it that day," Pierce said. "I was a little concerned until I watched Ben warm up the horse and he could not have looked any better. That's coming off a three-heat race. It's about 50-50 they'll be any good after that. When he pulled away in the stretch, it's like the weight of the grandstand was lifted off my shoulders. It was just a great feeling to win the Triple Crown."

Of all the horses he's driven, Pierce said the only other one who could "scat" like Blissfull Hall was Shady Daisy.

"He could get it on, like, right now. He was a great little horse, right up with the best I've raced, a contender in every race he was in. Rick Zeron (who drove him at 2) and Ben Wallace did a superb job with him; he knew everything and was already very professional when I got him."

Blissfull Hall earned $1.3 million in a three-year-old campaign that produced 15 wins including the finals of the Jug, Cane, Messenger and American National and a division of the Simcoe Stakes. He raced at 10 different tracks and won at nine of them, setting several stakes and track records. In 21 consecutive stakes appearances from June to December, he finished in the top three 20 times. In Canada, he was named Horse of the Year, in the U.S., Pacer of the Year.

"The credit goes to Ben. He managed that horse really well. And getting Ron to drive (on a recommendation from Luc Ouellette, who declined because of prior commitments) was the final piece of the puzzle. It could not have been a better fit," said Plouffe, who had paid $47,000 (U.S.) for the son of Cambest - his biggest oulay for a yearling at that point - at the Tattersalls sale in Kentucky.

Sent to stud after his championship season, Blissfull Hall went on to a productive second career, producing the winners of more than $74 million on two continents over two decades.

Now 22 and retired from those duties as well, he's living a life of leisure at Saga Farm in Kentucky, where Plouffe visited him last fall.

"I am so happy he's been voted in (to the Hall of Fame)," said Plouffe. "It's been 20 years, but I still get recognized at sales because of him. So many friends and contacts that I still have today came because of that horse."

Plouffe remains active in standardbred racing, with shares in about 15 horses, including the stakes-winning 3-year-old trotting filly, Top Expectations, but he doesn't expect another like Blissfull Hall in his lifetime. "It's a dream to have a horse like that, with a great career on the track and then in the breeding shed."

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