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Prix D'Été: Legendary

Feature: Prix D'Été

Many of the greatest horses ever to race, competed in the Prix D’Été. With news that the stake will be revived and restored in 2014, we look back at the event - an important chapter in Canadian racing history.

Story by Paul Delean

On a wall at his home in Orford, QC., retired university professor Louis Ascah keeps a framed racing program from 1967. It’s open to the page listing the entrants for the marquee event that year at Blue Bonnets Racetrack in Montreal, the $50,000 Amble du Centenaire (Centennial Pace).

“Romulus Hanover won it in 1:57.1, a Canadian record and the fastest time ever for driver Billy Haughton to that point in his career. It was as if we’d watched The Rocket (Maurice Richard) score his 50th goal. What an achievement. There were 27,000 people there,” Ascah said.

In the years that followed, he rarely missed Quebec racing’s signature event, for many years the richest harness race in Canada. It began in 1966 as the Prix D’Automne (Autumn Classic), was renamed Amble du Centenaire in 1967 and then became the Prix D’Été in 1968. Initially a race for older pacers (with Bret Hanover as its first winner), it was converted into a stake for three-year-old pacers in 1971 and stayed that way until its demise during a horsemen’s strike in 1993.

“My memory of the Prix D’Eté is not a particular horse but the sense of excitement that was built up beforehand,” Ascah said. “In those days before simulcasting and the internet, the annual visit of the champions was the only time we got to see them. Also, in that period, newspapers had a large coverage of harness racing and pages would be filled in the weeks before the big event with photos and articles presenting the participants. We were pumped up as others would be for rock stars or royalty.”

Like many others, Ascah was delighted to hear the Prix D’Été is making a comeback in 2014 after an absence of more than two decades, though in a different form and at a different place.

The Quebec Jockey Club will be presenting its inaugural Prix D’Été on Sept. 21 at Hippodrome 3R in Trois-Rivieres. The race will be for four-year-old pacers, with a purse of $200,000.

“I think the Prix D’Été, for many Canadians and Americans, symbolized the best of harness racing in Quebec. That’s what we’re aspiring to. That’s why we brought back the name,” said QJC president Tony Infilise.

The initial idea was to revive it as a race for three-year-olds, but there wasn’t really a spot on the calendar for another three-year-old stake and the purse might not have been large enough to attract the best, Infilise said.

Four-year-olds, however, have few races exclusively for them, and their connections might appreciate a break from facing the same tough group of older pacers week after week.

“We’re trying something different and while you’re never sure what the result will be, we’re very excited about it,” Infilise said. “We’re hoping to lead here and provide an opportunity for the best four-year-old pacers to race against each other and be showcased. With the old Prix D’Été, we had the best. With the new one, we hope to also have the best. Imagine if Captaintreacherous came to H3R, It would really raise our profile, something we’re trying to do this year because we’ve decided to make our signal available to the rest of Canada. We also want to make it a positive experience for the participants.and their entourages, a full weekend event.”

While the Prix D’Été’s second chapter is still unwritten, the first packed a compelling punch, full of storylines and characters that left a lasting impression. Here are a few of the most memorable.

1972 Canada’s first $100,000 harness race shaped up as a classic showdown between Silent Majority and Strike Out, rivals since their two-year-old season, and locally-owned to boot. Silent Majority was owned by Irving Liverman and Aline White, whose husband Roger had picked out and trained the horse but died the year before in a plane crash. Strike Out belonged to John Hayes and Montreal’s Shapiro brothers – Robert, Conrad and Leo. But the much-anticipated duel never materialized. Silent Majority wasn’t at his best and never threatened as Strike Out and driver Keith Waples prevailed easily over Bob Hilton. Strike Out beat his archrival once more that year but Silent Majority beat him three times and went on to be named Canada’s champion three-year-old. Strike Out, whose wins included the Little Brown Jug, got that honour in the U.S.

1973 The closest overall finish (from first-to-last) in Prix D’Été history with all 10 starters covered by five lengths. Armbro Nadir, who’d come into the race as a bit of an unknown quantity but would go on to be horse of the year in Canada, won by a length after an outside trip for driver Nelson White at odds of 13-1, beating Rob Ron Ritzar and favourite Ricci Reenie Time in front of more than 20,000 fans. The time, 1:56.1, was the fastest race mile in Canada ever, to that point. Robert M. Smith recollects that White said he had Armbro Nadir’s four shoes (even the one he lost during the race) chromed by a friend, and they were still hanging on his bedroom wall. He also still had the saddlepad Armbro Nadir wore that day.

1974 No three-year-old filly ever captured the Prix D’Été, but a special one came close. The formidable Handle With Care, owned by Irving Liverman, won an elimination and then finished third to Armbro Omaha in a six-horse photo in the final, beaten about a length.

1979 A famous photo of driver Herve Filion, standing tall in the sulky on his way to the winner’s circle with Hot Hitter, after what was then a world-record mile of 1:54, said it all. Filion was at the top of his game then, and reveling in a rare visit back to the province where it all began.

1980 Niatross lost only two races in his storied career, and the Prix D’Été wasn’t one of them. He came to Montreal off a 21-length romp at Syracuse, N.Y., in 1:52.4, the fastest race mile ever, and there was no stopping him in the Prix D’Été. He won by six lengths over Trenton Time and Justin Passing in 1:53.4, a Canadian record. More than 21,000 fans were there to witness it.

1982 The three-year-old division had no clear leader before the race, but it had one after. A $20,000 supplementary entry with his own travelling fan club scored decisively by two lengths over Icarus Lobell. “We don’t have to prove anything to anybody now,” co-owner Norm Clements said. It was the start of a magic run for the great Cam Fella.

1984 On The Road Again was the horse to beat and Butler BG did it... at boxcar odds. Driven by Ted Wing in his only Prix D’Été appearance, the 50-1 shot was sent right to the front in the final. “He could leave like an airplane and that was my mission. I out-footed On The Road Again to the first turn and wouldn’t let him regain. I kept feeling his nose on my helmet. Generally, you don’t want the best horse on your neck, but two other horses came up on the outside and Buddy (Gilmour, driver of OTRA) was boxed in and had to back out and go third over. When that happened, I took off again,” said Wing. Butler BG held on to win by a quarter-length over Andrel while On The Road Again wound up fifth, beaten just a length. “I watched that tape until it broke,” said Wing, now 65. “The picture’s still on my mantle. That was a big race on everybody’s schedule. I remember the crowd was immense.”

1986 Unheralded Armbro Emerson, 18-1 on the board, rebounded from a disqualification a week earlier in an elimination of the Confederation Cup to score a gutsy neck victory in the mud in the Prix D’Été final. It was the biggest win in 18 years as a driver for Walter Whelan, who threw his whip in joy just past the wire. “I felt great. It was windy and cold but we got our revenge. It was the one we needed after the week before,” said Whelan. Armbro Emerson raced outside from the quarter-pole on, gradually wearing down pacesetter Amity Chef. “I never thought Amity Chef was as good as some others did so my plan was to put him under pressure and test him. Worked out perfect,” Whelan said. Favourite Barberry Spur, who looked unstoppable after an easy win in one of the eliminations, never threatened and finished third. He would later be disqualified for a positive test for dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), commonly used as a leg ointment. His owners challenged the disqualification and consequent loss of $104,000 in purse money but ultimately lost in court.

1987 Immortalized on YouTube as “harness accident 1987”, this was the Prix D’Été known more for spills than thrills. The grey horse Laag, always a handful to drive, stepped on the wheel of Rumpus Hanover entering the first turn, provoking a chain reaction in the backfield that tossed driver John Campbell from the sulky of Banker Blue Chip right over the infield fence. While the four horses that avoided the chaos drew off, Banker Blue Chip gave chase with an empty sulky that eventually snagged the rail, resulting in the horse getting thrown into the infield as well. Neither horse nor driver was seriously injured. Pacesetter Frugal Gourmet hung on to win the final over Jate Lobell. Laag, driven by Richard Farrington, was deemed responsible for the accident and disqualified, with his fifth-place cheque of $10,960 going to the three non-finishers. His owner Albert Adams accepted defeat with grace. “It’s a horse race, and anything can happen. Nothing’s in the bank. Win, lose or draw, we’re having a great day,” he said.

1988 Quebec-owned Runnymede Lobell went into the race with a nine-race unbeaten streak but another Quebecer stole the show. Driving Matts Scooter, 37-year-old Michel Lachance beat the local favourite in the final by two lengths. “This is the biggest thrill of my life,” Lachance said. “I’m at home. It’s a race I have dreamed of winning since I saw the first one as a boy.” He’d win it again a year later with Goalie Jeff.

1990 Hall-of-fame driver Bill O’Donnell never won a Prix D’Été, but this edition remains a fond memory. He finished second to the great Beach Towel in the final with 95-1 shot Scoot Outa Reach. “We got locked in during the first heat and barely made the final The owners wanted to scratch out of the final but I said he can leave, get himself spotted, you never know. I think we did the first eighth in about :12.3 and I remember thinking ‘are we ever going fast’. Then Beach Towel went by and we sat in the two hole and toughed it out. It ended up being a pretty good day overall. The horse made $80,000.” A pretty good horse finished last in that race: Camluck.

1991 It was one heat for all the marbles, and post position was key. Die Laughing got the rail and driver Richard Silverman made it clear he wasn’t about to surrender it to Artsplace without a fight. Artsplace attacked after the opening quarter but couldn’t get by and wound up third as Die Laughing kicked clear in 1:51.2.

1992 The last Prix D’Été ended the John Campbell drought. The dominant driver of his era was 0-for-10 in the race before finally breaking through with Direct Flight. “It wasn’t as bad as all that. I did finish second five times,” he reminded reporters. Bullvons Dream, who won an elimination and finished second in the final, collected $192,125 on the day, a career high to that point for a driver on the rise..“It’s something I’ll always remember,” Rick Zeron said.

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