Brush And Crush: Thank You Hambletonian Day

The many reasons Hambletonian Day is harness racing at its finest.

by Dean Towers

The history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is something that has always fascinated me. A big department store, or some corporation did not create the impromptu parade. It was spurred by the employees of the store, most of whom were new immigrants to America from Europe. These employees wanted to create something that allowed them to celebrate a holiday in their new country, with a festival type atmosphere their parents and grandparents were used to in their homelands, thousands of miles away.

Sure this event, with television coverage, corporate floats and all the rest is not like it was in 1924; it’s big time. But I saw an interview a year or two ago with a retired employee who was lending his time to the event – one of 4,000 past or present employees who volunteer each year — who said he volunteers to thank those who came before them at Macy’s, along with his city and his country. It seems all volunteers have the same feeling. It’s more than a parade, it’s a part of their pasts and they show up each year to remind themselves and give thanks.

In the exact same year, a different kind of event was being created. A standardbred race was being discussed; a race with a huge purse for the times, to be raced yearly, hopefully in heats. It would celebrate the sport of harness racing and pay homage to the trotter. The Hambletonian was born.

Two years later, the first Hambletonian was raced – not at a big city track with big city clientele, but at the Syracuse State Fair in upstate New York. It was a huge success.

Since that time the Hambletonian has gone through changes — the purse is bigger, the venues are larger, and the race is held a short bus ride away from 34th street, not at a state fair. But like the Macy’s Parade, the Hambletonian has a history. Its forged memories and it brings a lot of us – harness fans, bettors, grooms, drivers, owners, trainers, and media — together each August.

In what ways do I thank Hambletonian Day for being Hambletonian Day? Allow me to share a few with you.

Hambletonian Day has a big crowd. There’s no use sugarcoating it. Flipping on a feed from Chester, or Pocono and seeing two or three people standing at the rail is so damned depressing. Hambletonian Day helps me forget the present and remember the past; to remember when going to the track was parking a half mile away because the lot was full; to remember lineups at concessions or betting windows. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a glorious harness racing remembrance.

Hambletonian Day has pool size. If you are planning to bet a horse at two minutes to post in this sport, chances are you have no idea what price you’re going to get at the off, because pool sizes are so small. Not on Saturday. Hambletonian Day has the largest handle for any card raced in North America, and it’s not really that close. It might be 2016, but you can bet like it’s 1976. I love that.

Hambletonian Day has heats. I love heats. I love that heats were raced 90 years ago, and I love that they race them in the Hambletonian. These days, when 12 starts for a three-year-old colt pacer in some quarters is considered animal cruelty, this is downright joyful. Thank you Hambletonian Day for reminding me that standardbreds are not Faberge eggs.

Hambletonian Day gives me daylight harness racing. Yes, I get it. Night racing propelled the sport, and racing during the day hurts handle. But trotters and pacers going breakneck speed in the sunlight is amazing to watch. Thank you Hambletonian Day for keeping the daytime tradition.

Hambletonian Day gives me the celebration of the trotter. In simulcast centers from Tuktoyaktuk to Timbuktu trotters are much maligned, not bet as much, and are sometimes accompanied by a not so nice word when they bust. I’ve always thought the square gaiters are cadenced and beautiful and poetic, and I love that they have this day to be appreciated.

Who is at Hambletonian Day? It’s not Yannick Gingras and Jimmy Takter. It’s Yannick Gingras and Jimmy Takter “and family”. Look around you. Look at the friends you’ll see you have not seen in years, I guarantee in a lot of cases you see them, and their families. Harness racing is family, and I love that Hambletonian Day helps me remember that.

Hambletonian Day allows me to get asked a question I don’t hear often by my thoroughbred friends. “Who do you like in the Hambo?” Boy, do I like that.

Yes, Hambletonian Day gives me pony rides and ice cream, and bands and great food. It gives me hot tarmac and cold beer in a plastic cup. It gives me Settlemoir, Salvi and Horowitz, and one of the greatest harness racing TV personalities ever, Gary Seibel. It gives me alternating McKee and Warkentin. It gives me a chance to flip on the television – not a computer screen – and see a harness race.

In 1924, when a little parade was created by a few employees at a department store, I bet they had no idea what influence they’d have on so many for generations. In the same year, when a harness race was developed, I doubt they’d think that almost 100 years later I’d be thanking them in a similar way. But here I am, and here we are.

Enjoy your Hambletonian Day everyone. Celebrate the sport; bet, drink, eat, cheer, give thanks and have a great time. That’s exactly what it was created for.