Dean’s List: Asking the experts the eternal question: Who is the greatest racehorse ever

by Dean A. Hoffman

The greatest racehorse ever? For me, it’s Niatross.

What is Niatross, you ask? He is my answer to the question “Name the greatest standardbred racehorse ever.”

It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. There are so many variables. And most of us are limited to the horses we have seen. It’s wonderful to read about the wondrous ability of historic legends, but witnessing greatness personally leaves a far greater impression.

That’s why I solicited comments from others who are longtime devotees of harness racing. They are all from North America, so we’re naturally biased toward horses that performed primarily on this continent. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the greats from Europe, but I personally limited my picks to North America.

I selected Niatross because he demonstrated such speed and versatility and never really seemed fully extended. When he was fully extended in his time trial at Lexington in the fall of 1980, he lowered the speed standard for the breed by almost three full seconds.

Speed records are usually reduced by chipping off a fragment of a second… not big chunks. Niatross was indeed special.

He raced on every size track. He raced heats. He whipped aged horses. He drew good posts and bad posts. Nothing stopped him except a fall from grace at Saratoga in the summer of 1980 and a break in his Meadowlands Pace elim.

What might Niatross have done as a 4-year-old? Alas, we’ll never know.
I prefer trotters and have been fortunate to see many of the best — Mack Lobell, Muscle Hill, Nevele Pride, Moni Maker and many champs from Europe.

I saw Bret, Beach, Albatross, and Cam Fella — all legends. I know about the greatness of Little Pat, Adios Butler, Good Time and others.

But I’ll stick with Niatross.

Hall of Fame driver Bill O’Donnell agrees. He says, “The greatest horse in my opinion is Niatross. Others who come to mind are Albatross, Nevele Pride, Cam Fella, Rambling Willie, Mack Lobell, and Somebeachsomewhere.”

Ben White III, a horseman who literally grew up on the Grand Circuit and has seen them all for since the 1950s, also agreed. “Niatross ducked no one, raced on all size tracks coast to coast,” White says. “He was under little or no urging in his time trial. He retired sound.”

Richard Stone, the longtime yearling manager for Castleton Farm in Kentucky also picked Niatross. Stone knows harness history as well as anyone, having amassed the finest private art collection and library in the sport. “Now I don’t go back to Goldsmith Maid,” said Stone, “but I would have to pick Niatross because of his complete domination when he raced with just a couple exceptions.”

Stone witnessed the epic time trial and said, “I remember how excited everyone was and how the crowd surged onto the track and I thought they might get his way. My friend Dennis Lacey drove one of the prompters and he had a very determined look at his face in the stretch. The prompters were trying hard to keep up.”

Murray Brown, affiliated with Hanover Shoe Farms since the days when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, picks two stars with identical slates as his best ever: Somebeachsomewhere for pacers and Muscle Hill for trotters.

Both colts raced two seasons and had 20 wins in 21 starts. Both of their losses came by a neck.
“Both were strong, willing and ultra consistent,” says Brown. “As far as I am concerned, Muscle Hill was never even challenged. As for Somebeachsomewhere, his best race might have been the one that he lost. (The 2008 Meadowlands Pace).”

Brown concludes his comments by saying, “I cannot pick between the two of them. I’ll give you first pick, and be very pleased with having the one not chosen.”

Tom Charters, the retiring head honcho of the Hambletonian Society, has a vast knowledge of international trotting and he picked Il Capitano — the Italian stallion Varenne — as the greatest horse of all time. Certainly the tall trotter dazzled wherever he raced, winning 62 of 73 career starts, including triumphs in the Elitlopp and Prix d’Amerique.

He traveled to the USA for the 2001 Breeders Crown and it was a case of “Veni-Vidi-Trotti” — “I came-I saw-I trotted.” He trotted in 1:51.3 at the Meadowlands to destroy a good field.
Varenne didn’t lose often and his only loss to a trotter bred in North America was when Conway Hall defeated him in the Orsi Mangelli in Italy in 1998.

Veteran bloodstock agent and owner Bob Boni has strong opinions on the greats he’s seen.

“I have had the good fortune to see most of the great horses of the past 50 plus years,” says Boni, “and have also had the good fortune to have an interest in a number of pacers that would be in the conversation. For that reason, I will recuse myself from selecting a pacer and will in turn point to Muscle Hill as the greatest trotter I have watched perform.

“While it is always difficult to compare horses from different eras or horses that distinguished themselves at two and three versus those that excelled as aged horses. Muscle Hill has the distinction of not only being the most talented trotter that I have ever seen, but he is the only horse that I can reference was never once all out crossing the wire, often with quite a bit in reserve, including his dominant gate-to-wire 1:50.1 Hambletonian world record. There was always something left and he made some pretty good colts look ordinary. He was also as efficiently gaited as any trotter I have seen to date.”

Boni added that he values horses that can overcome rough trips and win races that they’re simply not supposed to win.

“I cannot control myself but to say that Always B Miki had a number of those performances in 2016,” said Boni, “most notably the Ewart, Ben Franklin elimination and the Breeders Crown. I doubt very many, or any, could have raced as he did in those and prevailed. Such memorable efforts establish a distinct and special level of greatness.”

Bob Marks, veteran writer and breeding expert, lists his candidates as Niatross, Muscle Hill, Speedy Scot, and Somebeachsomewhere.

“I loved the way Niatross barnstormed to the end of his 3-year-old season, getting better as he evolved,” says Marks. “For that reason, I’ll go with him.”
Marks said, “I won’t say Nevele Pride as I don’t think Une De Mai would have done to Speedy Scot what she did to (Nevele Pride),” says Marks, referring to the 1969 International Trot.

In other comments, Marks said, “Muscle Hill may never have been fully extended..

“It’s hard to rate Always B Miki,” points out Marks. “There were lesser lights pretty close up at the wire in that 1:46 mile.”

Lifelong horseman Mickey Bridges picked Rambling Willie as the greatest standardbred ever “because of his connections to God.”

What did horsemen say in 1959?

The Trotter Magazine, published on Long Island, asked New York-based horsemen to address the questions of the “greatest ever” in late 1959. Horsemen of that era found the question equally challenging to answer with just one name, but here are some samples from that survey:

Billy Haughton

He said that Adios Butler was surely the greatest 3-year-old pacer of all time, and gave recognition to Adios Harry and the vaunted mare Belle Acton. Among trotters, Haughton said, “Senator Frost trotted the greatest single race I ever saw.” That was at Lexington in 1958 for trainer-driver Dick Buxton.

Dick Thomas

He was raised on the Grand Circuit like Ben White and was the son of Henry Thomas, a three-time Hambletonian winner. Dick Thomas picked his father’s McLin Hanover, the 1938 Hambletonian winners, and singled out pacers such as Cardinal Price, Adios Harry, and Bye Byrd.

Morris MacDonald

The legendary Canadian horseman said emphatically, “Little Pat was the greatest race horse that ever lived. Maybe not the fastest, but the greatest. He raced seven or eight years, shipped from hell to Omaha, and whipped all kinds of opposition to death.”

Jimmy Jordan

A New England horseman respected by his colleagues, he responded by saying, “Zowie, what a question! If I have to answer that one, then I’d say Single G was the best horse that ever raced. He was the best for five years. He was an iron horse. He used to race in three-out-of-five heat races.”

Hugh Bell

“Single G – Some of these younger drivers never saw him or heard of him,” said one of the sport’s pioneer catch drivers. “That’s a pity. He was the greatest horse that ever lived. I’ll take Hi Lo’s Forbes and Bye Brd Byrd as the greatest pacers of the modern era.”

MacDonald, Jordan, and Bell all mentioned Greyhound first as the greatest trotter, but gave mention to others, such as Merrie Annabelle, Scott Frost, Steamin Demon, Galophone and Newport Dream.
Of interest is the fact that only one 1959 respondent, Jack Richardson, mentioned Dan Patch. Noted harness historian John Hervey, who followed Dan Patch closely during his career, recalled Dan Patch “one of the greatest of his era.”

Dan Patch’s race record was 2:03-3/4, three seconds slower than the world record at that time. Dan’s best effort in a time trial without a windscreen was 1:58, which lasted a decade until broken by Directum I with a 1:56-3/4 time trial.

Clint Hodgins

The crusty Hall of Famer said, “Adios Butler is the greatest 3-year-old I ever drove and the greatest I ever saw Bye Bye Byrd’s the best 4-year-old.” Hodkins mentioned Greyhound and Proximity as the greatest trotting male and female, respectively, but also praised performances by Jean Laird and Galophone.
In typical Hodgins fashion, he added, “How are you going to prove who’s right on this, anyway?”