03/11/2015 10:57AM

Gisser: Favorite moments in Harness Racing

Breeders Crown
That'll Be Me upset Pacific Rocket in the 1995 Breeders Crown at Northfield Park.

As I become further and further removed from the daily grind in the harness racing business (a grind I thought I loved), I have noticed an unusual thing taking place. I am gambling less and going to the races less often, but I am enjoying myself a lot more. I have no intention of going all poetic with an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” column here, but I thought I would detail my five favorite harness racing experiences in this column. They run the gamut of my involvement in this great sport.

It was hard to keep it at five – Blowing off my prom to play Northfield, hitting a big trifecta and then heading to a buddy’s party with a car full of, uhm, provisions; obviously hitting the first Back to the Track Pick 4 on a ticket I gave out publicly; my first win as an owner-trainer; seeing the first foal born from an old broodmare we bought just for kicks all got consideration, but here are my top five:

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#5  August 21, 2003 -  Darke County Fairgrounds, Greenville, Ohio – Sent off at 42-1 while driving Moreland’s Ruggles in a Billings amateur race, I somehow come up with a second-place finish, my best to that point in the series. As I get out of the bike, the trainer tells me, “We didn’t want to scare you, but he was third yesterday in a Maiden race.” Having had little success as a driver, I felt as if I had won. And the 4 1/2 hour drive home seemed a lot shorter than that.

#4 September 22, 1995 – Serving as a press box assistant at Northfield Park for the Breeders Crown, I listen to the assembled harness racing media elite discuss the coronation of Pacific Rocket as divisional champ, despite his loss the week before at Rideau Carleton. Meanwhile, I was touting anyone who would listen on a little-known Canadian horse called That’ll Be Me. And very few would. He had just won the Mohawk Open against many of the same competitors.  It was, for me, clearly a two-horse race. That’ll Be Me won at odds of nearly 10-1 and the 2-5 Pacific Rocket was second. I cashed one of the larger tickets of my life and, at least for that weekend, had bragging rights over some of the sport’s top public handicappers and pundits.

#3- September 15, 2004 – Representing Team USA in the USA-New Zealand driver’s challenge at Northfield, and in my first start after being knocked out of the sulky in an accident at Scioto Downs (my shoulder still hurts recalling that one), I finished second as the longest shot on the board (are you detecting a pattern here) behind Albert’s Angel, a horse who was owned by Dan Kirkwood, who had been a good friend in my first go-round as a horse trainer 25 years earlier. For a brief moment it looked like I would duck into the passing lane and get the win, but with a stretch drive that was later described by track announcer Greg Young as looking like I was “humping a football,“ I was unable to make up ground. Imagine my shock when I heard Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks use the same phrase in “Miracle.”

#2- October 21, 1994 – Breeders Crown at Garden State Park. It was my first time at this palatial facility. I was there for two reasons.  Kenny Holliday, a Northfield regular, was driving Falcon’s Future in the three-year-old colt pace and looked like he had a shot to win. I also wanted to see Hardie Hanover. I had met her co-owner, Montreal Canadians great John Ferguson, and hung out with him at Delaware earlier that fall, swapping stories and cigars. He was a great guy and in a good mood even though his filly had made a break in the Jugette. It was my first Breeders Crown not at Northfield and I was in awe of the spectacle. Falcon’s Future raced gamely, eventually placing fifth after taking pressure the whole mile. Hardie Hanover was an easy winner and Ferguson invited me into the winner’s circle with him, at which point I presented him with a box of cigars, courtesy of one my radio show’s sponsors.  He handed the trophy to someone else in the party and hung onto the cigars as we left the winners circle.

#1-  September 22, 1988 – The Little Brown Jug. My friend Jay and I had been following an Ohio-bred named BJ Scoot from the time he was two. His dam, Terry’s Woe, was one of the gutsiest race mares I had ever seen. We traveled to every one of his starts at three until he was sold to Canadian interests.  In Canada, he raced well, but not well enough to beat Matt’s Scooter or Runnymede Lobell. BJ Scoot won his elimination of the Jug and in the second heat he engaged in a speed duel with Albert Albert, the likes of which had never been seen. “The half in 53 4/5. Unheard of,” shouted track announcer Roger Huston. Then the four-horse Lou Guida entry took its shot. Heat winner Camtastic was first to pressure as they came to three-quarters. Surely he would pass BJ Scoot, a horse not known for his heart. But the little Ohio-bred dug in. Standing on our folding chairs and nearly in tears, I turned to my buddy Jay and said, “He may not win, but he finally showed his old lady’s heart.” He did win at 2-1, holding off another Guida threat, Threefold, at the wire. I cashed the first $100 exacta ticket of my life. But that’s not what made this race so great for me. I watched the video of that race so many times that at age three, my son Kyle would run around the house yelling, “The half in 53 4/5. Unheard of.” That’s what makes it great to be a fan of this amazing sport.

In future columns I will detail my five harness racing dream experiences – consider it a harness racing bucket list, and I will also detail my five worst experiences with the sport/business. No go cash. See you next month.

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