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Pandolfo: Lew Williams, Whata Baron made a perfect pair
I was thinking about horses and drivers I've seen that were personal favorites of mine. When I think of the horse and driver as a team, the most dynamic duo may have been Whata Baron and Lew Williams.
Lew Williams, or “Super Lew” as many fans called him, was inducted into the Harness Hall of Fame in 2009. He was the first African-American to receive that honor. Unfortunately, he was fatally injured in a farming accident at the age of 42 in 1989.
Williams drove his first race at 16 years old. In the 1970's he became a dominant driver at Northfield Park in Ohio, winning 17 driving titles. When you saw Williams' flashy blue and gold colors in the bike, they were usually on or near the lead.
When the Meadowlands opened in 1976, it ushered in a new era for harness racing. Lew Williams opened a stable at the Meadowlands and also caught on as catch-driver. During his career, he drove some outstanding horses including Courageous Lady and April's Skipper.
The horse that people remember most when they think about Lew Williams is Whata Baron. Most racehorses reach their full potential by 3 or 4 years of age. Whata Baron was a fine 3-year-old who won 11 of his 22 starts. But in 1978, at the age of 6, Whata Baron found his best stride and emerged as the dominant Free For All pacer in harness racing.
Lew Williams was also the trainer of Whata Baron. In 1978, Whata Baron won 11 of 13 starts and set a new track record of 1:53 4/5 when he won the second leg of the Driscoll Series. He went on to win the final impressively.
The Free For All ranks were a salty group back then. Horses weren't retired after their 3-year-old season as often as they are now, and Whata Baron had to race against horses like Governor Skipper, Rambling Willie, Senor Skipper, Le Baron Rouge, Jambooger and Town Drunk, all formidable foes.
Video replays of the three Driscoll races are available on the internet. In his world record of 1:53 4/5 on June 22, 1978, Whata Baron actually lost some ground on the first turn when he got on one line and drifted out.
Lew Williams' son, Chris, a former harness trainer, recalled a story about why Whata Baron succeeded later in his career.
"During the Lew Williams-Whata Baron tribute at the Meadowlands a few years ago, I was speaking to Ed Freeburg, who owned Whata Baron," Williams said. "He told me that Whata Baron had a clubbed foot and it was tough to keep him sound because it affected his knees. That may explain why he became so dominant at six, his knees were feeling better."
Whata Baron was a pacer who had tremendous speed. He'd often extend his lead down the unforgiving Meadowlands stretch. Of the first 15 miles that were timed in 1:55 or lower, Whata Baron recorded five of them.
"In the Driscoll Final, Whata Baron parked Governor Skipper to a 27-flat first quarter, then my dad used him again to retake the lead,” said Williams. “You see a 27 quarter today and you know it's quick, but we're talking about 37 years ago. That was big speed. And Whata Baron pulled away from Governor Skipper in the stretch."
Of course, it didn't hurt to have Lew Williams in the bike. I like to watch and analyze the styles of great harness drivers to see if there's anything they do differently. My belief is that the ability to get top speed out of a horse is a combination of innate skill and technique. Most of the drivers who have the ability to get horses to carry their speed to the wire seem to have their own style of rousing a horse in the stretch.
Lew Williams was a southpaw. He used to high rein the horse with his right hand while rocking his body back and forth and leaning to the left so he could use his left whip.
"Walter Case, Jr. told me that my dad was one of first drivers he ever saw who used his body motion to create lift," Williams said.
Chuck Williams, Lew’s brother, was a trainer and had some horses stabled in the same barn.
"I'll tell you a couple of things about Lew as a driver," said Chuck. "He could carry a tired horse through the stretch better than anyone I've ever seen. And, he invented the quarter-move."
Lew Williams helped establish the Meadowlands style of racing. Before the Meadowlands opened, the typical pattern in a harness race was for one or two horses to leave the gate and establish the leader by the quarter. Then, just before the half, the horse sitting third or fourth pulled first over and the outside flow developed.
But “Super Lew” was an aggressive driver and he often hustled his horses out of third, fourth or fifth and took control with a backside bull-rush. This type of driving style caught on and added a new and more exciting dynamic to harness races. In some races at the Big M, the lead would change four or five times before the horses had reached the half. With all of this action in a race, every horse had a chance and it wasn't unusual to see a horse rally wide off the final turn and go from last to first. It was great harness racing. The fast and furious action on the track established The Big M as the number one harness track in North America.
When Whata Baron took his 1:53 4/5 mark, he was wearing the old wooden sulky. Chuck Williams could barely get out more than a laugh when asked how fast he thought Whata Baron could go in one of today's modern sulkies.
"Oh, God," said Chuck, laughing. "And with the lighter, more efficient wheels they use these days . . . oh, God."
Unfortunately, Whata Baron never raced again after his brilliant performances in 1978. Lew Williams was getting him ready to qualify in 1979 when owner Ed Freeburg decided to sell him to a breeder in Australia, where he stood as a sire.
But Whata Baron and Lew Williams had established themselves as harness racing legends. Whata Baron was one of the fastest horses I ever saw. Lew Williams is often referred to as the greatest black harness driver. I honestly never thought of him in the context of race. To me, he was simply “Super Lew” Williams, one of the greatest harness drivers of I've ever seen.
To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.
As good as Lew was at M1, he was even better on the half-mile track. He could win from anywhere and the fact that he was a left-handed stick might have been a major part of that. Thanks for this!
I saw Lew Williams drive at Buffalo raceway in the early seventies and to this day I still remember that race he had a style of driving I never seen before
Bob, Kudos! One of your finest essays ever.
his race against Cam Fella was one for the ages
The man was a magician in the bike. Way ahead of his time. Have a friend who "specialized" in wagering on Lew's horses. Great trainer, driver, and all around legend. I especially remember Mary Mel, who won and paid $120.00 to win one night at the Big M.
I do recall, a great FFA pacer....