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Pandolfo: Summing up a 40-year career in Harness Racing
It was at Yonkers Raceway where I first heard track announcer Max Brewer say, "The Marshall calls the pacers." Brewer's voice, style, and cadence gave the expression of reverence. I loved it. I had made my bet. The tickets were clenched in my hand. The horses were on the track. When the Marshall calls the pacers, the race is about to start! I can remember the adrenaline rush I felt.
This is my last column. I'm not hanging up the pen, per se. I'm still going to write and publish books. My next book, Power Pace Handicapping, a thoroughbred handicapping book, will be out in a few weeks. I'm also working on a new harness handicapping book. And, I'm planning some video handicapping segments. But I've written over a thousand columns in the last 40 years, for DRF Harness, American Turf Monthly, The Racing Times, Racing Action, and other publications. I used to relish deadlines. Now, not so much.
To put myself in the right frame of mind for this final column, I settled back into a recliner and closed my eyes. I drifted back in time, back to when I was a teenager. I could smell the ink on the Doc Robbin's Tomorrow's Trots (past performance program), ubiquitously tucked in my pocket.
There's something about being young and impressionable. My love affair with harness racing started in 1972. I went to Roosevelt and saw Albatross. A few weeks later I was there for the International Trot, which to this day is still my favorite race. The great French mare Une de Mai, who won the International twice, finished second, but her courageous effort gave me goose bumps. Little did I know, at the time, that some years later I'd be on television covering the International Trot live for Yonkers Raceway.
I remember the crowds. We often talk about how we can get young people interested in horse racing. Well, having a packed grandstand helps. It was exciting. One way or another, you have to get people out to the track.
Handicapping is a great puzzle, and it comes with a prize. I loved it then, and still do. I start handicapping at 6 a.m. most days. Coffee and past performances, that's the way I like to start the day.
Early on, I kept it simple. Herve Filion was the leading driver. I noticed that many people who were ripping up their tickets were saying, "Herve beat me again!"
I figured since I was still learning how to handicap, I'd make most of my bets on Herve. One night he had six drives. I bet them all in a series of three horse round robin win parlays. Herve won five and lost his last drive by a nose. You don't forget those nights.
One night at Roosevelt, I was standing near the finish line watching the race and Herve's horse lost its action, went into a wild break and started to fall. Herve was thrust out of the seat and ended up lying on his stomach. I saw the horse's nose come within an inch of the ground. But Herve tugged hard on the reins and yanked the horse's head up. The horse regained its balance, and Herve, his feet dragging on the track, pulled him up. That was the magic of Herve Filion.
Once I started working for Sports Eye in 1976, I got to hang around with a bunch of young guys who were just like me, harness racing aficionados. It was great.
I covered the 1991 Meadowlands Pace for The Racing Times. Two-year-old champion Artsplace was the favorite in a stellar field that included Die Laughing and Precious Bunny. Artsplace lost to Precious Bunny in the final. But Artsplace fulfilled his massive potential as a 4-year-old. In 1992, Artsplace had one of the greatest years in the sport's history when he won all 16 of his starts including the Breeders Crown.
In 1984, Nihilator, with Bill Haughton in the bike, made three moves to the lead winning a baby race at the Meadowlands. It was his third lifetime start. Back then, they brought them along more slowly. The time wasn't blazing, but the way Nihilator moved, I just felt that he was something special. In my Sports Eye column I wrote, "This may be the next superhorse." They used the quote in an ad.
Some favorite moments by great horses: Shady Daisy's wicked backstretch brush winning a stakes race at the Meadowlands…Sonsam's monster three wide final turn blitz winning the Meadowlands Pace at the Meadowlands…Bonefish's courageous four heat Hambletonian win in 1975…Niatross winning the Meadowlands Pace in front of a packed house…Peace Corps' last to first three wide sweep winning the International Trot at Yonkers…Cam Fella's 28 race win streak…Art Official's stunning upset over Somebeachsomewhere (I picked the exacta cold for this publication)…The great mares Silk Stockings and Tarport Hap in their classic battles.
It's not always about the great horses, though. There were plenty of regular raceway horses that were worth writing about. The greatest claim may have been Fight The Foe. Claimed for $10,000, Fight The Foe climbed the class ladder and became one of the top pacers in the sport. In 1979, he won the Cardigan Bay Pace at Roosevelt Raceway, defeating a quality field that included Rambling Willie, Newt Lobell, Nickylou, Seedling Herbert, Mostest Yankee, Wizard Almahurst and Sirota Anderson.
Another cool raceway horse was from Down Under, Payoff N. Trained by Alan Alkes and driven by Bob Vitrano, Payoff N was a big chestnut horse who was popular with racing fans in New York. Prior to the races he'd warm up with his head bent down. Once the gate opened, Payoff N left and opened up a huge lead, sometimes in excess of 15 lengths while setting a fast pace. Then at the wire he was life and death to hold on. But he won 49 races in his career and he was fun to watch.
Another personal favorite was Momentous, who wasn't a top class horse but he had a lot of fans. Fellow harness writer Doug Kaplan and I decided to team up and do an interview with trainer Bob Rahner. When we got to the barn at Roosevelt, Momentous was standing outside his stall. Rahner came rushing up to us with his hands out. "Don't get too close to him! He bites, kicks, you name it. He'll hurt you."
Momentous put that mean streak to good use on the racetrack. He would often be assigned post 8 in handicap races. He wasn't quick out of the gate and didn't have a fast brush, so Rahner would leave with him and let him grind. Momentous would race parked-the-mile without cover and he won a lot of races the hard way. Author Carol Ann Vercz wrote a book about Momentous, "Momentous: An Unbridled Spirit," which is out of print. Momentous was so popular that Yonkers threw him a retirement party on New Years Eve, 1981.
Some of the most exciting moments of my career were when I did live events, such as television and handicapping seminars. I did several "Racing From Roosevelt" shows with Stan Bergstein, Spencer Ross, and John Dockery. And of course, there was the Meadowlands recap show and handicapping analysis for a popular Yonkers Raceway cable show with Gary Sussman. On one of those shows, I covered the International Trot, won by Reve d’ Udon.
I interviewed The Voice of Roosevelt Raceway, Jack E. Lee, one of the all-time great race callers. He loved the column so much that for the rest of his career he had it hanging on the wall in his announcer's booth.
Probably the most popular column I ever wrote was an interview with “The Red Man,” Carmine Abbatiello. We ran teasers in Sports Eye for weeks, "Why do horses go faster with Carmine? Find out when Pandy interviews The Redman." The Sunday edition sold 40,000 copies, best of the year. Abbatiello gave out some trade secrets. For instance, he explained how he used the whip to tease the horse and keep it alert.
"I tap the horse at the base of the tail, not hard, nice and easy, just to let it know I'm here, keep it alert," Abbatiello said, before showing me how he held the whip and moved his hand. "Tap, tap, tap…tap, tap, tap…tap, tap, tap…and then when I'm ready to make my move, I shout and shake the reins, and the horse takes off."
I could go on and on. But, you can't put 40 years into one column. It's been fun. I know some of you have been reading my columns for a long time. Thank you!
It's a wrap. I hear the announcement, "The Marshall calls the pacers." It is time for the next race of my career.
Best of luck to you Bob. Looking forward to your future book on harness racing. May I also suggest a video of you actually handicapping a harness race the old fashioned way. I get asked all the time how the greatest experts handicap. Your articles for me are priceless and I cannot wait for your new book. All the best! .
Bob- You've been one of my heroes in the sport ever since I became hooked in 1980 at 14 and started buying Sports Eye every day. I bought your system (the one with the trainer and driver ratings) and between that, reading your handicapping columns along with Paul Lukin's and Jay Bergman's, and the 'race wire formula', I gradually got a sense of how the sport worked. It was exhilarating. It's no exaggeration to say that the entire direction of my life was a carryover from the adrenaline rush and good feeling that I associated with Yonkers and Roosevelt during my high school years, and your writing was a huge part of that. Thank you for translating your love of harness racing into something that so many people were able to latch onto. Your writing will truly be missed! By the way, I didn't know that Herve played such an important role for you... was it you who came up with that fantastic term for the 8-hole on a half- the "French rail"? I always loved that expression.
All the best to you!
You have reported and witnessed many great years of harness history.I'm sorry the private jet ride to the Little Brown Jug,which we lost in the third heat BTW didn't make your list.
BOB !!! THANK YOU FOR THE MENTION OF MY DAD AND REST EASY IN YOUR RETIREMENT AT DAILY RACING FORM !!!
Great job Bob!!! Continued success!!
Great job Bob!!!!
it"s been a plast thank"s for the memory"s
Great body of work, Bob. Always a wealth of good info and class.