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Free-Legged: Nansemond's upset in the Jug
Thursday, February 15, 2007 - by Dean A. Hoffman

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by Dean Hoffman

“I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.” -- Herbert Hoover, Inaugural Address, 1929

“Albatross can fall down not once, but twice, and still win the Jug.” -- Dean A. Hoffman, Television interview, 1971

Did you ever say something that you really, really regretted? Well, I have, and it was probably the same way when Herbert Hoover made his remarks on the eve of the Great Depression.

My comment was made a few days before the Jug in an interview with a TV station in Ashland, Ohio, about an hour up the road from the Delaware County Fairgrounds.

I was fresh out of college that year and working a county fair publicity program for the USTA. The local TV station wanted to interview a driver, so I grabbed Terry Holton and we headed off for the TV booth.

I picked Terry because (1) he was my friend (2) he’s very good in interviews and (3) he’d won the fastest heat at the fair (2:05.2) with a 3-year-old pacer named Clever Napoleon.

Terry talked about Clever Napoleon and I used the chance to tell viewers about the great Little Brown Jug coming up in a few days.

I said words to the effect, “It won’t be much of a race this year because a horse named Albatross stands out over all the others. Albatross can fall down not once, but twice, and still win the Jug.”

Ouch! I hope the TV station destroyed all copies of that interview.

I wasn’t the only person astonished by Nansemond’s upset win over Albatross a few days later. A poll conducted by Little Brown Jug publicist Tom White shows that it ranks as the greatest upset in Jug history.

Albatross was so dominant that Delaware officials decided to bar him in the betting. A top-heavy favorite could cause serious minus pools, a situation a county fair like Delaware couldn’t tolerate.

The first elim went off pretty much as expected with H.T. Luca and El Patron hitting the wire first and second.

The second elim, however, was an eye-opener. Herve Filion sent Nansemond to the front, and when Dancer and Albatross went after him, Nansemond was supposed to surrender gracefully. But he and Filion were having no part of that. They fought back. Fought back hard. Albatross had a nose in front at the wire, but he knew he’d been in the race of his life.

In the next heat, Dancer had Albatross in front but Filion shouted encouragement to Nansemond in the last turn and he roared past Albatross in the stretch drive.

I was getting driver quotes in the paddock that year at Delaware and I was the one who asked Filion if he yelled at Nansemond in English or French. He told me that the horse was bi-lingual. Before the race-off, Filion was relaxed, while Dancer was obviously shaken.

One of my unpleasant memories of that afternoon is how the fans booed Dancer and Albatross. It was bush league. Why boo a great horse and a great horseman?

It was jealousy, of course, because in that era Dancer dominated harness racing. He’d won the Jug and Triple Crown the previous year with Most Happy Fella. Just as baseball fans resented the success of the New York Yankees when they were winning the World Series year after year, so did harness fans resent Dancer. The boo-birds had a heyday.

Filion grabbed the lead in the race-off and backed the tempo to a crawl. The third quarter was paced in :33.1. Then Filion fired up his pacer and took off. And Albatross took off in pursuit. It was too little, too late as Nansemond was a winner by three-quarters of a length.

Stanley Dancer pulled Albatross up in the backstretch, handed the lines to groom Joe Wideman, and began walking toward his stable. I was the first person to speak to Dancer after the race.

“Would it have made any difference if you’d pulled sooner?” I asked him.

Dancer said, “No, he just got the jump on me and outpaced me.”

Dancer later admitted that he had raced Albatross too rigorously on the eve of the Jug, but he’d made commitments to Scioto Downs and Hazel Park to race his horse and he was honor bound to fulfill those commitments. The toll those races took was apparent on Jug Day.

I was at Lexington the next time Albatross raced and he more than made up for his Jug loss by pacing the two fastest race miles (1:54.4) in history. In the first heat he did so despite jumping leaves entering the stretch and in the second heat he almost went to his knees behind the starting gate. There was no question who was the best on this day.

Still, Stanley Dancer never quite recovered from that devastating loss at Delaware. The crowd reaction clearly bothered him. He vowed he’d never race another horse in the Jug until he could win---and he did just that with Keystone Ore in 1976.

Nansemond’s win in the ’71 Jug was not only the greatest upset in Jug history, but also one of the greatest upsets in harness racing history.

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