Batavia, NY --- When he was a young boy growing up in Hilton, New York, about 25 miles from Batavia, it’s doubtful that Ben Webster ever thought he would win a Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug, but during his 47-year career as a harness racing driver that’s exactly what happened.
In the winter of 1957, Benny “the whip” Webster went to work for Earl Cordwell down in Florida. Shortly after the stable shipped up north, the 18-year-old kid from a suburb of Rochester, would go on win his first pari-mutuel race at Buffalo Raceway His first win actually came at age 16 at the Hemlock Fair.
Webster applied his trade on the Western New York circuit until 1965, when he left to race at Yonkers and Roosevelt. He was the leading dash driver at both Batavia and Buffalo before he left.
“I struggled a bit when I got there (New York City) Webster said “but things changed when I hooked up with Skip Lewis.”
Did it ever, Webster become one of the most in demand drivers in what some believe was the greatest driver colony ever. “There were sure some great drivers there,” “guys like Carmine Abbatiello, Buddy Gilmour, John Chapman, Del Insko and Billy Haughton, they were all extremely talented” Webster said. Despite driving against the best in the world Webster went on to win driving titles at both Big Apple tracks.
In 1975 the year before he moved to New Jersey Webster took a 3-year-old named Seatrain to the Little Brown Jug. “I didn’t think he had a chance” Webster said, “in the start before the Jug he had won at Batavia but the horses he beat weren’t Jug quality.” “When owner Lee Benson wanted to go I told him he was crazy”. Well as it turned out Mr. Benson wasn’t crazy after all, Seatrain took the 1975 edition of the Jug.
In 1976 Webster and William Brooks purchased a horse from Stanley Dancer named Oil Burner. “He wasn’t a happy camper when I got him” Webster said “but I made a couple of equipment changes and the rest is history.” Oil Burner went on to win several major races including the Oliver Wendell Holmes and Monticello-OTB Classic. “What I’m most proud of is we got him syndicated for $2.7 million.”
In 1984 Webster won the Hambletonian with Historic Freight for trainer Skip Lewis, “he was a good horse, not a great horse” Webster said, “I think we got a lucky it was a weak crop of 3-year-olds that year.” “I slowed the pace in the final as much as I could early and I knew once I got away cheap they wouldn’t beat him.”
One of the horses Webster is most proud of is Flak Bait. “My girlfriend and I picked him out of the sale but unfortunately I didn’t have the money to buy him.” “We went to a casino the night before the sale and I made enough on the Baccarat table to buy him.” Flak Bait went on to win the 1985 Kentucky Futurity.
Ben Webster retired in 2004 with 4,378 wins and over $43,197, 645 in purse earnings. A huge amount of money considering the purses back in the 1960’s and 70’s weren’t anywhere near as big as they are today.
On Saturday night, September 13, racing fans wanting to go down memory lane only need to be at Batavia Downs Gaming beginning at 5:45 p.m. in the track lobby to meet and greet one of the best the sport of harness racing has ever seen, Benny “the whip” Webster.