Columbus, OH ---Last night was the twentieth anniversary of the March of Dimes Trot, surely one of the greatest harness races in recent decades.
I once asked myself, “If you could go back and see just ten races that you’ve seen, which ones would they be?”
The March of Dimes made that list, and it was the only one heat race on my personal Top 10.
It was a race that almost didn’t happen and only the efforts of many prominent people in the sport made it happen. In fact, many people, including yours truly, contributed sums large and small, to help defray the expenses and purse money.
I went to Sweden in May, 1988 to see Mack Lobell astonish European trotting buffs by making their best horses look commonplace as he won the Elitlopp in record time. I remember Tom Sexauer, a German journalist, congratulating me after the race by saying, “He’s like a horse from another planet.”
I wasn’t sure why Tom was congratulating me after the race because my name surely wasn’t on Mack’s registration papers, but on that day in Sweden, Mack was America’s horse.
When I said that Mack beat the best of Europe, I should have added that there was one exception. He had not beaten Ourasi, the latest in a long line of French trotting monsters. The French generally don’t like heat races such as the Elitlopp and they don’t really like sprints of just one mile. So while Ourasi won the Prix d’Amerique four times, he never started in the Elitlopp.
After Mack’s win, talk of a race pitting Mack vs. Ourasi began to surface. The first figure for a purse that I recall was $4 million and it was to be linked to the March of Dimes charity. Then problems began to emerge with the sponsorship and the funding.
That’s perhaps a gross understatement and the chicanery involved is probably worthy of a thriller novel. It seemed that the race would remain forever a fantasy, but it came to fruition and was slated for Garden State Park on November 18.
Mack was ready. Ourasi was coming from France. To many people, nothing else mattered. Finally, they would meet. Finally, we would see the clash of the titans. Everything seemed to favor Mack. He was on American soil and Ourasi had to endure the ship across the ocean. And the one-mile distance favored the American-bred speedsters.
The supporting cast included:
The foreign horses were stabled in a quarantine section at Garden State and I recall visiting them prior to the race. A Swedish journalist had told me to be sure to study Ourasi up close and I was amazed when I saw how “ripped” (using the current vernacular) that he was. Ourasi looked like an equine Atlas.
I also recall legendary Swedish horseman Stig H. Johansson putting pads and shoes on his horse Napoletano. To me it was amazing that a trainer of his stature was shoeing the horse himself.
The crowd that night at Garden State was certainly not huge, and I’m quite sure there were more Europeans than Americans present.
I’m not a big plunger at the pari-mutuel windows, but I decided to place a substantial (for me) bet on the race. I just kept remembering how good Sugarcane Hanover had been at Garden State two years earlier when he was in the Breeders Crown and Shamrock there, slapping down Royal Prestige. Maybe this was a case of “horses for courses,” I thought; I certainly knew Sugarcane was at his best when there was a long stretch.
Mack drew inside and easily went to the front at the start with Stig H. Johannson dropping Napoletano on his back in the middle of the first turn.
Sugarcane Hanover left in the middle of the pack and was outside around the first turn with Ourasi, not a fast starter, behind him. Just past the quarter, driver Gunnar Eggen shot Sugarcane to range up and challenge Mack.
But Eggen really had no intention of challenging Mack. What he was doing was issuing an engraved invitation for Jean-Rene Gougeon, driver of Ourasi, to make a three-wide move around Sugarcane.
Eggen knew that Ourasi had to take the race to Mack early and that Gougeon would not be content to sit and wait until the stretch. Gougeon took the bait and followed Sugarcane’s three-wide glide path down the backstretch, clearing near the half. Go Got Lost followed Ourasi.
Eggen now had want he wanted: cover from Ourasi. Mack’s trainer Chuck Sylvester told me he had what he wanted, too: a horse to keep Mack’s mind on trotting.
Ourasi stalked Mack through a tepid third quarter, allowing Go Get Lost to sustain his three wide challenge and trap Sugarcane.
In the stretch, Mack and Ourasi went to war. The game little American and the relentless big French monster were going all they could go and both drivers were asking them for more. They gave more.
Just as Ourasi wedged his way past Mack with maybe 30 yards to go, Sugarcane came flying with momentum and nipped Ourasi.
It was Sugarcane, Ourasi, and Mack. They each trotted magnificent races and covered themselves with everlasting glory with their efforts.
After the race in the drivers’ locker room, I recall seeing French driver Gougon walk past me with a triumphant look. He was beaten, but it seemed to me that he thought he’d met his goal. He came to America to show that Ourasi was a better horse than Mack Lobell and he’d demonstrated that. The fact that Sugarcane beat both of them seemed immaterial.
I watched the race from the roof of the Garden State grandstand and was just numb with excitement after the finish. In fact, a friend from Finland nudged me and said, “You won a lot of money.” As I recall, Sugarcane went off at something like 13-1 and, yes, I had reason to celebrate.
The world of trotting had reason to celebrate that race. The March of Dimes Trot was international trotting competition at its finest.
Editor's Note: To watch a video of the March of Dimes trot, click here.