The event is a precursor to the busy Ohio Sires Stakes season that will get underway the following weekend at the historic half-miler in southwest Ohio.
I’m quite sure that many of the trainers, drivers and owners of the Hackett finalists never knew Jim Hackett and don’t fully understand why a race is named in his honor.
I knew Jim Hackett all my life and worked as a groom for him while I was in college. He was a longtime friend of my family, and my father served as executor of his estate.
So often when races are held as memorials to a person, the identity and contributions of that person get lost over the years. After all, it’s been 43 years since Jim Hackett died while driving a race at Latonia Raceway (now Turfway Park) in northern Kentucky.
|Dean A. Hoffman photo|
|Jim Hackett with Best Of All in 1966 at Lexington. He drove Best Of All to victory in the Jug the next year.|
That was just three years after Jim drove Best Of All to victory in the Little Brown Jug. That was a much different time and much different era in harness racing. But great horsemen are great horsemen in any era and there’s no question that Jim Hackett was a great horseman.
There’s also no question that Jim Hackett was not a great race driver. In his era, however, a trainer drove the horses in his care. There were some horsemen who were both great trainers and drivers but there were also horsemen who could train a horse with exceptional skill but lacked comparable talent when driving. Jim fell into that category.
I often wonder how much better his horses would have fared if Jim trained today when catch drivers are usually on the racing end.
Jim hailed from a family with deep harness racing roots in the town of London, Ohio, just southwest of Columbus. London and the surrounding Madison County is a real harness hotbed and Jim learned much of his basic horsemanship from the fabled W.N. “Doc” McMillen.
But when Jim was a young man, Uncle Sam called for him to fight in World War II and he served bravely, being awarded numerous medals as the sole survivor in his platoon in the Pacific.
Jim Hackett was never a squeamish man, but he did not relive his war heroics. In fact, I only heard him talk about it once. That was in 1967 when I was fresh out of high school and having dinner in Springfield, Ill., with Delvin Miller and Hackett. Delvin, also a World War II vet, asked his buddy what had happened during that fateful firefight where so many of Jim’s fellow soliders died.
Jim said simply, “I don’t know how I made it, but I did.” That was the end of the conversation. Some memories are too painful to recall.
In the early 1950s, he became the trainer for the private stable of Cincinnati meat packer Sam Huttenbauer. Hackett’s talents in selecting and developing young stock became apparent.
In 1954, he raced Prince Victor, one of the favorites in that year’s Hambletonian. Two years later, Prince Victor won in 1:58.1 at The Red Mile. Believe it or not, that was then the fastest race mile ever at the hallowed harness track and lasted until broken seven years later by Speedy Scot.
In 1954 Jim won a heat of the Jug driving Queen’s Adios and then won a heat of the Jug again in 1961 with Lang Hanover.
In 1965, he purchased a lithe yearling from the Walnut Hall Farm consignment. The colt had been caught in a fence and ripped off part of his mane before the sale, but Jim had seen him on the lead strip at the farm and loved him. That colt’s name was Best Of All and he would give Jim his greatest thrill when he won the Jug in Delaware, just 35 miles up Rte. 42 from Jim’s hometown of London.
Best Of All often faced a three-horse entry from the Billy Haughton Stable that consisted of Romulus Hanover, Nardins Byrd and Meadow Paige. I truly believe that Best Of All was the most talented of that quartet but I also knew that the other colts were driven by reinsmen-- Haughton, Del Insko and John Chapman -- with skills far superior to Jim’s.
When Best Of All was a 4-year-old, Jim was suspended for an infraction in New York. That was when suspensions were enforced immediately and Jim was not able to drive Best Of All in his next start. Bobby Williams was selected to drive and Best Of All seemed to find new speed; Jim Hackett never drove Best Of All again.
He continued to train Best Of All and was proud when Best Of All retired with more 2:00 race miles than any harness horse in history. He was voted 4-year-old Pacer of the Year in 1968 and went to stud at Hanover.
Jim died in the summer of 1970 at age 52, but he left behind many people who admired his ability and who smiled at the many humorous anecdotes that friends shared about Jim.
He was unquestionably most respected by his colleagues in the fraternity of trainers. So many times they had seen him go to a yearling sale, spot potential in an overlooked prospect, and develop that horse into a stakes performer.
It’s most fitting that Jim Hackett is remembered with a race in Ohio for Ohio-sired pacers because Jim was one of the very best horsemen ever from the Buckeye State.
The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.