Harrisburg, PA --- Walter “Radar” O’Reilly of M*A*S*H fame was from Ottumwa, Iowa -- a fact I was reminded of yesterday in noting the passing of Iowa Harness Hall of Fame horsemen Emett Liles, as the USTA obituary cited the Ottumwa newspaper.
Actually, the USTA did a good job of rewrite in one spot as the Ottumwa paper said Liles “won many driving titles,” while the USTA amended that to “many national UDR titles.”
But among figure filberts like me, the term “winning many UDR titles” about Emett Liles is like saying that Tiger Woods is a good golfer who has won many championships. Emett Liles was the gold standard of the Universal Driver Rating system in his heyday, winning seven times in the 100-299 starts category (remember the length of the Iowa and environs racing calendar, and that this was a man who thought Quad City and Springfield, Ill., were a good-sized ship for him).
His seven titles puts him tied for third in the all-time annals, even with Bill Davis, the British Columbia flash who is proving his siring credits with son Bill Jr. on the WEG circuit, and one behind a fellow from New Jersey named Stanley Dancer, who won seven of his octet of titles in a row from 1962 to 1968. (We’ll get to the other fellow who has won eight titles in a little bit.)
Liles won his last title in 1992, and set a mark that may be uncatchable -- a seasonal UDR of .743, with 105 starts, 66 wins (a 63 percent win percentage!), 15 seconds and 11 thirds. So what if his driving earnings were just a hair under $40,000? That kind of consistency is mind-boggling -- and came after a “slow start” to Liles’s 1992 season: he had a rating of “only” .444 on June 21 after racing at Eldon Iowa.
But then came amazing streaks of victory, topped by his an eight for eight sulky performance at Keosauqua, Iowa on July 19 (where a year earlier he set a track record that still appears in the Trotting & Pacing Guide). He might have swept that nine-heat card if he wasn’t a “colt man” as the only race he didn’t take was the Open Pace for older horses.
He won seven of seven drives during a three-day meet at Kahoka, Mo.; seven of eight in three days the second time the circuit went through Eldon; and eight for nine over three days at Sedalia, Mo.
Liles also had seasons of .604 in 1991 and .610 in 1985. They are three of only six postings of .600-plus UDRs since 1968, when a Pennsylvania horseman won the first of his five UDR crowns with a “mere” .558 -- he would better that in 1977 with a .605 (during which his stable’s Bedford Spirit posted 27 wins in 28 starts, still the record for victories for a 2-year-old trotter) and a .645 in 1979.
This Pennsylvania horseman, of course, was named Clay Hammer. And the reason I left you hanging a couple of paragraphs above about who else besides Stanley Dancer had eight UDR titles was, of course, because it is Roger Hammer, Clay’s son, who is still going full-blast and in fact equaled Stanley just this past year. The Hammers joined Gene and Bruce Riegle (UDR) and Don and Daryl Busse (wins) as the only fathers and sons to both win major driving championships.
And there lies one last irony, in that while Roger Hammer won the 300-499 drives category last year, the top figure in the 100-299 starts category was the .642 (that “missing” sixth .600 that sharp readers may have noted) posted by Gary Liles, Emett’s nephew!
Not quite father and son, but as Emett Liles’s life neared the finish line, it must have been a source of happiness for the man whose .743 may live forever.
Hope he’s watching good colts train down, and drinking a Grape Nehi.
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