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'If You've Never Been on Your Feet, You Better Get Up Now!'
- By Nicole Kraft

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'If You've Never Been On Your Feet, You Better Get Up Now!’

20 years later, memories of Falcon Seelster still bring chills to racing fans

by Nicole Kraft

The bright Florida sun radiated down on horseman Tom Harmer and his partner, Charles Day, as they watched a young colt enjoy a bath at the Pompano Park Training Center in October of 1984. The clip clop of horse hooves commingled with the showering spray of the hose, as the water’s arc made a rainbow in the fall air.

The colt before them, a son of Warm Breeze, had proven to be an utter failure as a racehorse. He simply would not go forward.

“What do we do with this Warm Breeze colt?” asked Day.

Harmer was silent.

“If we can’t get him to go, we should consider getting rid of him,” Day continued. “Our first loss will be our best. Then we can go on with our lives.”

Harmer still did not respond, and his eyes didn’t leave the colt until he caught on his periphery a fellow horseman walking by. Harmer called him over, and walked over to take the colt’s lead shank from the groom.

“Take this horse,” Harmer said, handing over the lead. “You can have him. For nothing. Just bring me the halter and lead shank, and I will give you the [registration] papers.”

Then he looked over at Day.

“Our first loss is our best one,” he said simply. “Tomorrow we are making money.

“And if I ever buy another Warm Breeze, I want you to shoot me.”

Three months later, in January of 1985, Day was a long way from the Florida sun, laying in a hospital bed at Boston General Hospital awaiting a triple bypass. Harmer flew up for a pre-surgery visit.

“You will never guess what I did,” Harmer said, as the pair chatted under the fluorescent lights of the sterile hospital room. “I bought us a Warm Breeze colt.”

Day looked at him stupefied. “How much did you pay?” he spluttered.

“$65,000,” said Harmer with pride.

“My heart can’t take this!” Day cried. “What are you doing to me?”

Harmer put his hand on his partner’s arm and looked him straight in the eye. “This  one,” he said, “is different.”

Just how different became clear on a fall afternoon later that year when the son of Warm Breeze, named Falcon Seelster, would blow minds and the racing record books with an effort at the Delaware County Fairgrounds that established him as one of racing’s true elite.

Twenty years later, his records may have been broken, but history will never forget the exploits of the Warm Breeze colt from humble beginnings who sent racing to its collective feet and whose mere memory can still send shivers up the spine.

***

There is no way to tell where a champion will be found. Some are homebred from prized mares and stallions. Still others are gleaned from auctions, claiming races and personal contacts. For Tom Harmer, greatness was found in a conditioned pace at Pompano Park—though it wasn’t that easy to spot.

Falcon Seelster, then owned by Francis Belliveau, had come down from Prince Edward Island after winning once and finishing second in two 2-year-old starts. At Pompano he had won his first two starts on the year.

Belliveau had touted the horse, though Harmer felt the $65,000 price tag was steep. Besides, the colt was gangly, with his feet winging out as he paced and his head held unnaturally high. He had a “rat tail,” in Harmer’s eye, and a skinny neck.

“He was not a real pretty horse,” Harmer recalled. “But there is one way to make an ugly horse pretty—have them go fast. The faster they go, the prettier they look.”

Indeed, when Harmer trained the colt, he found that what he lacked in appearance he more than made up for in skill and speed. After Falcon Seelster easily won in 1:58 on Feb. 28, 1985, Harmer decided to take the plunge.

“I knew I might kill Charlie, but I liked the horse,” he said with a laugh. “He wasn’t paid into anything, but I knew we could supplement if he was any good. I thought we could get back our $65,000.”

Outfitted in knee boots, two head poles and a shadow roll, Falcon Seelster raced four times for Harmer in Florida, winning three, before shipping with the stable to the home base of Illinois. He won his first Maywood start in 1:56.1, but lost a week later. Harmer said it was purely pilot error, as the colt shook loose late and finished second to Gold in 1:55.4.

“He never got a clear shot—it was a bad drive,” said Harmer. “I never let him do what he was capable of doing. But I realized that night this colt was special. It took me getting him beat to show how. He was parked most of the mile that day and still came his last quarter in 27.4. He was really good.

“I knew he was what we had been looking for--better than any horse we ever had.”

Harmer and Day were willing to put even more money down to prove their colt’s ability. With a $10,000 supplemental payment, Falcon Seelster’s next engagement became the American-National, split into two $102,000 divisions. The big bay took the lead around three-quarters and did not look back, winning easily by nearly two lengths.

A week later he was supplemented to the Nat Christie Memorial and brought home $100,000 with his 1-1/2 length win, lowering his mark to 1:53.3.

Feeling confident, Harmer and Day paid $40,000 to supplement to the Messenger Stake at Roosevelt Raceway, where Falcon Seelster won his elimination easily, but could only manage a closing third behind Pershing Square in the final.

“Again, it was my fault,” said Harmer, with candor rarely found in reinsmen. “I parked him just about the whole mile. I didn't know if I hurt him, so after that race we brought him home. I didn’t want to leave him far away from me.

“I’ve realized horsemen don’t make champions. They only ruin them. I have ruined enough in my time to know, and I didn’t want to make any mistakes with him.”

After a pair of wins at Sportsman’s Park, Falcon Seelster answered an invitation to Hinsdale, N.H., for the $50,000 State Lottery. It was the furthest he would travel all year—and the worst he would finish.

“It was a terrible drive,” said Harmer of the colt’s sixth-place finish. “The worse thing was we shipped out there with Mr Dalrae, and [his driver] Joe Marsh parked me the whole way. I was so aggravated at myself and at Joe Marsh. He drew inside and thought he could win parking me. I felt so bad afterward.”

And racing got no easier for Falcon Seelster as the next invitation came from The Meadowlands. Its proposal: the chance to race against reining super horse Nihilator.

“[Owner] Lou Guida wanted to showcase his horse on Hambletonian Day, so they set up this $50,000 invitational,” Harmer recalled. “We had heard someone was going to cut [Nihilator] a mile, and then he would pop out and try and break the [1:49.1] world record.

Leaving from post four, Falcon Seelster sat second and pulled out to follow Nihilator just past the half. Though he hung tough, Falcon Seelster could get no closer than two lengths behind his rival, as he finished second when Nihilator crossed the finish line in a world race record of 1:49.3.

“I knew my horse could leave good, so I left out. But when Bill [O’Donnell] came out with Nihilator, I let him go by and I followed him. If I would have come first up and cleared, Nihilator would have been second. My horse was best in the front. But I thought I should let him go. I made a mistake.

“I don’t know if I was intimidated by Nihilator of if I didn’t give my horse enough credit. It was probably a combination of both.”

After a 1:53 wire-to-wire win in a 3-year-old Meadowlands open, the driver again put his colt on the lead in the Ben Slutsky Memorial at Monticello Raceway. Chairmanoftheboard, however, used a pocket trip and won by a nose. A week and another supplement check later, Falcon Seelster was in the Cane Pace, romping to an easy 7-1/2 length win in his elimination heat. Sent off the favorite in the final, Harmer had déjà vu all over again, as Chairmanoftheboard again sat the pocket, and again won by a nose.

“My horse put three horses away--everyone took a shot at me,” Harmer said. “[John] Campbell stalked me with Chairmanoftheboard. Within three steps he was by Falcon, but in two steps Falcon was back by him.

“My horse was a big and clumsy horse. Chairmanoftheboard was a little bitty horse with a wicked burst of speed. He was a pocket rocket, and he got me twice. Falcon got beat up for a couple of quarters, so I was saving him for the final push. While I was saving him, Campbell got me.”

But Harmer had seen the depth of Falcon Seelster, and realized that maybe Nihilator was not the unbeatable champion he appeared to be. Harmer’s plan became to “stalk” the big horse and “beat his brains in” if he could.

Their first stop on the Nihilator tour was the Prix d’Ete. Nihilator was entered, but ended up not racing. That left Falcon Seelster to romp by more than five lengths in 1:53.2.

A week later, Nihilator was headed to the Little Brown Jug, to which Falcon Seelster was neither nominated, nor could he be supplemented. But Harmer had no plans to miss the Delaware dance.

“Charlie Day and I felt we had to showcase him to get his real value,” Harmer recalled. “My idea was that we should go to the Jug and go in the open, and try to break the [half-mile track] world record. At a good track like Delaware, with good weather, I knew my horse could do anything.

“I called the race office and asked if we could enter in the invitational, and go for a world record. I said I wanted to go as close to the Jug as possible, so people wouldn’t say it was the track or the weather was better. I wanted the conditions to be the same so we could be compared to the best horses in the country.”

It was 82 and cloudless, with strains of “Turkey in the Straw” filtering from the infield, as Harmer and his colt stood in the paddock awaiting the call for race 10. Barberry Spur had won the first division of The Standardbred in 1:55.2 a race before. Two Jug elims and the final would follow Falcon Seelster’s effort.

Charlie kept saying. ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ and I said no,” Harmer recalled. “I was excited. I was so looking forward to it.

As Falcon Seelster stood by with a cooler half-way across his back, his ears pricked toward the on-track activity, Day and Harmer went through the desired fractions. The driver planned a 27-second first quarter, and the half around 55 seconds. He hoped to hit the three-quarters in 1:22 and roll on home from there.

“You can’t go that fast!” Day responded. “He’ll be too tired to come home.”

“He won’t be too tired,” Harmer said emphatically. “He thrives on this.”

As groom Ed Kolross pulled the colt’s blanket, Harmer slid into the racebike and was led out of the Delaware paddock and onto the track, as the crowd pulsated around him. Falcon Seelster was barred from the wagering, but that did nothing to decrease the palpable excitement that rippled around the oval. Falcon Seelster rambled by, seemingly oblivious to all the hype.

And then he headed to the gate.

“From that day to this day, when I watch that tape of that race, I get goose pimples,” said Harmer. “To this day, after 20 years, I still get goose bumps when I watch him.”

Leaving from post 3, Falcon Seelster paced strongly off the gate and took the field past the first quarter in 27 seconds, with his seven challengers in close pursuit. By the half in 54.3, the field was still with him—but not for long. Around the third turn, Harmer gave his colt a shake on the lines and yelled at him. Falcon Seelster exploded with speed.

“If you’ve never been on your feet, you better get up now!” bellowed announcer Roger Huston as Falcon Seelster paced past three-quarters in 1:22.4 and entered the lane racing only time itself. He opened up 10, 12, 15 lengths. By the wire, he was more than 20 lengths ahead when he tripped the timer in 1:51--2-2/5 seconds faster than the previous world record held by It’s Fritz.

“He just opened up,” Harmer recalled. “And the more he opened up, the more he was drawing off. He was doing it on his own. His stride at the wire was as good as it was at the three-quarter pole.

“I had never hit him with the whip the whole mile. People asked me why and I said, ‘He was giving me his all. I couldn’t hit him for what he was doing.’ I was just as still as the sea, hand driving him. I was just there for the ride.”

As he headed into the winner’s circle, Harmer was almost pulled off his feet by well-wishers who wanted to hug him in congratulations of the amazing effort. Huston noted to Harmer in their post-race interview, “Your horse wasn’t eligible for the Jug,” and all Harmer could reply was, “It doesn’t matter now.”

“Very seldom do you get something you can be as cocky about as we could about Falcon,” Harmer said, recalling the race. “We were so proud and wanted to share him. We wanted to make a future for him in the breeding barn. It had to be done that day.”

Falcon Seelster had not even been cooled out from his effort when that future came knocking in the form of a paddock phone call from John Cashman of Castleton Farm. Cashman said he wanted to stand Falcon Seelster, and while he knew Harmer had not yet figured on a price for his champion colt, the farm wanted the right of last refusal.

Within six weeks the Falcon Seelster team had inked a deal with Castleton—signed at Windsor Raceway the night of the colt’s Provincial Cup victory—that sold half of the colt to the farm. Falcon Seelster would race through the end of 1985 and then retire to Kentucky. 

After closing out the year with wins at Lexington, Maywood, Mohawk, Windsor and Lewiston, Falcon Seelster’s shoes were pulled after a 1:53.2 victory at Pompano Park on Dec. 14. Cashman and Castleton Farm were now in control of the world’s fastest half-mile-track pacer, and Harmer and his family headed off on vacation to the Florida Keys.

Within three days, Harmer said reflecting on the time before cell phones, “everyone but the state police” were trying to get in touch with the horseman.

Castleton owner Fred Van Lennep, it seemed, had taken another look at Falcon Seelster’s race tapes—and he was more and more impressed with what he saw. With Nihilator moving to the breeding shed at Almahurst Farm, Van Lennep realized that putting Falcon Seelster back on the track for one more season was a more appealing option than retirement. The colt would avoid going head-to-head with his nemesis in the stallion ranks, and would have one more season to further solidify his championship status.

“Mr. Van Lennep figured that if we campaigned him one more year, and could get more track and world records, he could be one of the greatest sires ever,” Harmer said. “If he raced and raced bad, it could ruin a lot of memories, but we thought the memory from Delaware would carry him pretty far.

“All he had to say to me was he wanted to race this horse as a 4-year-old. I said, ‘You don’t have to ask me twice.’”

***

With 11 wins in 18 starts, Falcon Seelster had by any standards a successful 4-year-old campaign. It was not, however, entirely what his connections had hoped.

He lost his first start, a leg of the Presidential Series, and the Presidential final to Lustra’s Big Guy. After winning two legs of the Levy Memorial at Yonkers, he was second in legs at Freehold and Roosevelt, and in the $119,000 final. He lost legs of the Graduate Series at Freehold, Buffalo and Rosecroft—finishing sixth in the latter mile for the year’s only off-the-board showing.

He did, however, reel off a seven-race win streak between May and July, which included a 1:51.3 world record at The Meadows, and a stop in Sacramento, of all places, where he would at least make an assault on the 1:53.1 track record set in 1977 by his father, Warm Breeze, which at the time was the all-age world record. At most, he would use his rocket-like speed over the mile oval to break the current world race mark of 1:49.3 set by Nihilator.

“At this point we were showcasing him,” said Harmer. “If we had good weather, I knew he had the speed to do it.”

But fate was not kind to Falcon Seelster. With Huston at the microphone—having flown in special from The Meadows to call the attempt—the colt went postward in race three of the July 25 card. But the chill that comes with a desert evening descended early on the track, driving the temperatures into the 50s.

The colt paced to tepid fractions of 27.3, 55.4 and 1:23.4, and battled a strong headwind down the stretch. He could muster only a 29.4 final quarter, tripping the timer ahead by 17 lengths in 1:53.3.

To cap it off, he came home with a stifle injury that became most obvious in his next start—a virtual match race with eventual Horse of the Year Forrest Skipper.

The two were the only entrants in a $60,000 leg of the U.S. Pacing Championship, and the race looked to be Falcon Seelster’s to win when he drew the rail. Harmer was parking Forrest Skipper through the first quarter in 27.2 and the half in 54.2 when he felt his colt give up.

“Just before the three-quarter pole his stifle went out, and he pulled himself up,” Harmer recalled. “He was pretty much done.”

Harmer thought the  pacer could rebound with rest, and brought him back for one last try at speed—a Sept. 25 time trial at The Red Mile. But Falcon Seelster was simply not the same horse, and he came home in 31 seconds off a 1:23 three-quarter time and paced in 1:54.

The Falcon Seelster train had finally come into the station for good.

***

When Falcon Seelster arrived at Castleton, he had no shortage of mares following him through the gates of the Bluegrass farm. He welcomed 134 consorts to his court in 1987 and added 111 in 1988. By 1991 he was covering 219 mares, but the results, according to Cashman, were mixed.

“He was a beautiful-looking horse who put out beautiful yearlings, but he was a funny horse,” said Cashman. “He was hot as a firecracker in his first crop, then he fell out of favor. Then he got popular, and fell again. He was a horse that one year would do good, and the next year he would do just ordinary.”

Falcon Seelster’s first crop, foaled in 1988, included the great mare Shady Daisy, a winner of $1.8 million, as well as $500,000 winner Mantese. In 1989 he brought racing the millionaire Falcon Dakota. While his 1990 crop had no real standouts, millionaire Falcons Future came in 1991, as did $600,000 winner Duke Duke and Dawn Q, who won almost $400,000. Trump Casino, a winner of $500,000, came in 1992.

Falcon Seelster was moved to New Jersey in 1993, and though he still bred a good number of mares in two of his next three seasons, he was starting to fall out of favor with breeders and buyers alike.

Enter New Zealand’s Nevele R Stud.

“We were looking for a proven stallion to stand,” recalled Denny Boyle, the breeding farm’s marketing manager. “We started at the top of the sires list in America, working with Bruce Kennedy. For obvious reasons, horses like No Nukes were not available….Falcon Seelster was ninth.

“We were kind of surprised he was for sale, and we couldn’t help but be impressed by him.”

Falcon Seelster was purchased by Nevele R in November of 1995 and exported to Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. Providing a perfect outcross, he bred 272 mares in his first year and 232 the second. By his third year he was up to 371 mares, and it was no wonder. Concurrent with that breeding season, Falcon Seelster’s last exclusively American crop came to the races, and they were a humdinger.

Tucked amid those 162 foals were Shady Character, winner of the 1998 Little Brown Jug and Sealed N Delivered, the top freshman pacer of 1997. He also had $350,000 winner Fire Everybody, $400,000 winner I Married A Witch, and $470,000 winner Mybrowneyedgirl.

“He really came to us just at the right time--when his horses were firing up,” said Boyle.

And Falcon Seelster’s homeland was taking notice. By January of 1998, Perretti Farms of New Jersey had made arrangement to lease the stallion in a dual-hemisphere breeding arrangement, and Falcon Seelster was soon on a plane back home.

In his first season back, he was bred to 130 mares, resulting in 86 foals, including $2 million winner Mcardle, named for Robert McArdle, the owner of Nevele R Stud.

It was, coincidentally enough, John Cashman who was responsible for Falcon Seelster’s richest foal, as it was he who decided to breed the mare Lilting Laughter to the stallion, and later sold the mare in foal to Perretti. Even more appropriately, Lilting Laughter is a daughter of Falcon Seelster’s greatest nemesis, Nihilator, as was Dana L Almahurst, dam of Sealed N Delivered.

Falcon Seelster was back in the U.S.A. in stellar fashion—but his stay was supposed to be temporary.

Notice the phrase “supposed to be.”

Just a year after his arrival, in a routine blood test before exportation, Falcon Seelster tested positive for the highly contagious Equine Viral Arteritis (see sidebar). Now the carrier of communicable disease, he was no longer welcome Down Under.

“We were not very happy, but we worked through it,” Boyce said.

Perretti helped by continuing to provide a home for the aging stallion, who showed no sign of slowing down. Though Harmer described Falcon Seelster as stand-offish—“just do your work and leave him alone”—that attitude had blossomed into blatant hostility during the pacer’s stud career.

“He became very protective of his paddock,” said Perretti’s Bob Marks. “You didn’t turn your back on him. He was more a grizzly bear than a horse, and he would think nothing of savaging someone.”

In 1999 Falcon Seelster bred 122 mares, resulting in 90 foals, the best of which was the $213,731 winner Reach For Eternity. His book, however, was on the decline, as he bred 32 mares in 2000 and 40 in 2001. In 2002 he bred just 39 mares, and it appeared his breeding days might soon be through—when Falcon Seelster’s luck turned yet again.

Through another routine blood test in 2003, it was found that the horse was now EVA negative. He was immediately shipped back to New Zealand, where he remains king of the roost at Nevele R.

“They can change through time,” explained Boyce of the EVA results. “It happens in a number of cases. We kept testing him until it changed. They were pretty skeptical here that he had changed. They made us test him 15 to 20 times, and test-breed mares before he was available commercially.”

Back on the market, Falcon Seelster is still popular with Kiwi breeders, because of his success and longevity.

“His main advantage is that he is a great outcross, and he sires good, sound horses,” said Boyce. “They are not necessarily the juvenile speed horses, but they come through good as 3- and 4-year-olds, and older horses. They are very sound and have very good gate speed.”

Now 23, Falcon Seelster has what Boyle called “a pretty enjoyable life,” although he keeps farm personnel on their toes.

“He gets the best treatment—we are so delighted that he is here,” said Boyle. “He’s very fertile. You’ve got to be careful with him—he’s always been a bit aggressive, but we just handle him carefully. He is the only stallion of eight that we have to be exceptionally careful of, but we can live with that, because he does such a sensational job here. The fact he has no Meadow Skipper blood is an absolute bonus to broodmare owners.”

***

It has been 20 years since the bay streak that was Falcon Seelster went rocketing around the final turn at Delaware, Ohio, on his way to immortality.

Tom Harmer continues to train in Illinois, though his stable has dwindled to a quiet and comfortable size. He has averaged less than 100 drives over the past eight seasons, and it has been 17 years since his barn earned over $1 million.

Charlie Day died Oct. 9, 2002, after suffering a heart attack following a single vehicle accident.

Many horses have come and gone since, and many records have been set and broken. In 1996 Jenna’s Beach Boy came to Delaware for a direct assault on Falcon Seelster’s mark—and paced in 1:49.3. Four days later, Stand Forever paced in 1:49.2 over the same oval. In 1999 it was the grey lightning bolt Jet Laag who flew to a 1:49 record in the Senior Jug. 

Time has moved on for all in racing but, almost without fail, the memory of Falcon Seelster opening up the length of the stretch on his competition still causes goose bumps, just as Roger Huston bellows from the infield announcer’s stand, “If you’ve never been on your feet, you better get up now!”

“It was a moment that could never be repeated from a horse that couldn’t be repeated,” said Harmer. “Everybody I see tells me they remember Falcon. They ask me to tell them about that Jug day. Everyone was there on that Jug day, to hear them tell it.

“And they all saw perfection.”

 


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