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Solid Foundation
Monday, November 26, 2012 - Dean A. Hoffman

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It’s long been axiomatic to say that all harness horses in North America trace their ancestry to Hambletonian. After all, he is the “Big Daddy” of harness racing and America’s greatest trotting classic is named for him.

That classic race was begun during the Roaring Twenties (1926, to be exact) and every Hambletonian from the start was won by a descendent of Hambletonian. In 2012, that all changed.

USTA Files
Hambletonian 10 bred an astounding number of mares-all while using live cover, naturally-in the mid-1800s, including one year where he serviced 158 mares

This year’s winner, Market Share, is a son of Revenue S, a Swedish-bred star whose pedigree combines the Franco-American blend which is deemed by many in Europe as the perfect combination for a classic trotter.

Revenue’s  French blood come from his sire Reve d’Udon, winner of the 1989 International Trot at Yonkers Raceway. That male line is exclusively French and goes back to French and British horses from the 1800s before we arrive at the famed Godophin Arabian in the 1700s.

None of this can detract from the legacy of Hambletonian, however. It is all-encompassing in American harness racing and it is one of the oft-told tales in trotting lore.

History tells us that Jonas Seely, a farmer in Chester, N.Y., was waiting for his crippled old mare to foal in the spring of 1849. One day he glanced out at his meadow and saw the mare with the silhouette of a foal at her side.

“William, come here!” he shouted to his hired hand, William Rysdyk. “The mare’s foaled. I can see both of them over there on the hill under the oaks. Come on!”

Rysdyk and Seely began running toward the mare and the newborn. The foal awkwardly ambled at its mother’s side. Seeley said that it was her finest foal.

“Don’t you agree with me, William?” asked Seeley.

Rysdyk was already far ahead of his boss in enthusiasm for the youngster.

“Mr. Seely, that’s the best colt that was ever born in Orange County!” exclaimed Rysdyk.

It was typical of the exaggerations that people often make with young horses, but it was more than just a boast for William Rysdyk. It was a conviction.

He wanted to own the colt. But his resources were limited He expressed his interest to his boss, but Seely wanted to sell both the mare and foal. The price for the package was $150.

That was money that Rysdyk simply did not have. His hopes and his heart plummeted. Seely liked Rysdyk and agreed to come down to $125, take it or leave it. Rysdyk asked to think about it overnight.

It’s rather easy to imagine what William Rysdyk dreamed about that night in 1849. He dreamed about a little bay colt achieving fame. It’s a dream that countless thousands of horsemen have had over the years. William Rysdyk couldn’t have known it, of course, but when he awoke, his dream was about to come true.

He told Seely that he’d pay the price of $125 if he could pay off the purchase price over time. Seely agreed.

It was a deal that led to fame and fortune for William Rysdyk and a role as a footnote in harness racing history for Jonas Seely.

The name Hambletonian, common for that era, was selected for the youngster. Because there was no registry and names were often duplicated, the horse later become known as simply Rysdyk’s Hambletonian or, even later, Hambletonian 10.

Rysdyk exhibited the little guy, who soon was not so little, at the Orange County Fair in New York in the fall of 1849 and again in 1850.  When he was a 2-year-old in 1851, Hambletonian bred four mares. Their owners were not charged a service fee.

Thus began the remarkable breeding career of Hambletonian. He would live for another quarter-century, dying in America’s centennial year of 1876.  By that time he had revolutionized trotting in America, forging an emerging breed from a patchwork quilt of horses with uncertain ancestry.

There was, of course, no such thing as a Standardbred in that era. There was no standard. The mares sent to Hambletonian were simply that: mares. Most were driving or farm mares. Their pedigrees were uncertain, suspect, or simply unimportant.

Yet their offspring showed a remarkable talent for trotting. The offspring of Hambletonian and sons were so dominant, in fact, that they were all the rage. They were the iPhone 5 of their era.

Hambletonian’s best racing son was the fabled gelding Dexter, remembered today as the namesake of a trotting stakes and as being the model for the trotter on the old-time weathervane.

The daughters of Hambletonian were not outstanding race mares, but they were put into production and with the passage of time you began to see Rysdyk’s Hambletonian on both the male and female sides of pedigrees. It was a mark of distinction.

It was his sons that became stallions that carried forth the Hambletonian banner. They include Alexander’s Abdullah, Volunteer, Dictator, Electioneer and Happy Medium. These names mean precious little today, but they were the conduit to a better and more refined trotter in the late 1800s.

William Rysdyk exploited the popularity of his beloved bay horse by breeding him to any mare whose owner could afford the stud fee. This resulted in large books when all breeding was natural cover, of course.

The large books--including one season when he bred 158 mares--also resulted in Rysdyk becoming a very wealthy man. He almost killed the goose that laid his golden egg, however, when Hambletonian was unable to breed toward the end of his life.

By then, of course, his legacy was secure. It roared into the 20th century carried by his sons George Wilkes, Dictator, Happy Medium and Electioneer.

The latter horse was purchased by Gov. Leland Stanford and taken to his Palo Alto Stud Farm in California to serve as a stock horse. In that role he enjoyed dazzling success, siring one champion trotter after another. 

Stanford would not tolerate pacers; if one of his horses showed a proclivity to pacing, the horse was banished by sundown. So it’s ironic that the male line of Electioneer is now represented by Rocknroll Hanover, Bettor’s Delight, Camluck, Art Major and others. They trace through Hal Dale, a foal of 1926 and the sire of Adios, Dale Frost and Good Time.

The Dictator line ultimately became best known for its pacers such as Billy Direct, Tar Heel, Steady Star and others, but this male line has fizzled in recent decades.

The line from George Wilkes became known as the Axworthy male line in the 20th century and accounted for many of the early winners of the Hambletonian Stakes. Trotters from the Axworthy line included Greyhound, Dean Hanover, Nibble Hanover, Titan Hanover, Florican, Hickory Smoke and Sierra Kosmos.

There was a pacing branch of the Axworthy line and it yielded the first three-generation link of Little Brown Jug winners. That started when Knight Dream won the Jug in 1948, his son Torpid won it in 1957, and Torpid’s son Vicar Hanover took home the Jug in 1964.

Alas, the Axworthy male line today is clinging to survival by a thread.

The Happy Medium line led to Peter The Great, a foal of 1895 and in the 20th century his line established dominance among trotters and persistence among pacers.

Two sons of Peter The Great were important links in the chain. Peter Volo leads to Volomite and such top trotters as Star’s Pride, Super Bowl, Nevele Pride, Victory Song, Andover Hall and brothers, and so many more.

Peter Scott’s son Scotland leads us to Speedy Crown and Valley Victory and all the great trotters from that line.

The Peter Scott pacing line is no longer a factor, but the Peter Volo pacing line includes the young stallion sensation Somebeachsomewhere.

USTA Files
Josedale Go Lucky (2) once held the distinction of being the only 2:00 horse that did not trace his male line to Hambletonian 10.

Exception to the Rule

While the truism that all modern harness horses trace to Hambletonian was long accepted, it was not actually true. In fact, one of the most difficult trivia questions in the sport a half-century ago was to name the only 2:00 horse that did not trace its male line to Hambletonian. The horse was Josedale Go Lucky p, 4, 1:58.1, a top-flight performer in the 1960s. His male line traced through the roan outlaw Counterpart to the Tennessee pacing Hals of the 1800s: Eddie Hal, Argo Hal, Brown Hal, Tom Hal Jr and Tom Hal. The only person I found who knew the answer to this trivia question was the pedigree guru Bob Marks of Perretti Farms.


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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.