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Dawn of Early Speed
Tuesday, October 04, 2016 - by Melissa Keith

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As yearlings are paraded through sales rings across North America, their prospective buyers know it will be months before the blue-blooded babies have an opportunity to display their ability and hopefully make some money.

Yet there was a time when “early speed” meant horses younger than 2 pursuing fast marks, the last of which may stand forever. Rilda Rose time-trialed to the current yearling trotting record of 2:15.1 at Lexington in 1955. The quickest exhibition mile by a pacing yearling (2:14-¾) is a 1939 performance by Royal Lady at Indianapolis.

Leland Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm produced multiple world champions in the late 1800s, but none more unusual than the fillies Hinda Rose and Norlaine. Both set yearling world records at a time when it wasn’t uncommon to break green older horses of unknown pedigree for careers as harness racehorses.

Photo courtesy the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection
Leland Stanford believed that horses should begin training as soon as they were weaned on a miniature "kindergarten" track.

Stanford had different ideas about developing fast trotters. When he first presented them to his trainer, Charles Marvin, the latter horseman was skeptical.

“After endeavoring to give me a clear understanding of the methods he wished followed, he instructed me to train Occident, Edgington and the other horses accordingly,” wrote Marvin. “This was new and rather strange to me, and I am free to say that while I was determined to do the best I could to carry out my employer’s instructions, I had very little faith in the ultimate success of the experiment.”

Marvin had achieved fame by converting a natural pacer named Smuggler p, 2:15-¼ to the trot and then piloting the stallion to world-champion status against rivals like the legendary Goldsmith Maid in the 1870s. Palo Alto, an 11,000-acre racehorse nursery located in California’s Santa Clara Valley, would become a testing ground for its wealthy owner’s radical theories about speed.

The Palo Alto system is at odds with the notion that young trotters (or pacers) require many miles of slow work before reaching their true capabilities. Stanford maintained that the results of his “brush plan” of prepping young trotters—there were no pacers at his establishment—would surpass outcomes from the conventional approach.

Marvin described Stanford’s rationale in his 1890 text, Training the Trotting Horse: A Natural and Improved Method of Educating Trotting Colts and Horses, Based on Twenty Years’ Experience.

“He contended that sending a horse short distances nearly up to his limit but not far enough to tire him, allowing him to get his breath between dashes, he would make speed faster, and do his work with eagerness, spirit and relish,” wrote Marvin.

This methodology was predicated on the idea that speed was in-born, while stamina was something that could be cultivated.

At Palo Alto, wrote Marvin, the objective was “making speed and then conditioning the horse to carry it, rather than drilling him into condition without first teaching him to trot at a high rate.” Stanford’s operation invented and utilized two soft dirt “kindergarten” tracks to give his weanlings an early start in their future vocation. Individual colts and fillies would be urged to trot the perimeter in one of the oval paddocks ringed by a high outer fence and an inner rail. Spectators could observe the early conditioning in action from a covered infield stand.

Developing the yearling would start with four or five one-furlong brushes per session, with an emphasis on keeping the colt or filly interested in its work. After two to three months, Marvin or another of Stanford’s trainers would take the yearling for “six or seven brushes, of about 300 yards, going sharp at some point in each.” The Palo Alto system stressed brief periods of speed-focused work, twice a day “if necessary, until a colt is 2 years old,” but never to the point of exhaustion.

Marvin cautioned his readers about overtraining fast youngsters: “Once a horse develops a high rate of speed, it must be remembered that he cannot stand as much work as one that has not reached high-speeding capacity.”

In 1881, Stanford’s theory yielded the ultimate in early speed, in the form of filly Hinda Rose. She entered “serious training” on July 5, 1881, and debuted Nov. 5 in San Francisco, where the Bay District track offered a set of harness to owners of yearlings willing to send them against the world record in public time trials.

The daughter of Electioneer and renowned producer Beautiful Bells trotted to her first world record of 2:43-½. By Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, she and trainer-driver Marvin lowered the mark to 2:36-½.

The San Francisco Examiner reported that not only had Hinda Rose shaved 20 seconds from the previous all-time yearling record, but her race against the stopwatch left a lasting impression on the huge crowd.

“The spectators knew they were looking at the best colt (sic) the world ever saw,” wrote the author.

The article mentioned former standard bearer So So was still a “phenomenal baby trotter” on the basis of her now-obsolete 1876 world record for yearlings of 2:56-¾. Wagers were made on Hinda Rose’s odds of breaking So So’s record, rather than her chances of beating on-track competitors, since there were none—these yearlings raced purely against galloping “prompters” and time itself.

Hinda Rose’s exploits at age 1 didn’t end her career, although Marvin noted her form at 2 was “unsteady.” In 1883, however, she was undefeated and set a new record for 3-year-olds of 2:19-½ in the third heat of an Oct. 10 stakes race at Lexington. It was infectious illness, rather than the wear and tear of extended campaigning, which would negatively impact the later years of her racing career.

“Distemper left its permanent effect on Hinda Rose,” wrote Marvin.

Unable to withstand much training afterward, she failed in an effort to break the 4-year-old record in 1884, went unraced in 1885, and only made one start in 1886.

Six years after Hinda Rose’s yearling record was established, it was broken. Sadie D. trotted to a 2:35-3/4 mark on Oct. 15, 1887. The Palo Alto Stock Farm issued a swift response.

Photo courtesy the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection
Palo Alto Stock Farm sprawled over 11,000 acres of California's Santa Clara Valley during its heyday in the late 1800s.

“After the news came from Kentucky […] we went to work with Norlaine,” wrote its head trainer.

The yearling selected to “bring the honor back” to her farm was an oddly conformed, “pony-built” filly Stanford had not intended to race until age 2. Norlaine began training twice a day after Sadie D.’s record mile and thrived under the rigorous regimen.

Another precocious filly developed in accordance with the Palo Alto program, Norlaine was bred for early speed in a way Hinda Rose was not. Norlaine’s dam, Elaine 2:20, was a fast but unrateable puller on the track; more importantly, she was a half-sister to Electioneer. That stallion, purchased by Stanford at Stony Ford, N.Y., to stand at Palo Alto, proved himself the era’s top progenitor of what Marvin termed “early and extreme” speed. Electioneer sired Hinda Rose as well as Norval 2:14-¾, sire of Norlaine. A look at Norlaine’s pedigree shows she was inbred 3 x 4 to Electioneer’s dam, Green Mountain Maid, and also 4 x 4 to Hambletonian. Although the record sounds pedestrian by contemporary standards, Green Mountain Maid produced more 2:30 trotters (eight) than any broodmare before her.

The yearling Norlaine succeeded in taking down Sadie D.’s world record on Nov. 12, 1887. She trotted to a 2:31-½ mark in a time trial at San Francisco’s Bay District track. It would prove to be her lifetime best. She was turned out until the following March; when a massive fire broke out in one of Palo Alto’s training stables in April, the star filly Marvin dubbed “the little queen” was among nine top racehorses to perish. All were buried on the farm, which had its equine assets liquidated after Stanford’s death in 1893.

When Norlaine’s yearling mark fell, it was to a filly named Freedom. Within a year, Hinda Rose’s full sister, Bell Bird, would reclaim the title for Palo Alto. On Oct. 21, 1891, Bell Bird trotted her 2:26-¼ mile at Stockton, Calif. The California State Agricultural Society described Marvin’s charge as moving “like a beautiful, frictionless piece of machinery” to a 1:14 half after an early break in the world-record time trial. Her trainer-driver was reportedly “bent on sending her for a mark that youngsters could shoot at for a long time and miss,” yet by the end of the season, three yearling trotters had breached 2:30 and one of them, Frou Frou, had twice eclipsed Bell Bird’s mark.


At Palo Alto’s peak, Marvin encountered horsemen from eastern states who were quick to attribute the success of its young horses to the California climate.

“I have no desire to underestimate the natural advantages of this beautiful State, but I object to all the credit for what we have done—which is mainly due to the blood we have, and our methods of training—being given to ‘climate’,” he retorted in Training the Trotting Horse.  

The trainer added that moving Stanford’s best broodmares and Electioneer to Kentucky or Tennessee would produce even more record-breaking trotters than the Golden State.

There are good reasons why Standardbred yearlings are no longer sent in pursuit of records. The last yearling to formally take a world record did so in 1959: filly F. E. Scott paced to the half-mile standard of 2:15.2 at Blue Bonnets, Montreal. Even with Norlaine, Marvin knew physical and psychological damage could result from chasing advanced speed, particularly within such a brief window.

“In doing this, of course, I took chances of injuring her, and, indeed, of breaking her down,” he wrote. “Had we begun earlier, I could have given her more work, and she could have been developed to a higher point, with little or no risk; but we never allow such considerations to stand in the way when the supremacy of Palo Alto in colt records is at stake.”

An earlier start to training, rather than greater time for maturation before training, was the hallmark of Stanford’s approach. It was a break with the old school, eastern ways of making a racehorse, yet it created the conditions for Palo Alto horses to simultaneously hold the world records for 1- , 2- and 3- year-olds, plus the all-age record, by 1891.

What was once the Palo Alto Stock Farm is now part of the Stanford University property. 2016 marks “Stanford 125,” a commemoration of the university’s establishment by Stanford in 1886. Palo Alto Stock Farm and its namesake training system may be little remembered today, but the ambitious project was a success in its two decades of operation.

In Marvin’s 1890 book, he provided solid proof.

“The best realization of our expectations was that furnished by the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders of deciding to in future bar California colts from their stakes,” he wrote.

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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.