Some of the most interesting races in harness racing have come when a heavy favorite tasted defeat. Here are just a few of the more interesting upsets in harness racing history.
1984 Breeders Crown at the Meadows Raceway in Pennsylvania: In this race Nihilator would taste defeat for the very first time in his illustrious career, losing to home-track favorite, Dragon’s Lair. The established powerhouse barn—the Haughton stable—vied against the relatively unknown stable of trainer Jeff Mallet. Dragons Lair would hold off Nihilator, with Broadway Express rallying for the place spot, in a world record time of 1:54.1.
As a matter of fact, in the only three races that Nihilator ever lost, it took a world record EACH time to beat him—Marauder in 1985 at the Adios and Armbro Dalls in 1985 at Garden State Park in the Pilgrim. The loss in the first ever Breeders Crown undoubtedly cost Nihilator Horse Of The Year honors, an award that went to Fancy Crown. The final irony to this story is that a couple of years ago Jeff Mallet went to work as a trainer for—you guessed it—the Haughton stable!
1980 Woodrow Wilson at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey: Longshot Land Grants wins. Slapstick came into history's first $2 million test undefeated and was sent off at 4/5 odds despite post 10. Land Grant was sent off at 69.90 to the dollar, the fourth longest shot in the field (Mannart Full Speed 99.20-1, Surmo Hanover 86.40-1 and Joe G Hanover 75.60-1).
Del Insko passed them all with Land Grant in the 30.4 final quarter (1:56.4 mile) while Slapstick, enduring a tough journey, could manage just fifth. Finishing in between them were Armbro Wolf in second, Neros BB in third and Areba Areba in fourth. She was the only filly in this event, and remains to this day the only female to ever earn a paycheck in a $2 million race.
There would be just one more $2 million test in the sport, the 1984 Wilson which went for a record $2,161,000. Abe Stoltzfus, Ben Webster and Bill Popfinger have the distinction of being the only three drivers to have appeared in BOTH.
1980 Meadowlands Pace Elimination: Niatross broke stride briefly, then recovered to finish fourth and earn a berth in the final. This break came just one week after he had fallen over the low hub rail at Saratoga, where he suffered his very first career defeat. The Pace elimination made it two defeats in a row for the champion pacer. Trainer-driver Clint Galbraith to this day calls that fourth place finish by Niatross the greatest of all his races. The son of Albatross was never to lose again, and he dominated the following week in the Meadowlands Pace, demolishing his competition in track record time. 1:53.1.
1995 Hambletonian elimination: CR Kay Suzie, sent off at 10 cents on the dollar, with the whole world assuming that Suzie would automatically make the historic final. But nearing the half she broke stride, and with it, the hearts of the Allen clan who were so close to Hambo glory. CR Kay Suzie did recover and valiantly closed for sixth in that elimination, but that was just one spot too far back to make the final that Tagliabue would claim as his.
Suzie's break was not typical as she would storm back and take the World Trotting Derby and be voted the Horse Of The Year. It is almost impossible to race in the Hambo, not win it, and be named Horse of The Year. Eleven months later CR Kay Susie took revenge again in the Breeders Crown with a dominant victory. But for pure upsets, C R Kay Suzie's break and ultimate elimination from the 1995 Hambo final is one of the most memorable defeats ever.
1992 Woodrow Wilson Final: Presidential Ball, racing for the Bill Robinson Stable and driver Jack Moiseyev was the favorite at 60 cents to the dollar. But Americas Pastime was able to edge out the champion freshman in the final strides and upset Presidential Ball in 1:51.4 at 18-1. Presidential Ball went on to have an amazing career, considering the fact that in the two Breeders Crowns he competed in, they were the only two races ever where he missed the board—yet he still banked over $3 million career!
1998 Aquarius at the Meadowlands: Red Bow Tie was the hot horse of the moment who just three months earlier had been plucked out of Harrisburg as his three-year-old season was winding down. From there he proceeded to set the world afire. Driven by John Campbell, the son of Raging Glory was ready for the Aquarius sweep, and was sent off at 10 cents to the dollar. But he was not himself that night, and finished a well-beaten fifth in 1:52.
Two entries defeated him that night—trainer Ross Croghan finished first and second with Red Star Longshot and Yankee Cam, while conditioner Bruce Saunders was third and fourth with Burn That Bridge and Manificent. Red Bow Tie would more than make up for that loss, and remains today the only horse to win the Breeders Crown in consecutive seasons BOTH via the supplemental route.
1998 Su Mac Lad at the Meadowlands: Just after Red Bow Tie was defeated in the Aquarius,another horse was defeated at the same price! For the first and only time in Meadowlands history, there were 1-9 shots in back to back races (early double), and they both lost!! Supergrit was riding high, having not only won all three legs of the Su Mac Lad (1:54.4, 1:55.1, 1:57.2) but all his other races too. But Yentl’s Iceman and Super High Test would have something to say about this, and they were 1-2 on the wire in this 1:55 mile, the top trio separated only by a neck. Supergrit would go on to a million dollar plus career, a Breeders Crown win and would more than make up for the one night miscue.
1989 Breeders Crown at Freestate Raceway: Mack Lobell was looking for his fourth straight Breeders Crown victory, and the fans certainly thought he would do it. Sent off at 20 cents on the dollar odds, the old Mack Lobell never did kick in. He wound up third to Delray Lobell (14-1) and Red Rhone (6-1). But here’s the kicker….the winning Delray Lobell was driven by John Campbell and owned by Lou Guida—the former connections of Mack Lobell. At this time Mack had been sold to overseas interests, and was no longer in their hands or the hands of trainer Chuck Sylvester. Mack would go on to bank over $3.9 million, and gave harness fans memories that will last a lifetime—that is why any loss by Mack, especially in a Crown, would be magnified.
1987 Tarport Hap at the Meadowlands: Most don't remember this one. But it was significant for a couple reasons. Jolibea Hanover won this for Ben Webster and trainer Larry Summer, and her 1:52.4 was a track record at the time for sophomore filly pacers. No Smoking was second and La Toya third. But it was the fourth place finisher that made this a memorable event. Her name was Pacific. George Steinbrenner owned the free-legged filly pacer and Tom Harmer drove and trained her. She had dominated in the Mistletoe Shalee, and everyone thought she'd do the same here. She had over $340,000 on her to show in the Tarport Hap, and it marked the biggest show pool in Meadowlands history where the favorite finished off the board.
1991 Meadowlands Pace: Artsplace was beaten by Precious Bunny. How can a horse who would go on to become Horse Of The Year be considered an upset? Well, at the time, Artsplace looked invincible. He had not yet lost a race as a 3-year-old and most remembered his unreal Breeders Crown effort of 1:51.1 at Pompano on November 30 of 1990.
Artsplace was the kind of horse you don't see very often, and even though Precious Bunny was razor sharp, the fans still said "not yet." But they were wrong. It was not only the first ever sub-1:50 mile at night (1:49.4), but it was the way he did it. Precious Bunny uncorked a move past the half to take the top, the speed of which is the stuff of legends.
Horses weren’t supposed to pass Artsplace that way, let alone win. But Precious Bunny did.