Backtrack, a USTA newsroom feature that will look back at memorable races and performances, will appear Tuesdays and Fridays in April.
Hightstown, NJ — On Sept. 23, 2010, Rock N Roll Heaven dominated the Little Brown Jug with a historic and still unparalleled performance. The colt won his first Jug heat in a world-record-equaling 1:49.2 and returned later in the afternoon to sweep the event by winning the second heat in a duplicate 1:49.2. It was the first time in history a horse won twice on the same day with sub-1:50 miles.
There have been 27 Little Brown Jug miles since Rock N Roll Heaven’s victory a decade ago and only twice has 1:49.2 been equaled or bettered. Wiggle It Jiggleit won his first heat in 2015 in 1:49.2; Betting Line won the second heat in 2016 in 1:49.
Rock N Roll Heaven’s trainer Bruce Saunders recently looked back at that memorable day and memorable year for his colt.
Rock N Roll Heaven’s seven rivals in the second, and final, heat of the 2010 Little Brown Jug were (in alphabetical order) Classic Rock Nroll, Doc’s Yankee, Dreamlands Art, I’m Gorgeous, Piece Of The Rock, Razzle Dazzle, and Rockin Image. One More Laugh was scratched.
“He beat a very nice bunch of horses,” Saunders said. “People want to say they weren’t that good, but if the race went in (1):50 and a piece or (1):51, it would have been a very competitive race. The fact Rock N Roll Heaven was up to going (1):49 and a piece, and came home as quickly as he did, dwarfed the other horses’ ability that particular day.
“It made the race fairly boring as far as competition was concerned, but it wasn’t boring for us.”
Rock N Roll Heaven won four of his first five races in 2010, including the Berry’s Creek and New Jersey Sire Stakes championship before a costly blip in a division of the Burlington Stakes at Mohawk. Racing in heavy fog, Rock N Roll Heaven got the lead on the backstretch but was frightened by a light on the infield’s half-mile timer and went off stride.
He had to qualify three days later to compete in the North America Cup eliminations. He won his qualifier in 1:52 and four days after won his Cup elim in 1:48.4. In the North America Cup final, he finished fourth.
“He scoped full of pus and mucous,” Saunders said. “I think he was definitely the best horse in the North America Cup. In my mind, it was that extra (1):52 mile he had to go in the middle of the week that stressed his immune system enough that he wasn’t on his game for the final. It was what it was.”
Rock N Roll Heaven bounced back with a win in his Meadowlands Pace elimination, then finished second by a head to One More Laugh in the final after battling for the lead through hotly contested early fractions. A second-place finish by a head to Rockin Image in the Oliver Wendell Holmes followed, but the colt would not lose again the rest of the season.
He captured the Battle of the Brandywine in a stakes- and track-record 1:48.4 over a rain-soaked “good” surface at Harrah’s Philadelphia and then headed to Delaware, Ohio, for the Little Brown Jug.
LITTLE BROWN JUG DAY
In his first heat, the first of three Jug eliminations, Rock N Roll Heaven started from post two and was third for the first quarter. On the second turn, driver Dan Dube sent Rock N Roll Heaven on his way and the colt powered to a three-length win over Razzle Dazzle in 1:49.2, equaling the world record for a 3-year-old pacing colt on a half-mile track set by Somebeachsomewhere at Flamboro Downs in the 2008 Confederation Cup final.
Classic Rock Nroll won the second elim in 1:50.4 and I’m Gorgeous won the third in 1:50.2.
When the field was set for the second heat, Rock N Roll Heaven again started from post two. This time, Dube only waited to come off the first turn to move Rock N Roll Heaven to the front. He was not threatened from there, winning by 2-1/4 lengths over I’m Gorgeous, again in 1:49.2. He paced the second half of the race in :53.4 and final quarter in :26.2.
Rock N Roll Heaven’s two-heat time of 3:38.4 established the world record, lowering the former time of 3:40.1 set by Shadow Play in the 2008 Jug. Wiggle It Jiggleit is the only Jug winner to threaten Rock N Roll Heaven’s mark, missing by a fifth of a second in 2015.
“Winning the Jug was an unbelievable experience; it was sensational,” Saunders said. “I guess as races go, there were far more exciting ones in the Jug than Heaven’s dominant win in 2010, but his performance may not be beat for a while. His last half in the last heat, home in :26.2, without being contested was pretty remarkable.”
To view a replay of the race, click here.
Following the race, Saunders told reporters, “I’ve been reluctant to call him a great horse, but he is a great horse.” Looking back at that comment, Saunders said, “I aspire to Tim McGraw’s song, ‘Humble and Kind.’ I think it’s best to be humble, be kind, to your competition. But once (Rock N Roll Heaven) got to that level, I think he established himself. It wasn’t braggadocious, it was more just a statement of fact.”
The atmosphere at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, where fans visit with the horses in the Jug Barn in the days preceding the race and 48,118 showed up for Jug Day, made Rock N Roll Heaven’s victory even more memorable.
“The two or three days when you’re there, it’s kind of like an out-of-body experience,” Saunders said. “You go through doing what you’ve got to do (to prepare) and try to accommodate all the people that come by to see the horse to make sure it’s a great experience for them as well as you.
“Like most horses, he loved the attention. Horses love to be looked at and spoken to, they know when they’re the focus. That whole aspect of it was very rewarding. The fans there love the game, they love the horses, and love the winner. To put in that kind of effort was special.”
Rock N Roll Heaven won his remaining seven starts following the Little Brown Jug on his way to U.S. Horse of the Year honors. Five of those victories were by at least three lengths and the triumphs included the Breeders Crown, Tattersalls Pace, Messenger Stakes, and Matron Stakes.
For the year, he won 16 of 21 races and earned $2.15 million. He paced a record 11 sub-1:50 miles, with victories in 1:49.2 or faster on every size racetrack — half, five-eighths, seven-eighths, and mile. The colt, a son of Rocknroll Hanover out of Artistic Vision, was owned by Frank Bellino and bred by Steve Stewart, Charles “Cotton” Nash, Julie Nash, and Francene Nash.
In 2017, Rock N Roll Heaven was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
“He was an unbelievable horse in so many regards,” Saunders said. “One of the remarkable attributes he had was that he could pace away from a field of horses any time during the mile. In the middle part, the first part, from the top of the stretch home; if he was fresh, he could just sprint away from horses. And a lot of them stood on their toes trying to keep up with him.
“To get a horse that is Horse of the Year is pretty spectacular. He was special.”
At the end of the 2010 campaign, The Meadowlands Racetrack produced a video looking at Rock N Roll Heaven’s season, which can be viewed here.