Cranbury, NJ — The famed mile oval of The Meadowlands has now played host to the Hambletonian for 40 years — longer than any of the legendary tracks in its past.
So how did America’s Trotting Classic, nicknamed the “Corn Tassel Derby,” end up in, as Bruce Springsteen sings, the “swamps of Jersey?”
The inaugural Hambletonian at The Meadowlands in 1981 had more twists and turns in the story line than a best seller. Intense lobbying, purse hikes, bells and whistles, media exposure and more lured the trotting classic from its longtime home in bucolic Du Quoin, Ill., to the shadow of New York City.
One would have expected a fancy, expensive yearling with famous connections to capture harness racing’s most coveted trophy in one of the most wealthy and glitzy areas of the world. But it was actually quite the opposite.
The Hambletonian went a long four heats after hours and hours of rain, and the somewhat unlikely victor in the three-horse race-off was a Michigan-bred gelding covered in mud.
Shiaway St Pat, by Tarport Devlin, had earned less than $10,000 at two racing in his home state. His owners and breeders, the Huffs (Robert, Wilbur and Ronald) operated Shiawassee Farm in Durand, Mich., raising horses who mainly competed on the fair circuit in that state.
“We got him in February I think it was,” said driver/trainer Ray Remmen, who also won the very first race at The Meadowlands when it opened in 1976. “He was a very unimpressive individual when he got off the truck. I thought ‘oh boy.’
“It was through mutual friends that we got him to train. Mr. Huff was kind of a gung-ho guy and that’s why they sent him up to the Hambletonian.
“When we started racing him, he was a nice enough horse. We caught a bit of a lighter group (in the Hambo) I think but who knows how good (that group) actually was — it was such a horrible day, which probably worked to our advantage.
“There wasn’t really any pressure. I don’t know that anyone really thought he had a chance of winning the Hambletonian. We knew he’d be competitive but it all came about pretty fast and before you knew it, it was over. “
Shiaway St Pat changed hands and developed some issues over the next few years, finally ending up racing in low level claiming races. In 1988, the gelding was purchased by The Meadowlands, and he returned to the Remmen barn in the summer and would greet visitors to the races from his own small paddock in the park. He also would lead the post parade for the Hambletonian for several years afterwards.
Ray and brother Larry didn’t mind in the least hosting a horse that provided one of their career highlights. Ray only drove in one Hambletonian since then.
“There weren’t trotters where we grew up in (Saskatchewan) in western Canada. I never even thought about being in the Hambletonian. Our main thought growing up was the Little Brown Jug,” he said. “The Hambletonian never entered my mind. I took a little while to realize what had happened. It was a great experience.”