Jeffrey Mallet, 72, diesDecember 30, 2022,
Columbus, OH — Jeffrey Mallet, 72, who created one of harness racing’s most electrifying races in history, reportedly died in Venice, Fla., on Nov. 5, 2022.
In October 1984, Mr. Mallet trained and drove Dragon’s Lair to an upset of the undefeated world champion Nihilator at his home track of The Meadows in the inaugural Breeders Crown 2-year-old Colt Pace.
Mr. Mallet had not been active in harness racing for more than 20 years and floated around working with show horses, but no one who followed harness racing in 1984 will forget his orchestration of the triumph by Dragon’s Lair over Nihilator. As writer John Sacco noted in a story in the Washington, Pa., Observer-Reporter newspaper, “It was Freddie at Wembley. Tiger at Augusta. Brady in the Super Bowl. Ali in Zaire.”
But perhaps fellow Meadows-based horseman Mark Goldberg put it better, especially since the race was held in Pennsylvania:
“It was more like Rocky and Apollo Creed,” said Goldberg, who provided pre-racing insight and advice to his friend Jeff Mallet, owner, driver and trainer of Dragon’s Lair. “Nobody thought Rocky could beat Apollo Creed, no matter the circumstances.”
Dragon’s Lair entered the Breeders Crown with 10 wins in 12 starts and the respect of anyone who saw him race, but that was mostly at The Meadows. Nihilator had won the rich Woodrow Wilson Pace at the Meadowlands and had set world records, in addition to being undefeated.
Mr. Mallet, a brash 34-year-old native of Pittsburgh, was often regarded as a young rich kid on The Meadows backstretch who drove an exotic sports car to the barn. His father, Sidney, who owned interests in most of the horses Mr. Mallet trained, was often around. But while the young trainer often boasted about Dragon’s Lair, he also made sure he backed up his braggadocio by preparing his precocious colt for the big race.
“I knew that since the race would be in October, that it would get cold — a lot colder — into the night. For about four weeks leading up to the race, I kept Dragon in the paddock after a race and would go an additional dash in about 2:02.1 so he would be equipped and ready. I thought that was going to help us immensely in going two heats,” Mr. Mallet once explained.
A crowd of about 8,000 packed The Meadows on a cool October evening and stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the track’s apron to watch Dragon’s Lair beat Nihilator in the final heat of the Crown.
The Haughton Stable’s Nihilator won his elim, with Dragon’s Lair finishing second.
In the final heat, Pershing Square left quickly. Nihilator stayed on the rail and Mr. Mallet sent Dragon’s Lair to the top. They were parked to most of the first quarter and when the timer flashed an incredible :26.3, the outcome of the race was definitely uncertain and an upset by Dragon’s Lair appeared unlikely. But Mr. Mallet got a :30 breather for Dragon’s Lair in the second quarter and that made all the difference.
“I figured it was my horse and my track and this was my moment. I really thought Dragon would win the race and I didn’t think anyone would take it away from me,” said Mr. Mallet years later about his driving tactics.
Dragon’s Lair turned in a magnificent 1:54.1 world record mile in defeating Nihilator, who finished third.
In the winner’s circle, with Pittsburgh legends Delvin Miller and Art Rooney presenting the trophy, Mr. Mallet was proud and a bit boastful when interviewed in the winner’s circle, and the crowd loved it: the local underdog had won.
In a 2020 interview with Sacco, Mr. Mallet said, “Dragon’s Lair, as a 2-year-old, gave me the greatest moments of my life in racing. It was an unbelievable moment winning the Breeders Crown with him. It would have been a tough act to follow. Beating a horse like that was such a big deal. Honestly, I never thought I could top that.”
Although his career was defined by Dragon’s Lair, Mr. Mallet’s horsemanship was evident with other horses he trained, among them the stakes-winners Sailing Race and Mostest Yankee.