by Ellen Harvey, Harness Racing Communications
Editor’s Note: Waco Hanover, a son of Tar Heel-Wanda Hanover, born May 4, 1977, will officially be 38 on Jan. 1. He’s among 43 horses of distinction featured in Standardbred Old Friends, available on Amazon, Ebay, and the Harness Racing Museum website. His long life has been one of quiet service. Here is an excerpt, with photos by Barbara Livingston, of his chapter in the book.
Everett Kettler quickly spotted the new horse’s problem. “He had a real attitude problem,” he said. “Sour. He was very sour.”
Waco Hanover, now 37, was six when Kettler bought him for $1,500 in 1983. The gelding had raced for four years, most recently for Nelson Haley, in $2,000 claimers at Saratoga Raceway. In 57 starts, he’d won only four races.
Kettler had just what Waco Hanover needed, a farm in Woodbury, Vt. “I let him be a horse,” Kettler said. “He ate grass, ran around with mares.”
Waco was more teacher than pet to Kettler, more accustomed to coaxing sound from strings than speed from a horse. Kettler was a luthier, a craftsman of stringed instruments.
“He taught me how to drive,” Kettler said. “I didn’t know anything. He wouldn’t respond if you didn’t do the right thing.
“I had a tiny track, not good for anything but jogging. Before that, I was driving on the road, going through horseshoes every two weeks.”
Every spring, from 1983 to 1991, Kettler legged up Waco Hanover. They raced at places like the Tunbridge World’s Fair in Vermont, featuring maple ice cream, an oxen costume class and the world’s narrowest racetrack. It fits four horses across, but they’d better be narrow horses.
“My God, it’s scary,” Kettler said. If you don’t get down to three (wide) by the turn, you’re going in the river.”
Waco Hanover won at Tunbridge his first year for Kettler, a mile in 2:15.2, an impressive time if you’ve seen the track.
In the late 1980s, Kettler integrated his hobby and business. He founded Rough Terrain Carts and started building horse-drawn carts for country roads — or no roads. Waco tested prototype carts.
“It had these big, wooden wheels,” said Kettler. “Waco looks over his shoulder and starts freaking. I put it over his rump, touched him with the shafts. It was like he said, ‘Oh, you want me to pull it.’ You could see the light bulb go off.”
“I got into endurance driving events,” Kettler said. “I used that to put his legs under him in the spring, then I’d go off and race him.”
“He cleaned up in a couple of them,” Kettler said. “I remember his first race. Well, it’s not a race, an event. I didn’t want two in the cart, but I was looking at five miles to go, and I thought this is nothing, absolutely nothing. My wife got in, and we must have passed 15 horses. They must have wondered what kind of monster is this?”
The seasons turned with Waco resting in winter and legging up on country roads in spring. Kettler and Waco raced for a few hundred dollars from New York to Maine.
Most years they won a race. That was nice but not essential, or, in Waco’s mind, perhaps, wholly unnecessary. “I think he’s the age he is and the shape he’s in because he knew he’d still get fed, no matter what,” Kettler said.
In 1991 Waco Hanover turned 14. That season, his 11th, spanned three weeks; he earned $1,350. All that work for so little money would be worth it, Kettler thought, if they could win at Tunbridge.
“The main goal was to get a couple of races under him and win the 14-year-old race at Tunbridge,” Kettler said.
The purse was $210. The date was Sept. 13.
“It was funny,” Kettler said. “Well, funny to me, anyway. We got there, and there were only two horses in it.”
The other 14-year-old was Luke Hanover, owned and trained by Dale Allen. Luke and Waco Hanover were born and raised at Hanover Shoe Farms. Luke Hanover hadn’t raced in two years.
“This guy’s kind of like me. He must keep pets around, because the horse hadn’t been trained at all,” Kettler said. “He just hitched him, made sure he could still go and put him in this race.
“He told me, ‘This horse hasn’t trained at all. Don’t leave me too far behind.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I think he’s going to the front and never looking back.
“Turns out it was the truth. I followed him a few feet and went to the front. I let Waco go at about the three-quarter-mile mark. I learned a long time ago not to look back. We won by the length of the stretch. Waco had a great cheering section.”
The cheering stopped, but Waco stayed busy. In 1991, Kettler and Leslie Bancroft Haynes formed a personal and professional partnership. Their first order of business was buying a farm.
Called Rough Terrain Farm, after Kettler’s cart business and Vermont’s topography, it accommodated Haynes’ pleasure horses and Kettler’s racehorses.
“The farm had a track,” Kettler said. “It wasn’t exactly flat, parts of it were flat. I had a trotter and when I was breaking him, I used Waco to help, to have another horse out there to give him the idea.”
Haynes trained carriage driving horses on her half of the farm.
“I used Waco for that, too, to teach the young ones,” she said. “When you put the harness on him, he was like, ‘Yes, I get to go!’ I think if you put a harness and a jog cart on him now, he’d be the happiest guy in the world.”
Haynes’ and Kettler’s relationship ended when Waco Hanover was 28, but their commitment to the horse endures. Kettler moved to Vermont’s Champlain Islands to build boats. Haynes and Waco remain at Rough Terrain.
Kettler’s section of the farm is leased to the Vermont Technical College Equine Studies program.
“The barn where he lives is the Co-op Barn. Kids who bring their horses to school board there,” Haynes said. “It’s called Waco’s Barn, because everybody knows that when Waco dies, Everett will sell his share of the farm. But as long as Waco is alive, he promised Waco he could live his days out here.”
Donnie MacAdams, who sports a bushy white beard and a no-nonsense personality, lives above the barn and looks after Waco.
“I’m an old dairy farmer and still believe horses are hay burners. But I’ve come around as far as Waco. We get along because we’re a couple of old, cranky, miserable bastards. We understand each other.
“I get out of my truck and walk toward the barn, and he starts walking to me. If I don’t come right out and speak to him, he’ll start kicking.”
There’s something in this relationship, too, for MacAdams, who mans a tourism information site. “There are rude kids, obnoxious teenagers, people who expect to be waited on,” MacAdams said. “He consoles me, calms me down. Waco loves to rub his face on my shoulder. He’s worn out two jackets.”
Waco Hanover, it seems, has done as much for the people in his life as they for him, though not in money. The $2,600 won in seven years of racing for Kettler wouldn’t feed him through one Vermont winter.
Waco always cooperated, even, Kettler admits, with his rookie training skills. “He’d see a hill, and the steeper it was, the more determined he was to get up it,” Kettler said.
“There was something in his efforts that inspired tenacity in my life. Perhaps I appreciated Waco because of a common trait. Maybe he inspired tenacity that wouldn’t have been available without his life intermingling with mine.
“You’ve got a certain relationship with a horse, like being married. They’re not perfect and you know it, but you put up with them, and they put up with you.”