By John Furgele
Think about the Olympics for a minute. Why do so many people like them? Is it the Opening Ceremony where each nation’s athletes parade into the stadium? Is it rooting for the USA or Canada or Italy in a sport that you know nothing about? The Olympics capture the patriotic spirit. Gymnastics and figure skating become as popular as the NFL. Curling, with its brooms and stones sliding along a sheet, captures our attention, too, and when the U.S. men won gold they were guests on “The Today Show.”
Believe it or not, there’s a harness race with an Olympic feel: The International Trot, set for Oct. 12 at Yonkers Raceway. The Trot is unique in that each of the 10 horses in the field is from a different part of the harness racing world. The organizers search the globe for the best of the best in countries that include the United States, Italy, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Canada.
The first trot was run in 1959 at the Roosevelt Raceway. The race was won by Jamin, a trotter from France who dined on artichokes and won the 1 ½ trot in 3:08.6 in front of 48,000 fans.
The first American trotter to win came in the third renewal with the legendary Stanley Dancer in the bike for Su Mac Lad’s win in 1961. The race continued at Roosevelt through 1988. After the track closed, it moved to Yonkers Raceway (just north of New York City), which, like Roosevelt has a half-mile racing surface. The first to win at Yonkers was America’s Kit Lobell in 1989. The race was run through 1993 and then after a one-year hiatus, the 1995 race was won by Sweden-based His Majesty.
The 1995 race was the last for 20 years. In 2014, those at Yonkers Raceway, under the ownership of the Rooney family decided to bring it back in 2015. The purse, $300,000 in 1995 was bumped to a $1 million and when the smoke cleared, Papagayo E from Norway stormed home to win.
European trotters prefer longer distances and across the pond, 1 ½ mile trots are commonplace. In the United States, the mile is the preferred distance, so in compromising fashion, the International Trot is run at 1 ¼ miles. That distance on Yonkers half-mile surface can be tricky as horses circle Old Hilltop two-and-a-half times, but in some ways, the longer they go on a half-mile, the more intriguing the racing is.
What makes the Trot compelling is of course, the international flavor and it is captured perfectly by Yonkers track announcer John Hernan. Hernan not only identifies the horses, he identifies their countries, which separates the Trot from other big races like the Hambletonian or Meadowlands Pace. In 2016, Hernan’s call of “USA has won it with Resolve in the International Trot,” does carry that feeling of jingoism.
Resolve won the 2016 edition in what was a world record for a 1 ¼ trot on a half-mile track of 2:23.4. The record lasted one year; in 2017, Twister Bi, the horse from Italy with the American trainer, Jerry Riordan, glided home in 2:22.1
As good as the favored Twister Bi was in 2017; all bets were off last year when Cruzado Dela Noche rallied in deep stretch to pull off the huge upset at 30-1 in 2:24.4, scoring one for Sweden.
In 39 International Trots, the United States leads with 15 wins, followed by France with 13; Canada and Sweden have three each; Italy two; and Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands with one win each.
The 40th edition field is again well represented. The United States has two entrants; the filly Atlanta and Guardian Angel As. Canada sends the 2016 Trotting Triple Crown winner, Marion Marauder, who races in the Trot for the third straight year. Last year’s runner-up Lionel runs for Norway with Slide So Easy going behind the gate for Denmark. Italy will be represented by Zacon Gio and France by Bahia Quesnot.
The defending champion, Cruzado Dela Noche will try to defend that title for Sweden and two countries that have never tasted International Trot victory are in the field. Switzerland sends Uza Josselyn, while Germany exports Norton Commander for the Saturday afternoon running.
Ten horses, nine countries vying for the $500,000 first place prize. An International day with International intrigue — that’s the 2019 Yonkers International Trot.
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.
But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.
John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.
When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.