The $1 million Hambletonian, harness racing’s most famous race, takes place on Saturday (Aug 7) at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Award-winning contributor Maryjean Wall looks back at some Hambo history that involved the theft and recovery of the 1927 winner’ trophy.
By Maryjean Wall
Forty-one years ago, a Hambletonian trophy recovered from the icy waters of the Ohio River gave law enforcement its first major break in solving a baffling killing. And all because horse racing keeps meticulous records.
The trophy from standardbred racing’s best-known event was discovered partly submerged in the water after something shiny caught the eye of two men working on a river barge in February, 1980. The trophy was among some $70,000 worth of silver cached about 30 feet from shore.
Being honest bargemen, the two informed police about their discovery, which was located near Ironton, Ohio, across the river from Appalachian Kentucky. The find was huge: more than 180 pieces of flatware, some candlestick holders, silver trays, and other items, many engraved with the letters EJM. The Hambletonian trophy, then a three-foot tall urn, was the prize of the lot and was inscribed, “To the winner of the Hambletonian Stake No. 2, 3-year-old trotters, New York State Fair, Syracuse, 1927.”
Who would dump valuable silver into the murky waters of the Ohio? And what was the Hambletonian trophy doing so far from Syracuse? Only later, after tracing the trophy’s provenance, did law enforcement link the silver discovery to the Sept. 20, 1970, slaying of an Arizona woman in Ohio. She was found wrapped in a blanket on property northeast of Columbus, in a town called Granville, with a gunshot wound to the head.
Granville, population nearly 6,000, is described as one of the best places to live in Ohio. Schools here are highly rated and residents enjoy a suburban-rural lifestyle. Granville also was the earlier twentieth-century home of E. J. Merkle, owner of Iosola’s Worthy who won that 1927 Hambletonian.
The filly was a June foal and consequently slow to develop. She had great bloodlines: By Guy Axworthy out of Iosola Great by Peter the Great. But her only winning race as a 2-year-old, the year prior to winning the Hambletonian, was in a small stakes race at Lexington over The Red Mile. The winter of her 3-year-old season, Iosola’s Worthy came into the ownership of Merkle. And as happens with some slow-developing young horses, she improved with each race.
The Hambletonian Aug. 29 was her stable’s goal, even though she would not race as the favorite. Nothing about that year’s renewal went according to plan. Five days of rain forced a change of venue for the race, from Syracuse to Lexington. Exactly one month following the original postponement of the race, Iosola’s Worthy emerged as the first filly to win the Hambletonian, while setting a stakes record in the second and final of three heats. Soon she was sold to Walnut Hall Farm of Lexington where she distinguished herself as a broodmare.
Her name was forgotten to all but bloodlines experts by the time her trophy turned up in the river, 53 years following her Hambletonian. Her trophy, the tall urn, looked nothing like the large silver bowl that has been awarded to Hambletonian winners since 1938. Only three of the silver urn trophies exist, and the 1928 version had resided for years in storage at The Red Mile. News of a trophy found in the river had The Red Mile scrambling.
“When we first heard about the trophy found near Ashland (at Ironton, Ohio), we thought it was ours and had been stolen,” a Red Mile spokesman, the late Tom White, told The Associated Press. “We had been keeping our trophy in storage and we had a few anxious moments before we were able to find it and knew it was safe.”
White told the AP in 1980 that The Red Mile and the United States Trotting Association were cooperating with police in the search for the trophy’s owner. With the help of trotting racing and ownership records, the initials EJM were quickly associated with E. J. Merkle, owner of the 1927 winner. One silver tray also discovered in the cache was engraved with the name, “Mary A. Florer,” but her identity was not immediately traced.
The identity of Merkle, who appeared to be deceased, nonetheless helped police locate a descendant, Margaret Merkle, who was living in the town of Granville. This development led law enforcement to connect the silver items to a burglary at the house – and relate it to the killing of the Arizona woman, Roberta Ann Peters. She was visiting Margaret Merkle while on a job search and was the only one present in the home when the burglary occurred. Others were away, attending the Little Brown Jug harness race in Delaware, Ohio.
As the AP stated in a 1997 article, police got their leads following discovery of the silver in the Ohio River. Prosecutors in subsequent trials said burglars chose their targets based on tips from coin dealers, service people and cable TV representatives.
A federal appeals court eventually overturned racketeering convictions of two persons linked to the burglary ring, ruling that the eight years between their indictments and trial violated their constitutional right to a speedy trial. The same pair was convicted in a separate court action of the aggravated murder of Roberta Peters, according to the AP. The news organization reported the two were sentenced to life in prison without parole for 20 years.
The lost-and-found trophy had proven useful in a way never imagined in 1927 when Iosola’s Worthy won the Hambletonian. Remember this, when the 2021 Hambletonian is run at The Meadowlands on Saturday (Aug. 7).
Maryjean Wall is the former turf writer for The Lexington Herald-Leader. She retired from that publication following a career that spanned four decades and included three Eclipse Awards and an AP Sports Editors Award. She holds a Ph.D. in U. S. History, has taught history at University of Kentucky, and continues to write about horse racing as a free-lancer. She has been published in Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, Forbes Life, Cincinnati, and Keeneland, among other publications. She has authored two books focused on horses and racing: How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders; also, Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. When she is not writing, she is photographing, always pursuing the creative muse.