International Trot: Cosmopolitan Affair
Click Here to access Hoofbeats Magazine
International Trot: Cosmopolitan Affair
Tuesday, September 01, 2015 - by Jason Turner
The following article is courtesy of TJ Burkett, Editor of Hoofbeats Magazine
Joe Faraldo was there the night the plug was pulled on one of the biggest races in the world.
The year was 1995 and Faraldo, a longtime USTA director and president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, had just finished watching Swedish champion His Majesty capture the International Trot title at Yonkers Raceway when track owner Tim Rooney pulled him aside.
"After the race Mr. Rooney said to me, 'Joe, we put up a million dollars [in total costs to host the race],'"recalled Faraldo. "'We had decent on-track attendance, but the handle on the race will come nowhere near paying this million dollars.
'It's my concern to keep Yonkers Raceway open and we can't afford to have this race and continue to race as many days as we do. What would you think if we didn’t have this race anymore?'"
All photos courtesy Harness Racing Museum
Jamin, famous for his fondness for artichokes, won the first International Trot in 1959.
Faraldo said that if it wasn't in the best interest of Yonkers and it wasn't in the best interest of the horsemen, then the race had to go.
And just like that, one of harness racing's most iconic events was finished.
But it's hard to keep a good race down. Several key factors have changed since "the International" was last contested in 1995, including the welcome addition of alternative gaming revenue at New York racetracks.
Now, after a 20-year absence, the race is finally returning to Yonkers Raceway.
From its first iteration in 1959 until its conclusion in 1995, the International Trot was a dramatic and highly intriguing affair.
People from all over the world attended. They came from France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand—a colorful cast of characters, not entirely unlike Willy Wonka's golden-ticket winners, sojourned to New York in the hopes of earning a big check and the title of "World's Greatest Trotter."
These international horsemen brought with them a seemingly limitless supply of headline-grabbing eccentricities. There was the 285-pound driver Willem Geersen, who drove Dutch champion Hairos II to victory in 1960; the boastful French driver Georges Dreux, who proclaimed "We are the greatest"; and British nobleman Lord Langford who won the race on his very first try.
The most famous International Trot participant, however, is Jamin, the inaugural winner in 1959 who loved artichokes and would not eat hay. Americans seemed enamored, to an almost inexplicable degree, with the French trotter and his oddly refined palette.
"Jamin is the best known horse since Black Beauty and Black Beauty never existed," wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning sports columnist Red Smith.
Even the race itself seemed more exotic. Despite being contested at racetracks (first Roosevelt Raceway, then Yonkers) that regularly featured domestic overnight and stakes races, the un-American distance (1-1/4 miles), the global participants and the hefty purse always made the International feel like a must-see event.
And pulling off a race of that size and scope was no small task.
"We spent a great amount of time working on it," said Barry Lefkowitz, publicity director at Roosevelt Raceway from 1984-1988. “Basically, from the time the racing gates folded, that's when we started working on the next year's race, and we worked on it until the following July or August, depending on when the race was scheduled."
One can only imagine the number of i's to be dotted, t's to be crossed and umlauts to be added for an international event of this magnitude.
"There were a lot of waivers and requests we had to complete for federal and local governments," said Lefkowitz. "Getting closer to the race, the international horses would come over and we would make sure that the quarantine situation was taken care of."
Champion Dutch driver Willem Geersen was 285 lbs. when he steered Hairos II to victory in 1960.
"During the week of the race there was a whole host of events, including the draw, which was held one year at the United Nations. We had a big international gala; we had parties for the press and the participants. But it was all worth it to be able to put on a spectacular event like the International."
Organizers are hoping that the new, modern-day iteration of the International Trot will have the same sense of drama and global appeal that made the race legendary for so many years.
"I remember when we used to have the International Trot races here at Yonkers," said General Manager Bob Galterio. "I remember all the excitement it brought to the fans and the racing world."
"It's sort of like the Olympics. Everyone has races in their own country. Everyone has athletic events, but when you can bring together the best in the world it just makes it that much better."
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the desire to restore the International Trot became a plan to resurrect it. The interest was always there: it was simply a matter of feasibility.
Perhaps it began with Yonkers owner Tim Rooney, who, according to Galterio, has wanted to bring the race back for a long time.
"It’'s been three or four years now he's been talking about it," he said. "It was such a great race at Roosevelt and then here at Yonkers, but when business started going bad we couldn't afford to spend that kind of money on it. But now, with our purses being at record levels, we've been transferring money into other areas and we had the funds to do something like this."
Another key factor in the race's timely return was the recent partnership formed between Yonkers Raceway and the PMU (the betting authority for horse racing in France).
The connection was made when a U.S. contingent, representing Yonkers, the USTA and the SOANY, traveled to France for the Prix d'Amerique.
Officials from both sides of the Atlantic met and discussed a potential partnership, which resulted in a simulcast agreement between Yonkers and the PMU.
For five Sundays last fall, the PMU showed races from Yonkers. The results of the experiment were so compelling that 31 racing cards and 173 trotting races were commissioned for 2015.
"The response has been overwhelming," said Galterio.
Yonkers and SOANY officials believe this partnership could have significant and lasting benefits for American harness racing and the International Trot could be a signature event of this new era.
"Bringing back a big race like this, that has the ability to bring in foreign interests, ties in with what we're trying to do here on a daily basis," said SOANY Executive Director Alex Dadoyan. “We’re trying to cultivate a new market with a new fanbase to follow American racing and this race ties in really well with that."
The return of the International Trot is another promising sign of progress for the emerging relationship between American racing and its European partners, but it could not have been possible without the cooperation and support of the Yonkers horsemen, said Galterio.
"The willingness of our horsemen and the SOANY to showcase our trotting races over in France with the added distance and larger fields is huge, and everything just came to a point where this was the best time to do it," he said. "But if we didn't have the cooperation of the horsemen or the interest of the PMU we could not have done this at the level we wanted to."
The mare Armbro Flight won the 1966 edition for the United States.
One of the byproducts of the collaborative effort between France and the U.S. is the race date, which has been scheduled for Oct. 10.
If that date sounds familiar, it could be because it's also the same day as the Allerage Open Trot and the Kentucky Futurity at The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky.
"It’s impossible to find a date that doesn't conflict with something," Galterio said.
"We checked the European schedule and we checked with the PMU to see when they thought the best opportunity would be and we came up with Oct. 10."
Galterio believes having the three races on the same day won't hurt their ability to offer strong, competitive fields, and might even be an advantage.
"It's doubtful that we would be inviting any 3-year-olds anyway," he said, "and I think from a simulcast perspective it's going to be better for both the International and the Futurity."
The International Trot was once considered to be one of the most newsworthy sporting events in the world.
More than 45,000 fans and 70 journalists from 20 different countries were there when the International Trot made its debut in 1959, and even though this year's turnout won’t be quite that large, organizers have high expectations for this race and its future potential.
As has always been the case, one of the biggest challenges is finding and attracting the best horses in the world.
Faraldo said they have representatives working overseas to help scout and recruit the top talent abroad, which is a critical component in making sure the International Trot is a world-class event worthy of $1 million.
Delmonica Hanover, another mare, brought home the 1974 trophy for the U.S. and trainer Delvin Miller (far left).
"Normally you look at the stakes calendar and you're just looking for something that works for horses in the area," said Dadoyan.
"But for a race like this you have to find something that's going to work for everyone."
One way organizers are hoping to attract overseas talent is to make the journey to America as easy and lucrative as possible.
Representatives from SOANY and Yonkers are working with local and federal agencies to make sure the quarantine process is a smooth one and they're also offering monetary incentives to international travelers who must cross an ocean and do not receive a check from the race.
"It can be challenging to encourage people to ship a long way and face other really good horses," said Dadoyan. "We knew that if we wanted to attract the top horses we were going to have to make it worth their while."
The return of the International Trot is great news for nostalgic harness fans who remember its epic battles and timeless legends, but it's also equally good news for those who care about the future of the sport.
"There are a lot of potential ramifications at stake," said Faraldo. "If you look at this event as something that will grow the recognition of the track and the industry, this is a very worthwhile investment by Yonkers. It's an opportunity to further develop a global market and encourage the business we get from that market."
"This race has created some great rivalries," said Dadoyan. "It allowed American racing fans to see some great foreign horses. It's good to see the best face the best and have international competition, and if you can generate interest in American racing overseas, that's a really good thing."
733 Yonkers Ave., Suite 102, Yonkers NY, 10704 Phone: 914-968-3599 Fax: 914-968-3943
| Designed by Lambeth Desktop