Greyhound was the King of the Trotters. And Rosalind was the Queen. In 1939, they appeared together, poised to overturn a world record…..
Greyhound is to harness racing what Man O’ War is to thoroughbred racing. He is, quite simply, the stuff of legend. His record of 1:55:1 for the mile in 1938 stood until 1969, when it was broken by Nevele Pride. Of course, records are made to be broken. And Greyhound — the first “Grey Ghost” of horse racing — had more records than most, including a record he broke trotting a mile under saddle.
The colt foal was bred at Henry Knight’s famous Almahurst Farm and came into the world in 1932. At the time, his sire, Guy Abbey, had not attained leading stallion status and his dam, Elizabeth, had no exceptional progeny to her credit. The little fellow was grey — a colour no thoroughbred or standardbred breeder was happy to see. A superstitious discomfort with grey horses of almost any breed was alive and well in the 1930’s. And there was an irony to that, as concerned the standardbred. The “founding father” of the standardbred horse was Messenger (1780), a grey thoroughbred imported into the USA just after the American Revolution. The standardbred was developed in America, as was the American Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walking Horse — and all these breeds trace back to Messenger, who was their foundation sire. Messenger may have been grey ( and was probably exported because of it) but he stands as the most important sire ever to arrive on America’s shores.
By the time he appeared as a yearling at auction, Greyhound had been gelded and given his name. He sold for $900 USD to Colonel E.J. Baker of St. Charles, Illinois. Greyhound’s sale price appears to indicate that breeder Knight hadn’t tagged him as brimming with potential. But fate can be cruel: Knight parted with the crowning achievement of his breeding career for a ridiculously low price, even by Depression standards. At the time, a pair of Hackney ponies would have cost more than did the gunmetal grey son of Guy Abbey and Elizabeth. But if Fate had dealt Henry Knight a cruel blow, it took the opposite aspect for Greyhound. He was about to join a powerful triumvirate of men who would appreciate him every step of the way.
As the young colt was being readied for his 2 year-old campaign by trainer-driver Sep Palin and handler, Jimmy Wingfield, a royally-bred bay filly had made her way into the world.
The filly was named Rosalind and given to her owner’s critically-ill son, Gibson White, by his soft-spoken, brilliant father, Ben. Ben had tuberculosis and was in isolation in a hospital for patients with the “White Plague.” The disease was still a threat worldwide and Gibson aka “Gib” was in grave danger. Ben White determined to rally his son’s mind and spirit by giving him the filly and the job of overseeing her from weaning to the track. Right from the start, Rosalind was a father-son affair, since it was Ben who would train her.
Below is a short video of a hospital for tuberculosis patients in the UK in the 1930’s.
Ben White was to harness racing what Mohammed Ali is to boxing. A Canadian by birth, Benjamin Franklin White had begun his training with the master, Edward “Pop” Geers at C.J. Hamlin’s Village Farm in East Aurora, N.Y. at the age of twenty. When Geers resigned in 1903, White, who had risen to become his assistant took over training duties. As his reputation grew, he trained first for Seymour Knox and then took over training duties at Pastime Farm. When the farm dissolved circa 1918, White started training for one of the former owners, Frank Ellis. Although the height of his training career came in the 1920’s, White continued to drive into the 1940’s. The number of champions who learned their lessons under White’s calm, steady tutelage was astounding:
“World champions and exceptional colts developed by Ben White, if expounded upon at any length could easily fill a volume, and such a book would be a harness horse’s counterpart of a Who’s Who. If their effects and impact upon modern day breeding and pedigrees of present day horses were considered, it would again fill another book. Starting with the world champion trotting stallion, Lee Axworthy, and the world champion filly, Volga, which came under his wing when he started training the Pastime string, the parade of champions which bore the stamp of Ben White’s training ability was a long one. Some of the better known ones include: Rosalind, Alma Lee, Lee Axworthy, Jane Revere, Volga E. (Volga), The Abbe, Mrs. McElwyn, Aileen Guy, Sumatra, Ruth M. Chenault, Main McElwyn, Isola’s Worthy, Mary Reynolds, Kashmir, Media, Twilight Song, Long Key, His Excellency, The Ambassador, Charm, Station Belle, and Deana.” (from The Daily Reporter, September 5, 1958) Add to this list White’s fourth Hambletonian winner, Volo Song.
It is no small feat training a harness horse, whether trotter or pacer, let alone training four Hambletonian and seven Kentucky Futurity winners, which Ben White accomplished over forty plus years. (For those less familiar with harness racing, winning the Hambletonian is the equivalent of winning the Kentucky Derby or the BC Classic in North American thoroughbred racing.) But Ben White was a gifted trainer (and, as it turned out, no slouch as a breeder either). What makes the task of a standardbred arguably more demanding than that of a thoroughbred is the simple fact that they can never leave the trot or the pace and break into a dazzling run down the stretch. In that sense, from the horse’s point of view, s/he is always in second gear. And that also means s/he needs to constantly override the instinct to run past another standardbred in order to win. There are, however, gears within the trot or the pace itself, and it is these different gears that lead colts and fillies into the winner’s circle. Here’s a look at 2014 superstar Sebastian K. (wearing #1) smashing the world record for a mile:
The royally-bred Rosalind was a daughter of Scotland out of the champion mare, Alma Lee (2:04 3/4). As Ben began training the filly, he was conscious that he was really training a member of his own family. Ben had bred her and trained (as well as driven) her parents, her grandam (Jane Revere) and her great grandam (Volga E.). It had been thirty years from Volga E. to Rosalind — more than a third of Ben’s adult life — to arrive at the moment when Rosalind first stepped onto the track. As years pulsed through the reins, memories took Ben back — and hope took him forward.
As Rosalind was being conditioned to begin her 2 year-old juvenile season, Greyhound was launching his bid to win the Hambletonian. The steel-grey colt had already captured the imagination of the racing public as a 2 year-old, but in 1935 he was on a winning rampage that would continue, unabated, until a loss a in 1936. It would be the last time he was defeated in a race, although he did lose heats in races that he won. (Note: Harness races are run in one of two ways: a single dash or three heats, usually over a mile distance. In the case of a three-heat stakes race like the Hambletonian, the winner must win two — or all — of the three heats to win. For this reason, a harness horse’s race record includes wins/losses by heats, as well as by races run.)
Greyhound was a big, gangling colt at three. He stood 16.2 h and because of his size, usually got off to a slow start. Whereas the colt had been a bit ditzy at two, by his three year-old campaign Greyhound had figured it all out. Sep Palin seldom even raised his whip. All he had to do was send the message that it was time to move and off went the “Grey Ghost” with a surge of power and a beauty that was as spell-binding as it was devastating. Although Greyhound didn’t start as the favourite on Hambletonian day, before a crowd of some 40,000 the colt trotted the first mile heat in 2:02¼, setting a new record in the last half. Greyhound then ran the second heat in 2:02¾. Taken together, his time over the first two heats made the 1935 Hambletonian the fastest ever run. Greyhound was also the first gelding to win it — and the only grey.
As Greyhound was busy etching his name into the pantheon of the (harness) racing gods, Rosalind and Ben White stepped onto the track for the first time. Whether it was the love she had known or the royal bloodlines she carried or both, the stately filly proved herself brilliant. Rosalind started ten times that year, winning six. And she took two-year-old champion decisively, with a brilliant win in the Junior Kentucky Futurity in a time of 2:03. As if all this was not enough — standardbreds being as numerous as thoroughbreds at the time, making the chances of coming across one so brilliant rare — Gib’s recovery was as sure, as emphatic, as his wonderful filly’s victories on the track.
As a three year-old, Rosalind kept on, winning seven of eight starts. Goshen, NY and The Hambletonian loomed, and the Whites’ champion filly arrived with the fanfare deserving of a Queen. Gib, now out of hospital, had travelled with Ben and Rosalind to Goshen to witness his filly’s “run at history.”
Held held high, Rosalind ambled to the start as Gib and a packed grandstand held their breath.
In the end “ …it was strictly a case of Rosalind first, and the rest nowhere, as Ben White moved his son’s filly right to the top and held sway thereafter, the best mile in 2:01¾, a stake mark. Gib White smilingly joined his father in the winner’s circle with the crowd wildly cheering the popular victory.” (from The Hambletonian Society archives)
Ben White took the honours for the second time in his career. His first win had come with another filly, Mary Reynolds, in 1933. But in winning with Rosalind, he became the first person to breed, train and pilot a Hambletonian winner. Below is a silent film of Ben winning with Mary Reynolds after her chief rival, Brown Berry, stumbled in the stretch to finish eleventh in the third heat. (Mary Reynolds’ had already taken the first heat; Brown Berry won the second heat.)
Greyhound and Rosalind continued to ratchet up victory after victory. It was evident to all that there was another throne in the court of harness racing and it belonged to Queen Rosalind. The filly’s career best of 1:56 3/4 was only a hare short of Greyhound’s 1:55:1 for the mile — unheard of at a time when fillies under harness typically posted career bests of two minutes.
In 1939, at the Indianapolis State Fair, the two were harnessed in tandem to try to lower the existing team record — their own. Earlier, the pair had trotted to a time of 1:59 in Syracuse, NY. Before Syracuse, neither Greyhound nor Rosalind had ever been driven in tandem before, making it doubly complex to handle them under the pressure of breaking the existing record, held by the great Uhlan and Leurs Forrest, who had trotted a mile in 2:03 1/4 in 1912. Neither the White nor the Baker camps doubted that they could do it. The question was: By how much? The other matter was to decide who would drive them; in the end, it was Sep Palin. Why Palin and not White is unclear, although it must be said that both teams were comfortable with the decision and accolades came their way for the classy manner in which this aspect was handled.
At Indianapolis, Rosalind and Greyhound were looking to take down their Syracuse record — they were racing against themselves. But those who saw the King and Queen that day were deeply moved. Horseman generally are a crusty bunch, but even they were enchanted by the appearance of the Grey Ghost in harness with the best standardbred mare in the world. They were almost the same height, one blood-bay and one almost white, and they moved together seamlessly, passed the crowded stands, down to the start. It was August and the light was heavily flecked with gold. Their was restrained quiet as the “exhibition” began; two champions, matching one another stride for stride, floated passed the crowd for the first time. It was equine ballet on fast-forward, but so easy did the pair make it look that only the man holding the stopwatch really knew how fast they were moving. Racing against the wind, Rosalind and her handsome King trotted the mile in 1:58 1/4. As Sep Palin pulled them up and turned them back towards the jubilant throng, Rosalind nodded her head before reaching over to gently nibble Greyhound’s neck.
Gib White, watching with his dad, took the footage below. Poor as it is — through no fault of Gib’s — it records an epic moment in the annals of harness racing history.
In her book, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt writes: ” …And isn’t the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture in one way or another?”
Rosalind and Greyhound certainly weren’t “things,” either to those who knew them best or those who grew to love them. But on that day in 1939 when the narratives of the grey, gelded colt who rose to become an icon and the blood bay filly whose brilliance on the track was only exceeded by her capacity to heal interwove, hearts cracked wide open to a beauty larger than many had ever known before.
Greyhound’s complete career record is catalogued below, in the Bonus Feature.
Rosalind retired holding the world’s record for three heats by a trotting mare, giving her a tie in average time with Greyhound at 1:56 for the fastest three heats to the credit of a trotter regardless of sex. As well, Rosalind held the:
World’s record for a third heat (1:59¼) by a trotter
World’s record for a four-year-old trotting mare, with a time of 1:59¼
World’s record for one and one-half miles by a trotter in a race, with a time of 3:12¼
Greyhound and Rosalind led happy lives in retirement. However, Rosalind died suddenly at the age of seventeen and an autopsy showed that she had succumbed to cancer. She left her human family too suddenly, even though she had given Ben and Gib White six foals, all fillies, three of which set champion times as three-year-olds. Although film footage of both Greyhound and Rosalind is scarce, the White’s super filly is commemorated in Marguerite Henry’s terrific book, Born To Trot.
Ben White went on to win the Hambletonian another two times, in 1942 and 1943, with The Ambassador and Volo Song, respectively. Gibson White made a complete recovery and became his dad’s assistant trainer.
Both Greyhound and Rosalind were inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame (in 1958 and 1973, respectively). Ben White was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1958 and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.
On April 23, 2014, the Harness Racing Hall of Fame announced that the stall Greyhound called home for the last 25 years of his life was donated to them: http://www.harnessmuseum.com/images/Grey%20Ghost%94%20Coming%20to%20Goshen.pdf
BONUS FEATURE: Greyhound. (This is a lovely piece for its passion. It’s a little repetitive, but stay with it until the end to see some amazing footage of Greyhound in slow motion.)
The Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame (http://www.harnessmuseum.com/images/Grey%20Ghost%94%20Coming%20to%20Goshen.pdf)
Step and Go Together by B.K. Beckwith
Greyhound 1:55 1/4 by P.W. Moser
The Hambletonian Society (http://www.hambletonian.org/about.html)
Harness Racing – Standardbred Community (http://www.mi-harness.net/publct/hh/rosalind.html)
Various newspaper articles of the day