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I'm in love with an odd-looking gal. She stands only 4'3½" and weighs about 600 pounds, but to me she's lovely. Ah, those big, dark-brown eyes, that lustrous brown hide gleaming with black and bronze highlights as she trots around in the summer sun. Oh sure, her teeth are kind of long and yellow, but what the heck. I love her just the same. Her name is Pat Hanover, and she's a world-champion trottingbred mare, the crown princess of a new breed that's putting low-cost fun back into horse racing.
Trottingbreds are to big-time harness horses what midget racers are to Indy cars—smaller and not quite as fast, but in their own short-track way every bit as exciting. The first time I drove Pat was in a misty rain on an oval that measures only a sixth of a mile around. As we skidded through the corners she seemed to accelerate, and the sweet smell of warm horseflesh drifted back as the rain clouded my eyes. Then she surged into the short straightaway with a burst of power that amazed me. "She hasn't worked out in a few days," yelled Spencer Fossel, her owner, "so she's likely to break on you." And the next lap she did, her steady, loose-ankled, clip-clopping trot suddenly exploding into a gallop that left me leaning back against the reins to check her. Barns and fence posts flicked by in a kaleidoscopic red-and-white blur.
"Power to spare," Fossel said when I finally stopped her. "She was only going about a third as fast as she would in a race on a longer track."
Fossel, 70, a retired drug company executive who lives in Rupert, Vt., has been breeding, training and racing trottingbreds since 1973. His residence is an imposing old pile, a roomy white clapboard Colonial chockablock with collectibles: ruby-red apothecary jars, a vintage but still working pot-bellied stove, 19th-century medical and pharmacological texts. The loft above his horse barn is full of old horse-drawn vehicles, ranging from gigs and phaetons to a leather-topped surrey and what would appear to be a one-hoss chay. Next door to the horse barn is a factory that looks like a 19th-century antique. It sports an elegant sign that reads: J.H. GUILD COMPANY, HOME REMEDIES, EQUINE PRODUCTS.
Fossel purchased the company as a hobby in 1967. Today Guild manufactures more leg bandages for racehorses—160 miles' worth a year—than any other equine-products company in the world. Another item sold by the firm is Kendal's horse liniment, the preferred rubdown at many racetracks. Fossel is the biggest employer in town, though that's not saying too much: Rupert, a cozy little township tucked away in the green hills of southwestern Vermont, has a population of only 608. The Guild Co. headquarters sits sedately across the street from what some people say is the oldest continuous-service post office in America (having franked its first piece in 1792) and only a quarter of a maple-lined mile from what is believed to be the oldest Congregational church in Vermont. "The old Fossel," as he describes himself, is a latter-day squire of sorts, casually dressed in khakis and riding boots, with a peaked cap cocked on his iron-gray pate and a cigar sending up smoke signals from the corner of a wry mouth. His powerful forearms, along with the boots, give him away as a horseman.
There are four horses in the red stable. One is Chiefs Heather, a 10-year-old strawberry roan pacer who broke the little breed's world record for the half mile three times in 1980 and 1981. Trottingbreds, being smaller than standard-bred harness horses, compete on quarter-and half-mile tracks and cover only half the distance of their larger relations. To qualify as a trottingbred, a horse can stand no more than 51½ inches at the shoulder with shoes on, whereas standardbreds measure between 62 and 68 inches on average.
Heather's pacing record of 1:02[2/5] has since been broken—by a small standard-bred. Her stablemate, Pat Hanover, shared the trotting record for the half mile on a quarter-mile track, 1:09[2/5], with a mare named Pizzaz, out of Tampa, Fla., until Pizzaz broke the record this summer with a time of 1:09 flat. "Pacers are faster than trotters," Fossel explains, "and of course a half-mile track is faster than a quarter, because it has fewer turns. Right now mares seem to be faster than stallions or geldings, whatever the gait." Chiefs Heather dropped her first foal, a strawberry roan filly, in July, so she is finished with racing. But at seven, Pat Hanover is just reaching her prime.
Trottingbreds were recognized as harness race horses only eight years ago. They're an outgrowth of the pony craze of the affluent 1950s, when a lot of kids in America dreamed of having a Shetland, Welsh or Hackney pony. The kids lost interest in their pets, but not some of the parents, who began racing them. In the early days, the tough little ponies turned a half-mile race into a plodding two-to-three-minute event. But breeders began crossing their Shetlands and Welsh with full-sized standardbreds to produce today's handsome, quick-stepping chevaux miniatures, as they're known in Quebec.
As the competition picked up momentum, pony fanciers in the Middle West and Northeast decided to organize. The International Trotting & Pacing Association, founded in 1964, boasts 800 members racing some 1,900 horses on 55 registered tracks in the U.S. Much of the action is in the heartland, but some of the fastest horses are found in Vermont.
"Today," Fossel says proudly, "our fastest horses can run neck and neck with most standardbreds over the half-mile distance. And because of the pony blood in their heritage they don't have the leg problems that bother so many standardbreds." A few years ago, in a fun race at the Rutland (Vermont) Fair Grounds, Fossel and Chiefs Heather actually beat a standardbred in a close race, clear evidence of the breed's rapid improvement. "Our sport hasn't reached its full potential yet," he says.