Born in Pekin: The Story of Frank Ervin and the Making of a Triple Crown Pacer
Born in Pekin: The Story of Frank Ervin and the Making of a Triple Crown Pacer
By Ken Zurski
“I have been privileged to be in the presence of greatness only twice in my life. The first occasion was my introduction to the late Lord Beaverbrook in 1958. The second occasion came on the morning of October 2, 1969, at Castleton Farm when the great Bret Hanover posed with me for several pictures which adorn this book.”—Marie Hill, Canadian turf writer and author of Adios, The Big Daddy of Harness Racing.
It was as if the track couldn’t hold him. With the familiar red and green shadow roll across his snout, the brown bay colt came around the far turn bounding with fierce determination. The crowd roared in approval. It was Friday, October 7, 1966, the end of a long racing day at the legendary Big Red Mile racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky. There was one major event left. A chance to witness history, the crowd was told.
No one left the grounds.
Moments earlier as the gate rolled away, a prompter horse had urged the star runner on at the start, but was since dispatched on the backstretch. There was only one horse on the track now, the only one that mattered. Muscles flexed as the stout colt kept to task, pacing faster and faster with every step.
“A minute twenty-four!” someone shouted at the three-quarters pole as the horse’s hoofs tapped the soft dirt: both legs on the same side moving in unison; a perfect pacer’s stride.
From a distance, a pacer’s stride looks awkward, almost unnatural. But for a standardbred horse with a heavier, more muscular build than a thoroughbred, it’s a more suitable way to gather and maintain speed. In harness racing, it’s the pace of the race that counts. Oftentimes speed is exchanged for position and drafting. Then it’s a test of stamina, to see who can outlast who without tiring or worse yet, breaking stride, which usually leads to a disqualification. A driver is there to guide the horse and maintain a smooth and steady gait.
The man piloting the animal on this day was all strategy. Sunk in the sulky that seemed to glide rather than roll across the track, the driver kept his hands firmly on the reins, the rope taut. A whip in hand was there just in case the horse lost focus. But there was no break in concentration. Like a well-oiled engine, horse and driver were in perfect synchronization.
The cheering, yelling and waving continued, unrelenting, as the great champion pacer burst forth down the stretch. All that was left now was for the finish line to catch up. Hearts stopped, every breath held as the horse seemed to fly past the wire.
The driver slowed the champion to a stop. It was a solid ride, he thought. But he had been deceived before. With no other horses to run against it’s difficult to gauge time. If his instincts were right, however, his horse had just broken the world record for the fastest mile ever. Frank Ervin loosened the reins a bit and relaxed. He couldn’t help but smile.
The fastest miler in the world! He liked the way that sounded.
Frank Ervin grew up on the horse track, which is understandable since his father Tom was a horseman and his grandfather, also named Tom, was a horseman too. In 1877, the patriarch Tom Erving Sr. moved the family west from Ohio, traveling the distance by horse and covered wagon. They settled in Kansas but found the dusty prairie winds stifling and moved to Missouri instead, where Tom Sr. built a race track and began grooming horses. Tom had two sons, Dan and Tom. Both liked to hang at the track with their father and learn the craft. But Dan was on the “lazy order,” Frank recalls of his uncle. He donned fancy suits and smoked cigars all day, idling trackside. “Which when you come to think of it,” Frank would fondly joke many years later, “isn’t a bad way to live.”
Frank’s father, Tom Jr., was different. He was all business, training and grooming horses to be great pacers. At some point Tom ended up running his horses at a reputable mile track located in Pekin, Illinois. That’s where Frank was born on August 12, 1904.
Harness racing was a popular spectator sport and always brought out the crowds. The workmanlike stoutness of the standardbreds appealed to the Midwestern blue-collar types. While thoroughbred racing was considered the “sport of kings,” and horses ran for roses and glory in stadiums with large covered bleachers and in front of thousands of well-dressed patrons, a harness race needed just an oval of dirt, a few rows of wooden seats, and plenty of standing room for fans to come as they were and cheer their favorites. Soon both half-mile tracks and the larger mile tracks—if there was room—popped up in cities throughout the prairie states, often at county fairs, and the crowds came in droves to the see and bet on the horses. Pekin was one such place.
The Pekin track, also known as “Uncle Dan Sapp’s Race Track,” named for the city’s two-time mayor, avid horseman and track sponsor, was considered one of the fastest mile ovals in Illinois. That fact alone was a big draw. Each July through September, during the racing season, the track hosted many of the best equine pacers, including the sensational Dan Patch, arguably the most popular race horse ever. In 1907, Patch came to the Pekin track to try to improve on his own time. The local papers heralded the visit of America’s newfound celebrity: “Dan Patch Here!” the headline boasted. An intermittent two-day rain kept the track soft, and the great horse failed to break any records, but Dan Patch put on a show as usual, staring back at his admirers, as often he would do before a race, and leaving the crowd of hundreds breathless with his ability. It was Pekin’s finest racing moment up to that time.
Frank was educated at the track. “I went to grade school because my father wanted me to read or write,” he recalls, “but when I got to high school after a summer of racing with him, one of the things they’d do to initiate you into high school in those days was to take your pants down and walk you through the center of town, and I certainly didn’t look forward to that.” Frank made it to high school only a couple of days before a gang of senior boys came after him. “They chased me down an alley and backed me up against a fence. I reached up and got a one-by-four and hit one of the seniors, and that was the end of that. “
Frank returned to the track and with his father’s blessing began to work. At age 16 he began to drive the horses – holding the reins and steering from a sulky, the buggy behind the horse. Frank was a natural. He understood the horses and was always quick to offer a solution when the horse’s gait wasn’t right or the horse was temperamental. Soon other owners and trainers took notice.
Harness racing, like most sports, has its share of colorful characters and stories. In 1941, a successful meat-market owner from Cleveland whose parents gave him the dubious moniker Thomas Thomas, paid nearly $2000 at auction—top dollar at the time—for a promising yearling named Adios. Adios was the first of two “good bye” themed horses to come from the successful broodmare Two Gaits; the other, Adios’ brother, was named Adieu.
Thomas was looking for a good trainer for Adios and found Rupert “Rube” Parker, a tall, soft-spoken and well-respected horseman from Iowa. Parker was patient and understanding with the horses, something the owners were usually not. Parker would also drive the horse, typical of trainers. So calm and confident was his demeanor on the track, Parker was known to take naps between heats rather than pace about like other trainers fretting over the next race. Under Parker’s steady guidance, Adios became a champion runner.
Adios was called a “free legged” horse because he did not require a rigging system of leather straps called “hobbles” to ensure the proper gait. He was, however, a bit skittish in training, developing a bad habit of jumping over ruts and marks left in the track by carts and other horses that used the drawbridge path to the infield barns, usually near the finish line. This would not do in a race. Parker needed to find a way to correct it. At the end of each training run, Parker slowed Adios down just before the finish line. The horse wouldn’t get as excited, Parker determined, and crossed the line with ease. It took time and patience, but eventually the young colt grew out of his bad habit and began to win races—lots of them.
While Adios had a fine racing career, his legacy is defined by the stud work he performed in the breeding shed after his running days were over. Even today, nearly 50 years after his death, Adios is considered one of the most productive and successful sires of harness racing, fathering more than 500 horses, many of whom ran like the wind. His nickname, “Big Daddy,” was no understatement. Adios was a broad, strapping bay who looked every bit as proud of his achievements as his owners. Many of his offspring were appropriately named after him: Adios Boy, Direct Adios, Adios Jimmy.
Among his 500+ offspring, Adios sired 70 horses, both sons and daughters, who paced 2-minute miles, the pinnacle of a standardbred pacer at the time (all harness races are run at one-mile distance). Even more noteworthy, two of Adios’ sons went on to break the 2:00 minute mile mark multiple times. One fine horse was named Adios Butler. The other was named after his mother, Brenna Hanover, a mare by Tar Heel, and a good racehorse in her own right.
The horse’s name was Bret Hanover.
Frank Ervin’s connection to Adios was circumstantial. While puttering along on the racing circuit, Ervin struck up a friendly acquaintance with Parker, who was winning big races and acclaim. Parker could tell Ervin was a good driver and had a keen sense of understanding about the horses. Ervin admired Parker and his fine runners, a stable-full, including Adios.
In 1944, when Parker became ill and could no longer drive, he asked Ervin to manage the stable until he got well. This meant riding Adios, who had just broken the 2-minute mark. “A lot of eyebrows were raised when I got the horses,” Ervin said. But it didn’t matter. Two weeks later, Parker was dead.
By this time, at the age of 40, Ervin had graduated from the fair tracks and won some prestigious races with some pretty good horses. In fact many already considered Ervin’s accomplishments worthy of a stellar career. But the wily veteran was never satisfied. The one great horse had so far eluded him. Thanks to an ailing trainer’s kind gesture and a horse named Adios, who produced a foal that Ervin would later groom and train, that was about to change, big time.
Bret Hanover was born on May 19, 1962 to little fanfare. His first victory was arriving early in the evening, around 7:25 pm, giving the caretaker who was overseeing the birth and expecting a long sleepless night a chance to “eat a nice dinner and retire to bed at a respectable hour.” At first the young colt didn’t seem interested in running. He kept getting in his own way. Then they put the hobbles on and he took off. “That’s a fifty-thousand dollar horse,” someone exclaimed after seeing Bret on the track for the first time.
A year later, a Cleveland businessman named Richard Downing paid just that, $50,000, to purchase the horse. Downing had no problem spending that kind of money on a yearling; after all the offspring of Adios, no matter which broodmare, were producing in big numbers. At auction, that meant something. Even though he hadn’t raced a lick yet, Bret Hanover was worth it.
There’s always some debate among owners whether a horse can live up to his sire’s success. Certainly a horse that takes to the hobbles so effortlessly is a plus. Good early workouts too would seem to encourage it. When it’s time to take it to racetrack, however, everything has to fall into place. With Bret Hanover, Downing knew there was only one man who could make it all work. He called Frank Ervin.
No one really knows why one horse runs faster than another. The great thoroughbred Secretariat was said to have had a big heart, literally, twice the size of a normal horse’s heart. For standardbreds, good bloodlines account for most of a horse’s success. The other is a good trainer and driver. Frank Ervin was both. A steady reins man who other drivers praised as having “good hands,” Ervin also had a mentor’s touch. Oftentimes he would be caught talking to his horses after a race like a coach would to a dejected player. “Slow, boy” he would whisper in the horse’s ear, always with praise and encouragement. “Steed-ee. Nice job out there. Not a thing to worry about.” He was either crazy or a mad genius, but the owners knew the horses ran their hearts out for him.
Bret Hanover did just that, running like no other horse before or since for Ervin.
“They don’t make horses like this these days,” a turf writer once wrote about Bret Hanover years after his racing career was over. And what a career it was.
In 1964, in his first year of racing, Bret won all of his 24 starts. He became the season’s top money-making two-year-old, the first two-year-old to win Harness Horse of the Year honors, and was named the Two-Year-Old Pacer of the Year.
The next year, as a three-year-old, Bret was just as impressive: He notched 21 victories in 24 starts, set nine stakes records, set six track records, and won the Triple Crown of Harness Racing, a series of three challenging races in three different venues, similar to the Thoroughbred Triple Crown that begins by winning the mother of all historic horse races, The Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby equivalent for standard-bred pacers is called the Little Brown Jug and is run on a half-mile track in Delaware, Ohio. In the Jug, Ervin and Hanover excited the crowd of 40,000-plus fans with a commanding victory. “They’re not going to catch Bret Hanover!” the excited race caller squawked over the loudspeaker as the horses rounded the top of turn still a few hundred yards from the finish line. It was an eye-popper. In both heats Hanover broke the record for a half-mile track (twice past the grandstand) in 1:57 flat, an outstanding time going around two turns two times. “Bret is a show, and so is his silver-haired trainer Frank Ervin” a sportswriter raved after the race.
Even more impressive, the track had been a soggy mess due to constant rains. It looked by all accounts that the Jug would be called off. Earlier in the day, another trainer stuck his pocketknife in the dirt and asked onlookers if they thought the deep moisture would be good for “planting his sweet potatoes.” Certainly not much else, like racing, he implied. Then like a “Delaware miracle,” as it is fondly remembered, the rains cleared just enough for the track to be stripped, bringing the drier dirt up. “Two feet of mud had been bulldozed to the outside rail all the way around the track, and what was left was more hardpan than cushion,” a witness observed. The race was on again.
“Go with him Frank!” fans shouted from the stands as the horses came rolling down the stretch. “Go on with that big freight train!”
In 1966, continuing an arduous schedule, Bret lost a few close races but won many more, breaking track records across the nation. Later that year, even though there was nothing left to prove, Ervin wanted one last chance to show his horse’s greatness.
At the beginning of the racing season, during a routine time trial, Bret ran the fastest mile ever in 1:54 flat, ostensibly breaking the world record of 1:54 3/5 set in 1960 by another one of Adios’ foals, Adios Butler. Bret’s unexpected turn of foot took everyone by surprise. Many felt cheated out of history, unsatisfied. Ervin wanted another chance to do it again, this time on a bigger stage. Possibly, he felt, Bret could improve on that time and show the world he truly was a horse for the ages.
Setting it up was no easy task. A track would have to be selected and an exhibition race logged, meaning no purse, no wagering, and in this case, no other horses. The Big Red Mile in Lexington was Ervin’s choice.
A week was circled in early October during the fall meet, and Ervin insisted he have final dibs on the day. It all depended on the weather, track conditions and a trainer’s intuition. Throughout the week, Ervin meticulously checked the weather bureaus and flag poles at the track and found some reason each day to postpone. Finally on Friday, October 7, the next-to-last day of the meet, it was set. Hanover would make his historic run for the record after the final race.
What happened next is better told by those who were there. Marie Hill, who would later write the definitive book on the great sire Adios, said of the day, “There was not a whisper of a breeze; the flags lay limp along the side of the poles.”
Bret was off in a rush, she remembered, spurred on by a starter horse that “lumbered badly alongside.” Then it was all Hanover’s show. “I steeled myself against the great effort that this magnificent animal must put forth,” Hill recalled. “(At the three-quarters pole) I knew that from here home history would either be made or go by the boards, and if it did I felt my heart would break for this game, great, champion pacer.”
Ervin said that if Bret reached the three-quarters pole in 1:24, he could break the record.
“A minute-twenty-four,” someone shouted excitedly from the stands at the three-quarter mark. Perfect!
Bret was motoring, moving effortlessly and showing no sign of weakening. Ervin rocked back in forth in the sulky, pushing him on.
Another witness, Jim Harrison, a racing official, described the crowd’s excitement, “I was suddenly engulfed by a wave of ear-splitting sound. Grown men were screaming and yelling at the top of their voices. ‘Hi Ya, Hi Ya,’ they chorused. ‘Hi Ya, Hi Ya.’
“For them, this was a horse that for these few fleeting seconds had neither name or breeding, nor owner, nor trainer nor driver,” Harrison eloquently recalled. “He was, in essence, everything that they had ever dreamed of, and as he approached the finish line, tired but pacing straight and true, they were urging him on because he belonged to each of them.”
Bret breezed by the wire. All eyes locked on the electronic sign in the infield. Then the final time came up: 1:53 3/5. The crowd went wild. A world record! It had shattered the old record by a full second!
“A mighty roar went up from all sides,” remembered Hill, who herself was overcome with emotion. “I could not join in for my heart felt as if it was choking me and I could hardly see through the tears.”
In the winner’s circle, Bret crossed his front legs and bowed to the crowd, a trait he had become known for. Ervin, grinning broadly, proudly doffed his cap. “It was a sensational drive,” Hill would write later about the run, “and only a great horseman like Frank Ervin could have pulled it off.”
After the race, at the age of 62, the great horseman was showing signs of slowing down. “The body is getting old,” Ervin told close associates. The following year he went to Florida for a “semi-retirement,” but continued to mentor horses.
At the Ben White Raceway in Orlando, Frank Ervin was an instant celebrity. He spent a better part of each day signing autographs and taking pictures with sightseers who visited the track. He was also quick to oblige a reporter with a quip or two about his racing days.
“The Classicist From Pekin,” was the title of a Sports Illustrated article about Ervin and Bret Hanover, shortly after the record-breaking run in 1966. “Today, even though Ervin feigns that the spirit is willing but the body is weak, he is still regarded as the master at taking a young horse and aiming it carefully toward the classics,” the article states. In it, Ervin recounts his modest upbringing at the track. “I was born in Pekin,” he explains, “and my father was a horseman...”
Records show the Ervin family lived at the Pekin track until shortly after 1910 and then moved to Sedalia, Missouri and another racetrack on fairgrounds just outside that state’s capital. Frank would have only been a young boy, six or seven, when they left Illinois. Still he considered Pekin and the old racetrack his childhood home.
There was a good reason why the family relocated. In 1910, after 30 years of racing thrills, the Pekin track shut down for good. The 80 acres of fairgrounds, including the track, stables and clubhouse, which stretched from modern-day Broadway Street near 18th Street on the south end to Willow Street on the north, was eventually razed. Today the land is a cozy neighborhood with tree-lined streets. The busy stretch of Broadway is packed with retail businesses and bars. The track’s first turn would have swept right through the back of an Aldi grocery store.
Frank Ervin passed away in September, 1991 at the age of 91. His wife of 62 years, Elizabeth, who he met at a racetrack and shared his love for the sport, followed her husband in death in 2006. She was 99. They had no children together, only horses. When Frank was riding the circuit, Elizabeth helped make ends meet by running a service station/café they owned together in Sedalia. Later when Frank had a fair amount of horses to drive, she traveled with him. In fact, at the time of her death, Elizabeth still stabled several trotters and was affectionately labeled the oldest owner in the game.
Bret Hanover raced a few more times after the record-breaking run at the Red Mile then moved to stud. He sired many high-priced foals, including another world-record-breaker, Warm Breeze, who ran a mile at 1:53 flat in 1977. On November 21, 1992, at the age of 30, Bret Hanover died. His statue and gravesite adorn the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, where many champions, both thoroughbred and standardbred, are buried.
In tribute to Bret Hanover’s success, in 1967, Sports Illustrated senior writer William Leggett praised all the great horse trainers of that era who nurtured a horse to greatness rather than just “jump from one horse to another, as squirrels bound from tree to tree.” The sport, Leggett claimed, was inherently better because of them. “Harness racing traditionalists maintain—and they are right—that the real horsemen are those who live with their horses through the long, tiring hours on training tracks, building the rapport that pays off later in races, and refusing to delegate authority or responsibility. There are few left whose pride in horsemanship impels them to follow old ways.”
Frank Ervin was one. It all started in Pekin.
(Sources: Adios: The Big Daddy of Harness Racing by Marie Hill; Sports Illustrated: “The Classicist From Pekin” by William Leggett, February 27, 1967; Hoof Beats Magazine: “Happy Birthday Bret Hanover” by Dean A. Hoffman, May 16, 2012).