The Little Brown Jug, the premier pacing classic for 3-year-olds, provides a fascinating chapter in the more-than-a-century-old history of harness racing and the standardbred sport.
The Jug, enriched by the tradition of the famed Grand Circuit and the picturesque backdrop of the Delaware Ohio County Fairgrounds, steadily maintains the flavor of the sport and competition from the days of its origin.
The founding of the Jug, which actually set its roots more than 65 years ago, is as unique as it is interesting.
It began in 1937 when the Delaware County Agricultural Society's members, at their annual meeting, voted to move the County Fair, held since its inception at Powell, to Delaware on a tract of land at the northern edge of the city.
Two years later a half-mile track was built and provided the stage for harness racing. R.K. McNamara, a local contractor, designed and built the lightning fast track.
Enter attorney Joe Neville, whose family had been identified with the standardbred sport for many years, and his friend, Henry C. "Hank" Thomson, sports editor of The Delaware Gazette.
Neville, who had campaigned horses on the Grand Circuit and was familiar with its officers and stewards, was successful in obtaining Grand Circuit dates for the new Delaware track.
Neville, concerned over the years by the emphasis placed on the trotter, turned his efforts toward showcasing the pacers, particularly the 3-year-olds.
The Little Brown Jug Society was formed to stage the Grand Circuit meeting. Neville headed the organization with Thomson as secretary-treasurer.
Then came the birth of the Little Brown Jug, named through a newspaper contest, with its previews in 1944 and 1945.
The initial Jug in 1946, with a purse of $35,358, was won by Ensign Hanover with Delaware's Wayne "Curly" Smart driving. Smart, a most successful trainer-driver on the Grand Circuit, was later to become an integral part of the Jug's operation as the track superintendent.
Over the years the track monopolized the half-mile record section with world standard performances, mainly through Smart's skill in maintaining the fastest racing strip of its size in the country.
Through its humble beginnings, the Jug grew slowly to become perhaps the most traditional stake on the pacing gait. In 1956 the Jug provided the anchor for the newly designated Triple Crown of Pacing to go along with The Cane Pace at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway and the Messenger Stake then at Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, N.Y.
A review of Jug winners over the years produces the names of many of the all-time greats in the sport.
The great Tar Heel, driven by Del Cameron, produced the first two-minute mile in 1951. Adios Butler, reined by Clint Hodgins, broke the two-minute barrier with a 1:59.2 clocking in 1959 and went on to become the first triple crown winner.
Bret Hanover, with Frank Ervin in the sulky, added to Jug lore in 1965. After Smart-directed track maintenance crews scraped the racing surface following 24-hour rains, Bret Hanover won in the sensational time of 1:57.
Bret's time remained the fastest until 1977 when Governor Skipper, driven by John Chapman, won in 1:56.1. Hot Hitter was the 1979 victor in 1:55.3, Niatross in 1980 in 1:54.4, and Lonestar Legend became the first 1:50 performer in 2008 with his 1:49.3 mile.
This pacing stake has maintained its impeccable reputation through the efforts of the Little Brown Jug Society with the cooperation of its host, the Delaware County Agricultural Society.
The Little Brown Jug is a part of Americana. And it shall ever remain so.
Hank Thomson & Joe Neville
By Tom White
It is unlikely that the inaugural of any other race in history was ever so spectacular. Everything seemed perfect. The event was well organized, the track was fast, a large purse was up for grabs, the weather was ideal and the field of top three-year-old pacers gave the huge crowd its money's worth an more!
When race day in 1946 finally arrived, parking areas were full by mid-morning. They had come to Delaware, Ohio from throughout the midwest, from Canada and Florida, from New York and California and from just about everywhere in between. Unofficial gate estimates put the swarm of Little Brown Jug enthusiasts at 27,000.
The race was a classic. It took four grueling heats to determine the first Jug champion, with two colts and one filly competing in the final showdown. When it was over, Ensign Hanover was the winner after a long bitter fight to the finish. The now traditional wreath of roses was bestowed upon the winning horse and Ohio Governor Frank Lausche made the presentation. Young Curly Smart of Delaware drove the winner.
The founding of the Jug began in 1937 when the Delaware County Agricultural Society's members moved the fairgrounds from Powell to Delaware on a tract of land at the northern edge of the city.
Delaware attorney Joe Neville, whose family had been identified with the Standardbred sport for many years, directed much of the effort in building the fair grounds and the track. He enlisted the aid of his lifelong friend Henry C. "Hank" Thomson, managing editor of the Delaware Gazette, who became the fair's first race secretary.
From the very beginning, the steeply banked Delaware track, built by Rollie McNamara, was fast and well liked by horsemen and fans. Neville had campaigned horses on the Grand Circuit and was familiar with its officers and stewards. He was successful in obtaining Grand Circuit dates for the new Delaware track.
Neville was also concerned by the sport's emphasis on the trotter so he turned his efforts toward showcasing the pacers, particularly the 3-year-olds. In January of 1944 Neville and Thomson announced a new event for three-year-old pacers which would have a purse comparable to that of the Hambletonian, a rich race for three-year-old trotters that had been conducted since 1926. Foals of 1944 would be nominated for the new event, the first of which would be held in 1946. The race was named through a newspaper contest.
The Little Brown Jug has attained great success in part because it annually brings the best of the harness racing sport, both human and equine, to the intimate setting of a county fair in America's heartland.
To walk through the backstretch at Delaware is a unique experience. There are few opportunities in harness racing, or at any other major sporting events, where the general public can get as close to the top stars of the sport as one can at Delaware. You can see and greet North America's leading trainers, drivers and owners as you stroll the historic backstretch, step into the new log cabin, or check out the Jug contenders in the spectacular Little Brown Jug Horse Barn.
Tom Wright succeeded his father-in-law as president and treasurer of the Little Brown Jug Society and Director of Racing for the Delaware County Fair. Phil Terry is vice-president of the Society.
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