How Elgin Armstrong beats the (harness) races

TRENT FRAYNE July 20 1957

How Elgin Armstrong beats the (harness) races

TRENT FRAYNE July 20 1957

How Elgin Armstrong beats the (harness) races


Harness racing, in which the horses trot or pace around the track hauling buggies called sulkies, has traditionally been regarded as the poor relation of running races, in which the horses gallop under jockeys. But by far the most successful race-horse owner in Canada, an earthy former farm boy named Elgin Armstrong, has gained his position with a stable of harness horses.

► He bought Helicopter. She won the Hambletonian ► He bought Dottie’s Pick. She won $101,142 last year ► His mares win stakes in Canada, Calitornia and New York ► HE NEVER BETS

These horses, bred for pulling a carriage rather than carrying a rider, are generally a

bit shorter and chunkier than running horses. The fact that they are labeled standardbreds while the runners are known as thoroughbreds suggests that their bloodlines are undistinguished. Actually, while they are a different breed, they are bred quite as carefully as thoroughbreds.

The idea that they are inferior is as unwarranted as the durable legend that harness racing is for yokels from the tall uncut. Harness races, far from being for the yokels, have

been having an unprecedented rise in favor with city slickers, particularly around New York and Montreal. And Elgin Armstrong has capitalized on the increase in purses at the big tracks to ihe point where he is really the only Canadian with an international reputation as a horse owner.

He is a blunt, cigar-destroying millionaire who left school at fourteen to help his widowçd mother raise three younger brothers. Now he has emerged as a Midas of what the harnessracing promoters are calling, with a certain justification, the fastest-growing sport on the continent.

Armstrong began buying race horses after he had made a success of his contracting business at Brampton, Ont. He has had phenomenal returns on his investments in horses. One sunny morning in 1952, while driving north from a vacation in Florida, he stopped at the inland city of Orlando to watch some trotters and pacers jogging at the Ben White Raceway. An untried two-year-old filly named Helicopter caught his fancy as he watched her on the training track, and he bought her for $7.900. A year later Helicopter made him the first Canadian owner ever to win the Hambletonian, the Holy Grail of harness racing in the United States. Along with the intangible prestige of winning the continent's foremost trotting event, Armstrong collected a concrete token of his wisdom in selecting that particular trotter, a cheque for $63,126.

A year later Armstrong decided to try his eye again and went to an auction sale at Harrisburg, Pa. He picked out another two-year-old

filly from a pack of young horses, and in the ensuing bidding got her for $8.200. This one, called Dottie’s Pick, grew even more prosperous than Helicopter. Last year Dottic's Pick became the first pacing mare on the continent ever to pass the $100,000 figure in winnings in a single season, racing in some of the top stakes events in the United States as a four-year-old and winning $101,142. Dottie's Pick and two other Armstrong-owned mares. Meadow Jewel and Meadow Dream, cleaned up $220,806.03 for their owner on various American tracks in the last two years.

Along with his younger brother Ted, who is his partner in the contracting and racing ventures, Armstrong has built up a stable of thirtyfive standardbreds. He races them under the name ABC Stables—for Armstrong Brothers Construction. Though the brothers are nominally partners. Elgin is the one who makes the final decisions. The stable’s American trainer and driver, Del Miller, who is in charge of six Armstrong horses now racing in the U. S., reports to him. Miller is one of the leading trainers in the U. S. and has helped Armstrong considerably in advising him about purchases.

In Canada a tall and solemn young driver named Harold McKinley trains the Armstrong string, and when Elgin visits the racetracks where his horses are training McKinley gives him detailed accounts of their progress. Armstrong. a stocky solid figure in a baggy business suit with his hat pulled low over his eyes and his teeth clamped on a cigar, walks past the stalls on these visits while McKinley talks. He stops occasionally to rub the nose of a horse,

rarely saying anything beyond a monosyllable. If he disagrees with McKinley, he tells him briefly and forcefully what he wants done. From time to time he goes into a stall to look at a horse that might be sick or lame. If it has a sore leg. he'll kneel in the straw beside the horse, tenderly fingering the sore spot, then rise and pat the horse affectionately on the nose and mutter softly to it.

Armstrong is just as interested in horses when they're on the track, and has made winning a habit in Canada, too. although in this country the purses are much smaller than those at the big U. S. tracks. Last continued on page 42

How Elgin Armstrong beats the races

Continued from page 21

“Harness racing will be Canada’s biggest sport’7

year horses bobbing along in front of Armstrong’s blue-and-white racing silks dominated the harness meetings at Blue Bonnets and Richelieu raceways in Montreal, where night racing has become a booming success, and at Woodbine raceway in Toronto, where the sport is steadily on the rise. Armstrong’s horses won twenty-two out of thirty-three starts in one meeting at Old Woodbine, last season, and no other Canadian stable approached his forty-one victories in thirtysix days’ racing so far this season.

Armstrong never bets on his own horses—or anyone else’s. for that matter-— but the same cannot be said for other followers of his stable’s fortunes. Once last year the mere mention of Armstrong’s name in a race program apparently served as grounds for a stampede at the pari-mutuel windows. Debora Frost, an untried two-year-old Armstrong filly, went off in the first race of her life as a l-to-5 favorite, meaning that a man had to risk five dollars if he hoped to win one. Debora Frost barely breathed deeply in winning by ten lengths, and neither did hcr. owner in watching her do it.

Armstrong rarely shows emotion when his horses are in action, even when the stakes come exceedingly high. “The only way you can tell he’s excited.’’ says his son-in-law Brian Burkart, “is that he takes the cigars a little faster.’’

One night last November. Burkart recalls, Armstrong was chain-smoking cigars. He had been invited by the management of Yonkers raceway, a lavish trotting plant outside New York City where in a one-hundred-and-five-night meeting the crowds wagered a nightly average of $1.336.657, to put his mare Dottie’s Pick into a match race with a stallion named Adios Harry. The stake was twenty-five thousand dollars, with the winning owner to take the whole purse. Dottie’s Pick had just earned thirty-four thousand dollars as the winner’s share of the American Pacing Derby at Hollywood Park in California, and had established herself as the top horse on the west coast. Adios Harry meanwhile had been cleaning up on the big eastern tracks. The Yonkers management wanted to’ present a pièce de résistance for the whole 1956 season—a match race between the champion of the east and the champion of the west.

Armstrong readily accepted. and loaded forty friends and relatives into an airplane at Toronto’s Malton airport for the trip. While his four daughters and their husbands, and his own son Charlie, could not contain their excitement as the two horses scored, or warmed up, under the blazing lights, Armstrong sat impassively in his cloud of smoke beside his wife in a box near the finish line. He didn’t change expression even when Dottie’s Pick crushed the champion of the east by a dozen lengths and added twenty-five thousand dollars to her owner’s bulging pocketbook.

While he has never discounted the cheques, Armstrong’s primary interest in harness racing is what he calls the tremendous opportunities it affords a breeder of standardbreds in Canada. “It’s a matter of good business,” he says. “Inside of ten years I predict that harness

racing will be the biggest sport in the country.”

Accordingly, it’s no coincidence that the horses he has been campaigning so successfully in the United States have been fillies and mares—by design, lie’s been buying nothing else. Indeed, if there has been a coincidence, it’s that they've won so much money; what Armstrong set out to do was buy well-bred fillies that would grow into broodmares to stock his own breeding establishment. What he wants is the best bloodlines in this country, so that if the growing interest in harness racing matches his prediction, prospective owners will come to him. He’ll own the best mothers in Canada and, based on horse sense, the best foals.

He is already building up his breeding farm. He retired Helicopter after the 1953 racing season and turned her into a broodmare at a time u'hen the three-yearold mare’s winnings had reached $99,700. Two years ago he paid five thousand dollars to have her bred to the 1941 Hambletonian winner, a stallion named Bill Gallon. That union produced a foal Armstrong called Madam Armbro, a contraction of his contracting firm’s name, Armstrong Brothers Co., Ltd. Madam Armbro will get to the races next year. She has truly remarkable lineage: her mother’s sire, Hoot Mon. won the Hambletonian in 1947. so Madam Armbro is the only foal w'ho is the direct descendant of three Hambletonian winners.

Get-a-million sire

Armstrong had planned retiring Dottie’s Pick to the joys of motherhood this year, but after her unprecedented success last season Armstrong’s American trainer. Del Miller, prevailed upon him to keep Dottie’s Pick in training. In March Armstrong and his wife went to Santa Anita racetrack outside Los Angeles to watch the mare in her first start of 1957. She won and added three more victories in California before being shipped across the country to Yonkers. By mid-June Dottie’s Pick had won five races in six starts this year and had boosted her lifetime winnings to $185,000, indicating that a racetrack is one place where a woman's career ought to take at least temporary precedence over her domestic obligations.

Dottie’s Pick and eleven other fillies and mares in the Armstrong barn were sired by a stallion named Adios, which the official publication of the United States Trotting Association, Hoof Beats,* describes as “the incomparable Adios, very likely the greatest sire the sport has ever known.” This stallion’s progeny wón $1,115,953 at the races in 1956 alone, the first time in history that the million-dollar figure had been topped in a single season. Exactly $143,362 of that amount was accounted for by Armstrong’s threesome of Dottie’s Pick, Meadow Dream and Meadow Jewel, strong testimony that he is building the most lusciously inhabited maternity ward on the continent.

At this period of harness racing’s development in Canada, however, it’s a matter of conjecture whether Armstrong might be building up his breeding establishment mostly for his own satisfaction, or for sales in the United States. He’d prefer to breed better horses for racing

in Canada, where his interest is greater in spite of his financial success in the U. S. But the size of purses dictates the amount of money that most owners can put into the purchase of stock and, except at Montreal, purses are picayune.

There isn't much point in a man putting several thousand dollars into an Armstrong-bred foal if he is compelled to race for purses in the low hundreds. There is harness racing in 192 cities and towns in Canada, 123 of them in Ontario. but in all but two. Montreal and Toronto, purses of more than four hundred dollars are unusual. In some areas of the Maritimes, in fact, there are no purses at all.

Most of the Ontario meetings involve -only four races on one day a year, and purses run from sixty dollars a race to two hundred dollars. Even then the purse is split four ways so that the winner might get as little as twenty dollars. Still, small purses or not, harness racing is the backbone and chief attraction of provincial exhibitions and rural fairs all over the country and is, by tradition, the favorite sport of Canadian farmers.

Night racing is making it a favorite of urban dwellers, too. Their interest has also been whetted by a system of starting inaugurated in the 1940s. This involves an open automobile equipped w'ith a set of wings. The horses move up abreast of the wings, and the car speeds up as it nears the starting line. The starter, sitting in the car with his back to his chauffeur. keeps the horse-drivers in line by talking over a P.A. system in the car. This method of starting has eliminated tedious delays once caused by numerous false starts.

Most of the harness racing in the three Maritime provinces is conducted under lights, as it is at Ladner, B.C.. and in Quebec. Twenty-two cities and towns in Quebec hold meetings, seventeen in Saskatchewan. twelve in Manitoba, seven in New Brunswick, five in Nova Scotia and three each in Prince Edward Island and B. C. There was no harness racing in Alberta in 1956, although meetings previously had been conducted at High River and Lethbridge.

The vast majority of owners in Ontario’s 123 harness-racing centres are men who train their own horses in the intricacies of trotting and pacing. Sometimes they’ll spend a year teaching a horse one of these artificial gaits. And when they’ve trained them, the owners, most of whom are farmers who race for diversion, drive their own horses when they race.

There’s a bond here between man and horse that is missing from the thoroughbred business, where an owner turns his horse over to a trainer and rarely even sees it, except to feed it a lump of sugar in the barn occasionally or watch it run in the afternoon. Some harness men live with their horses literally, often sleeping in the same straw pile, and nursing a horse themselves when it’s sick or injured. It’s not unusual to see men seventy years of age. gnarled and bent and usually dirty, leading their harness horses to the paddock, chirping at them affectionately as they climb onto the bicyclewheeled sulkies, and talking to them constantly as they guide them around the track.

Armstrong sees no reason why horsemen can’t have a bond with their horses and receive good purses, too. He feels that night racing, stimulating attendance, will account accordingly for increased purses. Racing under lights helped account for sixteen million dollars in wagering at Montreal’s two tracks last year.

Night racing is expected in Toronto in 1958 at the Old Woodbine track. This year it’s undergoing extensive renovation

that involves a new three-quarter-mile track anci a new grandstand. For the last six years. Woodbine purses have averaged roughly four hundred dollars a race, with occasional stakes events worth anywhere from a thousand to six thousand dollars. Last year, with twilight racing, the operation showed a profit for the first time when three and a half million dollars was wagered in a thirty-three-day meeting (rain cancelled three programs). It's Armstrong's opinion that this figure will be far outdistanced in the future. Indeed, as an impartial owner who races

all over the continent, he declares that Toronto “will be twice as big as Montreal. There’s a better racing following in Toronto than anywhere on the continent, on a per-capita basis.”

Armstrong’s interest in breeding appears to supersede his interest in money in this connection. As one of his sons-inlaw says, “Elgin doesn’t know what to do with the money he’s got now." At his Brampton construction headquarters he is equipped to build anything from a highway to an airport. At the peak of the summer construction season he employs

eight hundred men, whom he transports around the country in forty aluminum mobile bunkhouses. They’re equipped like Pullman coaches and can be hooked to a truck-cab and transported anywhere. The vast layout at Brampton includes two large stables and a half-mile training track, as well as garages and offices for the construction firm, a hundred and fifty trucks, and eighteen shovei-andcrane machines worth seventy thousand dollars each.

This spread is three miles from the two-hundred-acre farm where Armstrong

was born fifty-nine years ago. He was the oldest of four sons born to Thomas Elgin Armstrong, a dirt farmer who kept sheep and loved horses. When Elgin was eleven he was driving his father’s favorite trotter to the country fair at nearby Woodbridge. Three years later his father died of tuberculosis. Elgin was about to try his high-school entrance examinations, and at the same time he tried to fill in for his father, putting the seed in. cleaning the stables, tending the sheep, milking the cows and splitting wood. He'd rise at five o’clock, do the chores and then walk two and a half miles to school. The strain was too much, and he left school.

When he was eighteen he got an idea that he could turn a profit if he were to auction off the sheep, and then he expanded the idea so that it included buying sheep from farmers in the district and auctioning them, too. He and his mother raised enough money to buy six hundred sheep. Then he hired an auctioneer.

“It was my first business transaction.” he recalls. "We .made a profit of twentyeight hundred dollars. The deal also convinced me that if you want to make money you’ve got to get into something where money’s changing hands. Farming’s no good. There’s too much of a gamble.”

He stayed in farming, though, and when he was eighteen he went out west on a fall excursion to work in the wheat fields of Manitoba, near Melita. On the trip he met his future wife, a girl named Victoria Lawrence who was on a holiday trip with her father.

They were married three years later, a month before his mother died, and Elgin used a thousand dollars she left him to make a down payment on six trucks. He got the idea of going into the contracting business when a road-building gang rented his tractor to pull the road-graders. He got his first contract from the Ontario highways department in 1930—to build the original highway that now runs east from Brampton to Toronto.

By 1940 he was doing well enough to buy some Holstein cattle for breeding and dairying, and eight years later he had developed a herd of 167 head which he sold to an Argentine rancher named Hector Astengo for a quarter of a million dollars.

Meanwhile his wife had become interested in show horses, and acquired a hackney pony named Crystal Lady. This pony had been in 560 stakes events in horse shows and had won 555 of them when she was retired in 1954. She won the world harness pony stake at the Chicago International Livestock show four years ago. and won the champion harness pony stakes at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto seven years in succession, from 1947 through 1953.

Armstrong’s son Charlie, who serves as general manager of the construction company, has been successful with a jumping horse named Black Velvet, and won the touch-and-out jumper stakes at the Royal Winter Fair two years ago.

Possibly just to make sure that no breed of horse is absent from the barn. Armstrong turned to thoroughbreds on a modest scale four years ago. He Hew to England in the summer of 1955 to purchase four fillies from the famous English sires Royal Charger and Nasrullah.

As yet, though. Armstrong says he can’t work up the enthusiasm for thoroughbreds that he finds for standardbreds.

“They're too highly strung,” he says, biting into a cigar. “You never get to know them very well. Now. you take a pacer. A pacer becomes your friend. Why, a lot of those horses, they’re just like people.” ★