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In Harness: Horse-of-Year Tall Dark Stranger Owners Reflect On His Brilliant Career

USTA / Lisa Photo

One of Tall Dark Stranger‘s 1:47.2 triumphs came in the
Meadowlands Pace, which he won in dramatic fashion,
giving up the lead to Papi Rob Hanover in the stretch
before fighting back to win by a neck.

(Courtesy of USTA Media Relations)

Hightstown, NJ — Tall Dark Stranger will go down in history as the winner of the 2020 Horse of the Year Award handed out by the U.S. Harness Writers Association. For the members of his ownership group, he might be remembered as the horse of a lifetime.

Michelle and Al Crawford’s Crawford Farms Racing, Marvin Katz, Judy and Buck Chaffee’s Caviart Farms, and Howard Taylor shared ownership of Tall Dark Stranger throughout his racing career, which concluded last fall with 19 wins and two second-place finishes among 22 starts. He earned $2.02 million lifetime.

As a 3-year-old, Tall Dark Stranger won 11 of 13 races and $1.30 million. He was harness racing’s only millionaire in the COVID-19 impacted season and his triumphs included the Meadowlands Pace, North America Cup, Cane Pace, and Kentucky Sire Stakes final.

He is the only horse to ever win the Metro Pace and a Breeders Crown as a 2-year-old and the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup as a 3-year-old.

Tall Dark Stranger established his career-best win time of 1:47.1 in a stakes-record Cane Pace performance at The Meadowlands last August. Only six 3-year-old pacers in history have gone faster. He also won twice in 1:47.2 last season, making him the only 3-year-old pacer in history with more than two victories in 1:47.2 or faster.

One of the 1:47.2 triumphs came in the Meadowlands Pace, which he won in dramatic fashion, giving up the lead to Papi Rob Hanover in the stretch before fighting back to win by a neck. He became well known for fighting his rivals in the stretch and winning tight finishes — six of his 11 victories at 3 came by a half-length or less.

Even in defeat, Tall Dark Stranger gained admiration. His second-place finish in last year’s Breeders Crown colt-and-gelding pace came after he set a stakes record with a :52.3 half and battled nearly the entire field as he came down the stretch. He held them all off except Sandbetweenmytoes, who rallied on the far outside to win in the final strides.

“Many people think that may have been his greatest race, and I wouldn’t argue with that,” co-owner Katz said. “But there are a lot of memories. Winning the Metro as a 2-year-old, winning the North America Cup. His victory in the Meadowlands Pace was so dramatic and his performance in the Cane was beyond spectacular.

“How do you pick one highlight? He had half-a-dozen races of a lifetime.”

Tall Dark Stranger is the seventh male pacer in history to receive a Dan Patch Award at age 2 and be named Horse of the Year at 3. The others were Somebeachsomewhere, Nihilator, Niatross, Albatross, Bret Hanover, and Torpid.

A son of Bettor’s Delight out of Dan Patch Award winner Precocious Beauty, Tall Dark Stranger was bred by Jim Avritt Sr. and sold for $330,000 as a yearling at the Lexington Selected Sale. He was trained by Nancy Takter and driven by Yannick Gingras.

Following is a compilation of comments by Tall Dark Stranger’s owners, reflecting on the horse’s career.

Judy Chaffee: When he was a yearling, he looked the part. He was very impressive. I said to Buck at the sale, is there any such thing as being too perfect? He already looked like he owned the world, and he hadn’t even sold yet. He came to know it himself.

Al Crawford: Going into his first qualifier, Nancy said that he was a special colt. Then he was lights out in his qualifier, especially with his last quarter (:26.1). That’s when we started to think, wow, maybe he is special. By the time he made his second or third start, you could see he had tremendous ability.

Buck Chaffee: When you get into horseracing, you dream of, not even a Horse of the Year, but just a top horse. For that horse to go on and be so fantastic and end up being Horse of the Year is beyond our wildest dreams. It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.

Howard Taylor: I’m hoping I do, but I’m expecting to never have another one like him. I’ve had a lot of good ones, but I’ve never had one like him. I’ve never seen a horse that just says, “I’m not losing.” He’s just an unbelievable horse.

Michelle Crawford: I don’t know if there is a horse that brought more excitement to every single race. That excitement of watching him in the stretch, almost every race, there’s no other horse like him. I don’t know if my heart could take another year of him racing on the track. (Laughs.) But he never gave up. It was unbelievable to watch.

Buck Chaffee: His races were always tense; he just never let you relax. He wouldn’t get out there and blow the field away, he was wanting to duke it out with them all the time. He made your heart skip a few beats, that’s for sure.

Howard Taylor: My cardiologist is very happy that he’s retired. He didn’t want to lose, but he sure as heck didn’t want to win by much. I really think that he was toying with them. In the Meadowlands Pace, I was sure he was beaten. I was counting how many others were coming to see if we could still get a check. But then he just did what he always does. It was an unbelievable race.

Al Crawford: That is probably one of my favorite races of all time. The other race that stands out is the North America Cup. He just destroyed them. They just weren’t able to pace with him.

Marvin Katz: You lose sight of the fact he had incredible high speed and could carry it for a very long distance, which is a trait of great champions. Of course, his courage and determination, that is the unique quality everyone looks for that separates the great ones from the rest of them. But he had everything. He was the whole package.

Al Crawford: He did what he needed to do to win. He’s a very smart horse. Yannick didn’t just send him every week, he drove him intelligently, and the colt always got home. I think he was brilliantly fast, but he also had more heart and determination than any horse I’ve ever seen.

Buck Chaffee: Just unbelievable character. Now we’re hoping he passes that along to his offspring because we’re breeding a lot of mares to him, as you could imagine. We’re hoping for them to carry that on.

Michelle Crawford: I think he will have every chance to produce any kind of champion.

Marvin Katz: I think the market considers him one of the great horses we’ve seen in a long time. I certainly do. It’s been a magical ride. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy great horses and you really appreciate their brilliance after you have a chance to reflect on it. When you look at what he accomplished, he’s in the most elite company possible. I think he’s a horse for the ages.

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