SC Rewind: 1971 - The Year Of Albatross

Published: December 11, 2021 12:13 pm EST

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith recalls the magical season of 1971, the year that Albatross, a horse with strong ties to Canada through his ownership, rewrote many of the sport's records as he entertained racing fans across the land. Much of his piece today concerns his victory in that year's Cane Futurity Pace at Yonkers Raceway.

Back in 1971, fifty years ago, the world of harness racing was clearly ruled by one horse; his name was Albatross. A bay son of Meadow Skipper out of the Dancer Hanover mare Voodoo Hanover, he won 25 of his 28 season's starts that year. He also won $558,009 to set a new record for a single season's earnings, bettering the previous mark of $407,534 set by Bret Hanover.

His original owner Bert James was a relative newcomer to harness racing circles. In 1965, while operating an automobile dealership based in Windsor, Ont., James had made a strange car deal which saw him sell a new Cadillac to a horse owner who was a bit short on cash. The payment details that were eventually worked out to close the deal included a used car trade-in and three standardbreds.

The story is told that two of the three horses failed to turn much of a profit as one was sold for a paltry $500 and a second was claimed away from him for $1,000. However the third one, named Senator Eric, ended up earning $13,000. This spurred James to become more active in his new-found hobby. He started to acquire a few race horses and among his first purchaes was a two-minute pacer Hope Time who earned back his $40,000 purchase price within a year.

Almost suddenly by 1967 James found himself fully immersed in the horse business. He sold his car dealership and moved to the U.S. where he began to buy broodmares and entered the breeding business. Early in his newfound career he purchased his phenomenal Albatross as part of a broodmare package deal. After almost selling him before he was even broke to harness, James was at the top of the world of harness racing just five years into his involvement. Perhaps his rapid success could be summed up by saying that his formula was some very good advice from legendary horseman Delvin Miller coupled with quite a bit of good fortune.

Bert James, the original owner of Albatross, is shown with his prize pupil (Hoof Beats photo)

In 1970 Albatross had enjoyed a highly successful two-year-old campaign racing for Harry Harvey but prior to his three-year-old campaign Albatross was syndicated by James for $1,250,000. The new group known as the Albatross Stable and headed up by James included a total of nine people. Four of the new owners in the syndicate were all previously closely tied to famed trainer and driver Stanley Dancer so he was chosen to take over the racing duties.

In 1971 Albatross won virtually all of the top stakes offered for three-year-olds, racing at 15 different U.S. and Canadian tracks. Part way through the season after mowing down his competition week after week his ultra-confident trainer and driver Stanley Dancer told a harness reporter "I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't lose another race the rest of the season." His prophecy almost came true.


Albatross coasts to victory in the 1971 Cane Futurity with H.T. Luca second for Del Insko while High Ideal finishes third for driver Greg Wright (Harness Horse photo)

On July 16, 1971 that year's Cane Pace was contested at Yonkers Raceway. It was the 17th edition of the Cane, the middle leg of the Triple Crown series; Albatross had already won the Messenger. With a purse of $106,795 up for grabs, a crowd of 23,227 fans showed up to see "The Big Bird" as he was called, score another big win. They were not disappointed as far as winning the race went, but they were visibly upset that no new records were set. Time for the race was 2:00 flat, described by harness writer Louis Effrat as "an easy trip."

In a post-race write-up Effrat wrote "some of the 23,000 plus fans in attendance were in favor of charging Albatross and his driver with loitering." Dancer responded to the critics by saying "I'm not interested in records by Albatross at this point. We may go for it in the fall, but until then we'll be thinking only about winning."

Del Insko, driver of second-place finisher H T Luca who had the rail put early pressure on the winner by parking him for an eighth of a mile but once Dancer made the front he was clearly in charge. A 1-10 favourite in the betting, Albatross soon overcame his outside seventh position and won as he pleased. He did turn in a second half in :58.2 with a final quarter in :28.2 but there was never any doubt about the outcome. Nansemond was in this race but finished a rather distant fifth.

Insko said "I don't think it's fair to make comparisons of horses from the past and present but it looks like Albatross could be the tops. I had a good trip behind him tonight but got caught in a speed trap. Maybe we'll beat him before the year ends but that's a pretty tall order. In the meanwhile I'll be quite happy to settle for second money in $100,000 races; it's like winning a $50,000 event."

(Photo courtesy of Harness Horse magazine)

Despite the great season turned in by Albatross that year many people remember the one race that he did not win. That of course was when he missed out on winning that year's Jug at Delaware thanks to a shocking win by Nansemond and a clever drive by Herve Filion. This marked the only time that season that he was defeated by a three-year-old. Early in the season he missed a victory won by an aged horse.

In the 1971 season Albatross turned in 18 race miles in 2:00 or better, three more than Columbia George had registered in 1970 which was the previous record. As a comparison at this time Bret Hanover scored 13 "miracle miles" in both 1965 and 1966, his two best years. Albatross won in 2:00 or less in seven consecutive races at one stage of the season, something no other harness horse had ever accomplished up that point in time.

The 1971 season turned in by Albatross will be forever remembered as one of the great accomplishments of this era.

In 1998, Albatross died at the age of 30 at Hanover Shoe Farm in Pennsylvania of complications from heart failure and colic. He was buried at the Hanover Shoe Farms horse cemetery.

Quote For The Week: "Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge." Attributed to Sir Winston Churchill

Who Is It?

Can you identify the driver of the leading horse No. 5? Also does anyone recognize the driver of No. 2 as he was a Canadian driving at this U.S. track?

Who Else Is It?

Can you figure out who this gentleman is? If you think you recognize him, be sure to let us know. He left us a couple of years ago.

A Blast From The Past

I can recall the day when inside every tack trunk lid there were many old photo finish pictures displayed. Proud grooms wanted to show how close their horse finished to the winner or better yet how far ahead they were in winning. Can you identify the driver of No. 7 in this photo? Clue: You can see where it was taken, the year was 1959 and this wasn't his only win photo.

Be sure to stay tuned in during the upcoming week to find out for sure the identities of the people in this week's pictures.



Week after week our picture experts seem to get the right answers. This week's correct identities were as follows: Who is it? was correctly identified by several responders as Jack Moiseyev (5) with Ross Hayter (2) the second place finisher. I believe this was taken at Liberty Bell Park .
Who else is it? was Eddie Tracey, the late great driver from Western Canada. He did get around, reportedly at one time or another racing in no less than six Provinces.
The "Blast From The Past" photo finish picture from 1959 was Wm. "Bud" Gilmour winning at Batavia Downs with a great old mare from Southwestern Ontario Great Queen Jr. owned at this time by Ellis Dell of Becher, Ont. 

Picture # 1 Jack Moiseyev & Ross Hayter(?), Mike LaChance 3rd.
Picture # 2 "don't know"
Picture # 3 Buddy Gilmour