The point wasn't so much that 3-year-old colt Ralph Hanover won harness racing's premier race, the Little Brown Jug, last Thursday in Delaware, Ohio. And it wasn't so much that the victory earned him pacing's Triple Crown, though he's only the seventh colt to win it. The point wasn't even that Ralph Hanover's Jug winnings of $108,537 increased his record standardbred earnings for a year to $1,639,755.
All these accomplishments were significant, of course, but what was most important about Ralph Hanover's win over 22 rivals was that it was a vicarious victory for the average guy who's a little lazy, and a huge victory for some heretofore little people not afraid to dream big.
"He's the people's horse," said trainer Stew Firlotte. Added Driver Ron Waples, "If I could change one thing about Ralph, I wouldn't." Good thinking. To win the Jug, a horse must win two one-mile heats. Ralph Hanover won two in a row, laughing. That wasn't unexpected: Ralph Hanover was such a top-heavy favorite in the first heat that the next choice, Skirt Lifter, went off at 12 to 1.
In the second go-round Ralph toyed briefly with Fortune Teller, who ran out of breath, and Jo-Nathan, who ran out of heart at the ¾ pole. In fact, heat No. 2 was nothing but a coronation for Ralph Hanover: one-eighth mile from the finish he bore down and extended his winning margin to 4¼ lengths to put the finishing touch on a glorious year in which he won 17 of 21 starts. The time was 1:55⅗ sluggish even with a stiff headwind on the backstretch.
It figures. What would you expect of a horse with the uncatchy name of Ralph Hanover? "He reminds me of Ralph Kramden on the old Honeymooners" says Firlotte. "A ham. A journeyman. He prefers to lie down and sleep." The name was hung on him when he was foaled at Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania, and Firlotte decided not to change it because "he's just a Ralph."
Firlotte and his wife, Jo-Anne, who hail from Toronto, got bitten by the racing bug in 1968 when they bought a 2-year-old filly for $500. Equipment for her cost $1,000, and she won her first start. The winner's take was $32.50. This bonanza prompted the Firlottes to quit their jobs two years later—he was a sales manager, she a bank cashier—sell their furniture, strap a crib and stroller to the top of their Buick and drive to Florida to learn how to train horses properly.
They showed they had learned their lessons well in 1981 when Stew spotted Ralph Hanover at a sale in Harrisburg, Pa. Firlotte says, "He was small, but he looked the part of a racehorse. He was eye-catching." As it turned out, just about the only other eyes he caught belonged to Waples. Discovering this the two, who were countrymen, agreed not to bid against each other but to become partners. They paid $58,000 for Ralph Hanover, a pittance in these days when the hammer sometimes falls at $200,000 and much more.
Upon getting Ralph Hanover on the track as a 2-year-old, Firlotte and Waples were horrified when he showed no inclination to go any faster than 2:16. That would not win a race to a grocery store check-out counter. And Ralph Hanover—because he's like most of us—proceeded to get lazier. Then he caught the flu and various other viral infections. "He got to be a joke," recalls Firlotte. But when it came time to race, Ralph Hanover perked up, winning eight of 12 starts, though seldom impressively. Still, by this spring, Ralph Hanover was looking good. Real good. Which is why, unlike the rest of us, Ralph Hanover has been syndicated for $7 million by a group spearheaded by Jack Baugh, owner of Almahurst Farm in Lexington, Ky. In the deal, the Firlottes got about $1.3 mil, as did Waples.
By the end of Jug day, beer was in tubs everywhere around Ralph Hanover's barn. "Ralph's beer," explained Jo-Anne. That also figures. When a lazy horse named Ralph wins, the drink of choice has to be beer.