In racing, it’s the trainers and the drivers (or jockeys) who get all the press and all the credit when a horse emerges as a superstar. But it’s the overworked, underpaid grooms, or caretakers, who bond with these horses and devote themselves to their every need, who live out of suitcases for months at a time, who clean harness and shovel shit and know their horses inside out, and sometimes check themselves out of the hospital to be there for a race …. and then watch them head off in triumph to the breeding shed.
They’re also the ones who, when their charges are unexpectedly euthanized far too young, sometimes have to find out through Facebook.
My friend Sarah Lauren Scott is one such caretaker. She was the unsung hero behind the career of $3 million pacer, Rocknroll Hanover, winner of the North America Cup, the Meadowlands Pace, and the Metro Pace in 2004 and 2005, and she was shocked to hear, last week, that her horse of a lifetime had suffered a fatal bout of colic. He was only 11.
There were lots of articles published about Rocknroll Hanover’s demise which dissected his racing talents and featured quotes from his owners and the management at the breeding farm where he stood at stud. This story, however, is about a woman and the horse she loved. It’s an expanded version of a column I wrote about her memories of ‘Rock’, for the United States Trotting Association. The photos are from Sarah’s collection on Facebook.
Of all the people who were shocked and saddened by Thursday, March 14’s news of the untimely death of champion pacer and sire, Rocknroll Hanover (Western Ideal – Rich N Elegant), no-one felt the loss more keenly than the young woman who experienced his two-year odyssey at the very top echelon of the sport first-hand.
Sarah Lauren Scott, of Milton, Ontario, was the caretaker for the burly colt she called Rock, from almost the beginning of his two-year-old campaign, down to his final triumph in the Breeders Crown as a sophomore, and remembers every detail as if it was yesterday.
“I had just started working for Brett Pelling in 2004, and he told me there were two horses coming up from New Jersey – a free-for-all trotter, and a ‘wild two-year-old’,” Scott recalls. “He gave me the choice of which one I could take on. I said I’d leave it up to him, and I ended up with the two-year-old. The reason everyone considered him wild was that he had gotten loose at the Meadowlands, destroyed the paddock, and stopped the whole fourth race.
“When Rock first came off the truck, I thought, ‘He doesn’t look as bad as they were saying’. He was kind of awkward because he looked like two different animals – very heavy in front, but lean and athletic behind. But he didn’t act like a two-year-old. He was actually quite educated and well-mannered.”
Well-mannered might be a relative term, for Rocknroll Hanover did have one worrisome habit: he spent a lot of time on his hind legs. So much so, in fact, that his new caretaker soon decided that it was safer to lead him with a 30-foot longe line clipped to his halter, rather than a standard leadshank.
But she insists, “His rearing was never nasty. He was just playing. I just preferred to be overprepared.”
With just two baby races under his belt, yielding a first and an eighth place finish, the inexperienced Rocknroll Hanover made his Canadian debut in a two-year-old condition dash at Woodbine, after a single qualifier at nearby Mohawk. He finished a respectable but hardly dazzling third in that August effort, which was enough for Pelling to enter the colt in the following week’s elimination for the $1,211,800 Metro Pace. Once again Rock stuck well enough with his peers to finish third and squeak into the final.
Given his lukewarm efforts to that point, it’s no surprise that the colt left the gate in the September 4 Metro Pace final a lightly regarded 31-1. History, of course, records that Rocknroll Hanover, in rein to Brian Sears, rode the helmet of Ron Pierce and the considerably more experienced Village Jolt, and then powered past them in the stretch to prevail by a length in a then-world-record 1:49.4.
“That was pretty special,” says Scott, simply. “All the talk had been about Village Jolt. We just felt lucky to have even gotten into the final.”
Rocknroll Hanover turned three in a snowy paddock in Ontario. “He came out in the spring looking like a hairy teddy bear with a big belly,” says Scott. “But it didn’t take him long to get fit.” He began his sophomore campaign with a New Jersey Sires Stakes win and from there quickly became a superstar, winning both the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, and the $1,000,000 Meadowlands Pace.
“It was a dream come true for me to be there at the Meadowlands Pace with a real contender. He had earned everyone’s respect by then, all the other trainers. Everyone knew he was something special.”
Soon Rock had legions of admirers. “I really enjoyed sharing him with people,” Scott remembers. “I’d bring him over to the fence so he could be admired and people would pet his nose. They were just in awe of him, and he was always a gentleman … I never had to worry about him doing anything dirty.
“He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, no question. I can’t say enough about how smart and classy he was.”
Scott established a strict routine with her charge, which included, after he suffered an episode of tying up, either early-evening turnout or hand-grazing. That became the pair’s quality time together, when the shedrow was quiet. “I’d park around the back and turn my car radio on. It was usually either Andrea Bocelli, or Sinatra. And it would just be me, Rock, and my dog, every night. That was our downtime from the spotlight. It’s probably my favourite memory of him.
“You know, I was young, and I had moved down to the States by myself to work with him during his three-year-old campaign. So he was my family. I did a lot of growing up. I learned to stand up for myself.”
The only disappointment in Rocknroll Hanover’s career was the 2005 Little Brown Jug (won by P Forty Seven). Scott almost shudders at the memory even now.
“That was an absolute heartbreak on a lot of levels,” she says. “First of all it was extremely hot. He was in the last heat and had to leave from the six hole. A shoe slid off the side of his foot and I saw his head come up and I could just tell he was sore. We had to get him reshod between heats. Very stressful. It was hard for me to send him back out because I knew he wasn’t 100%, but there had been so much build-up all week … fans coming to take pictures of him, everyone expected him to win.”
Rocknroll Hanover finished third in the Jug final, and the experience soured Scott on heat racing, but fortunately the colt bounced back beautifully. “That was good management,” she says. “He was as fresh at the end of the year as he had been at the beginning, and that’s part of Brett’s genius.”
Rocknroll Hanover ended his racing career with a bang, capturing his Breeders Crown division at the Meadowlands by one and a quarter lengths over Leading X Ample, and retiring with a bankroll in excess of $3 million.
Scott made her way back to Ontario, having had her fill of the spotlight for the time being, but she has kept close tabs on her favourite’s offspring and has gone out of her way to work with them when possible. “I took care of World Of Rocknroll for a little while, and I paddocked Pet Rock last year for the Confederation Cup.
“People say he stamped his babies, but to me, they’re all very different. I keep looking for my Rock in all of them, and I see pieces of him, but I haven’t seen the whole package yet. Look at Rock N Roll Heaven – they used to call him ‘little hot dog’. And then there’s Put On A Show, who’s so dark and sleek and aggressive. I follow them all very closely.”
The depth of Scott’s dedication to Rocknroll Hanover is also evident by the collection of memorabilia she treasures. “I kept everything,” she confesses. “I have numbers, blankets, saddle pad numbers with his name on them. I have his yearling halter. And I have the last set of shoes he wore, from the Breeders Crown.
“I last saw him in 2011, and I never imagined that he would be gone so soon. I’m just devastated … I couldn’t even have talked to you about this yesterday. But I’m glad I kept these things now. They’re all very special to me.”
- Hall of Famer Rocknroll Hanover dies at 11 (m.si.com)
A very touching story Karen. Thanks. There are many ‘unsung heroes’ behind the scenes in all sports, but any that involve caring for animals always seem to highlight the unique bonds that form between caretaker and animal. Saying goodbye is hard to do.
Karen, thanks so much for this lovely article. While the world of harness racing is mostly unfamiliar to me, the special bond you can share with an animal you care for is something I know well. My heart goes out to your friend Sarah and my thanks to her for sharing her memories with us.
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