TERRE HAUTE —
Those who are familiar with harness racing realize that 1892 was a pivotal year in its history due to the introduction of the bicycle sulky.
Terre Haute, with its already famous Four-Cornered Track, was a major beneficiary.
On back-to-back days in September at the northeast corner of Brown and Wabash avenues, Nancy Hanks shattered the world record for trotters in 2:04 and Mascot established the new mark for pacers in the same time.
No horse was able to better either of those marks during the 1892 season.
Harness racing was so popular in the 19th Century that those feats made headlines on newspapers from coast to coast. “TWO OUGHT FOUR” screamed the front page headline of the New York Post. Currier & Ives issued colorful prints of the feats.
The contest between Nancy Hanks and Sunol to lower the world trotting record held by Maud S. at 2:083⁄4 went to Sunol late in the 1891 season in 2:081⁄4, effectively ending the era of the high wheel sulky.
Bred by Hart Boswell, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most respected breeders, Nancy Hanks was an inbred product of the great trotter Hambletonian. However, she was not a “born trotter.” Her gait was so mixed that esteemed trainer Ben Kenney used extreme measures to induce her to adopt that favored gait.
Named in honor of the mother of Abraham Lincoln, Kentucky’s most famous son, Nancy Hanks made her racing debut as a 3-year old in 1889 at Harrodsburg, Ky. Brown bay in color, she definitely was high bred in appearance.
In 1890, Nancy Hanks won against all opposition and gradually reduced her mile time to 2:14 to become the most-talked-about trotter in the East. As a result, John Malcolm Forbes paid Boswell $45,000, a record price for trotting mares, for her.
That record was not broken until August 1909 when H.M. Hanna of Cleveland paid John E. Madden of Lexington $50,000 for Hamburg Belle.
Forbes transferred the care and training of Nancy Hanks from Kenney to Budd Doble, the world famous driver-trainer who made his home in Terre Haute from April to November each year to train the stallion Axtell and other horses at Warren Park Farm.
Ironically, Doble and Nancy Hanks did not get along in or around the stable but she gave him everything she had during her nine 1891 public performances, including one performance of 2:09. Her fastest training was provided by Doble’s talented assistants.
When the 1892 season opened, Nancy Hanks was fresh and ready while Sunol and Allerton, her principal competitors, were lame. She began her record smashing on Aug. 17 at Chicago with Doble at the reins in 2:071⁄4.
On Aug. 31, she improved her time to 2:051⁄4 at Independence, Iowa.
Then, on Sept. 28, she “touched the highest point of all her greatness” with the 2:04 performance at Terre Haute, becoming the first trotter to cover 440 yards in less than 30 seconds (293⁄4 seconds).
She never was able to better that time — confirming the superiority of the famous Four-Cornered Track — and retired undefeated the next year.
Mascot matched Nancy Hanks time in a race for pacers on Sept. 29.
Without doubt, harness racing in 1892 was “unprecedentedly brilliant.” Trotters raced for more money than ever before and the races were marked by higher speeds than ever anticipated.
Besides the records established by Nancy Hanks and Mascot at Terre Haute, there was a general advance in speed in every class, age and division. Nightingale lowered his two mile record to 4:33. Arion lowered the record for 3-year olds to 2:101⁄2. Kremlin (2:07 3/4) and Stamboul (2:071⁄2) lowered the mile stallion record.
During 1892, 1,300 trotters and 415 pacers were added to the coveted “2:30 List,” for many years referred to as “Standard Rank.”
All these marks were compiled because, in early 1892, a brilliant but unidentified horse breeder from metropolitan Boston put ball bearing pneumatic-tired bicycle wheels on a racing sulky in a harness race at Worcester, Mass. At first the new-fangled contraption was ridiculed but, after the nation’s best drivers tested it, it was embraced.
Harness racing has never looked back. By year’s end it was conceded that the bicycle wheel sulky was better than the old style high wheel sulky in every respect, improving speed as much as two to three seconds a mile.
Future harness racing had great expectations. “The Horseman,” a weekly published in Chicago, featured a 1893 baby approaching a young trotter displaying a card, which read:
The importance of “Two Minutes” appears clear to the young colt in the painting. After all, the blood of many generations of turf heroes flowed in his veins and he was aware that humans have labored many years to produce a horse to trot a mile in two minutes. The youthful trotter also seems to know that a great mare had reduced the margin of time needed to reach the goal at a race in Terre Haute during the prior summer.
In retirement, Nancy Hanks became a matron at Forbes Farm, near Boston. Before Malcolm Forbes death on Feb. 19, 1904, she had produced eight foals by sires Arion, Bingen, Peter the Great and Meddler, an imported English thoroughbred.
After the Forbes estate sold Nancy Hanks to J.M. Johnson for $4,000, she produced one additional foal by the stallion John A. McKerron and two sired by Todd. In 1907 Johnson sold her to John E. Madden and she died Aug. 16, 1915, at age 29, at Hamburg Place near Lexington.
Nancy Hanks remains were interred at Madden's elegant equine cemetery on his property and he erected a monument bearing a bronze portrait statuette over her grave. The cemetery was vandalized in 1943 and the statuette stolen.
Of the 11 foals of Nancy Hanks, 10 performed with speed or produced a foal or foals which did, or both. At least six second-generation products bettered “Two Minutes,” including pacing champion Billy Direct.
Nancy Hanks, Mascot and several other champions produced at Terre Haute’s Four-Cornered Track are memorialized by Currier & Ives.