One of my favorite people to visit when I was a child was my maternal grandfather, who owned a 100-acre farm in remote northwestern Clinton County. Ninety acres of the property were wooded (I loved exploring nature); he had cows, horses, and a dog (I loved animals); and he was an avid fisherman (I lived on the riverbank in Champlain and loved fishing). From my perspective, everything about my Grandpa Jim (Lagree) was cool (this was back in the ’60s, so “cool” is appropriate).
On the wall near his usual sitting area in the living room was a framed photo of a horse and sulky with the caption, “Dan Patch.” Since it was my grandfather’s picture, I knew it had to be something cool, and I was right. As he explained to me, Dan Patch was the greatest trotter ever. Trotting, as I learned, was once the most popular sport across Northern New York.
Within a general loop from Albany north to Glens Falls and Plattsburgh; west to Malone, Ogdensburg, Potsdam, and Watertown; south to Boonville; southeast back to Albany; and many stops in between, dozens of communities in the Adirondacks and foothills had trotting tracks of varying quality. Participants ranged from farmers to professional horsemen, all of them eager to put their horses’ abilities up against others for bragging rights, money prizes, and, of course, side bets.
Entering into this world of competitive racing in 1856 was Horace Brown, a 12-year-old native of Clinton County, New York. Years later, he alternately gave his birthplace as Chazy and Champlain, two bordering towns where he lived on farms at different times. His father, William, reputedly an excellent trainer and driver of horses, provided Horace with a solid background in the sport, enabling him as a pre-teen to participate in his first race, which was held at Malone in nearby Franklin County.
Within a few years, young Horace was well known at several tracks on both sides of the Canadian border and developed connections with some prominent horsemen. In 1859, while working for the Mott horse farm in Vermont (just across Lake Champlain from his New York home), 15-year-old Horace was tasked with delivering a promising trotter, Edward Everett, to Village Stock Farm (generally known as Village Farm) in Buffalo. (Everett eventually headed a branch of the famed Hambletonian family, and Village Farm will surface again as an important part of Horace’s life.)
The following year (1860), he was hired to work in Kentucky for two nationally prominent horse breeders, Richard Veech of Indian Hill Stock Farm and Levin L. Dorsey of Eden Stock Farm. Horace trained and drove horses for them and provided advice on purchases — including Veech’s acquisition of Edward Everett. That same year, he developed Rolla Goldust into a big winner for the Dorsey farm.
By the late 1960s, Horace had returned to the North Country, married, was living in the town of Champlain, and had a son, Arthur, in early 1870. For the next decade, he drove in New York State and New England races, and trained for the stables of Charles Pond in Hartford, Connecticut, and whisky magnate John (J. P.) Wiser at Prescott, Ontario, directly across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg. By 1880, Horace had relocated to Garden Street in Potsdam, where he continued developing horses in the training barn at the fairgrounds.
In spring 1881, he was hired for a very special project in Rochester. The rarest of stories in horse racing involves unknown steeds rising suddenly to great glory. In many cases, it is discovered that a “new” horse was in fact a ringer, one that had been highly successful elsewhere. But in this instance, it was the real deal: Captain Lewis, a raw recruit, appeared to have potential as a racer. Horace was called upon to train and develop this horse, which had worked farm fields just months earlier. Under his tutelage as both trainer and driver, Captain Lewis became a phenomenon, defeating all challengers during the 1882 season. Initially, competitors swore the horse off as a ringer, but soon discovered the truth: Brown, the trainer, had made a champion out of a plow horse.
At age 38, fresh from the experience of guiding Captain Lewis through a remarkable campaign, Horace found his reputation considerably enhanced. During the following season, he handled a stable of nine trotters at the Rochester Driving Park and achieved excellent results.
In 1884, he was given control of an up-and-coming chestnut mare, Niagaretta, owned by Parkhurst Jerauld of Niagara Falls (whose family owned the famous hotel there, Cataract House). That same year, cited as one of the best-known trainers in the country, Horace was hired to manage the horses of Village Farm in East Aurora, southeast of Buffalo. The facility was owned by Cicero (C. J.) Hamlin, considered one of the most important horse breeders of the nineteenth century.
For the next four years, Horace trained and drove some of the fastest trotters in the business for Village Farm, which became known as the “world’s greatest trotting nursery.” There he trained Chimes, now a member of the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. Also among his pupils were Mambrino King, reputedly “the handsomest horse in the world,” and Belle Hamlin, a stable star and one of the owner’s favorites. In mid-1888, Horace personally drove Belle to an unofficial record time of 1:02½ for a half mile. Brown won many races, trained many record-setting champions, and earned large sums for Village Farm on the Grand Circuit, harness racing’s highest level. But after a dispute later that year over Horace’s handling of the beloved Belle during an important race, C. J. Hamlin fired him.
Next week, part 2: success at home and abroad
Photos: Horace Brown; Captain Lewis; Mambrino King’s memory lives on (East Aurora Advertiser)
A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.