By Jane Beathard
DELAWARE — Harness horse racing — and in particular, Delaware’s Little Brown Jug — is a tradition with the Hackett and Smart families of central and western Ohio.
The four daughters and one son of 1967 Jug winner Jim Hackett are also the grandchildren of T. Wayne “Curly” Smart. Smart won the first Jug in 1946 and again in 1952.
While the five siblings are now scattered around the state, the annual pacing classic brings them together for a reunion on the third Thursday of each September at the Delaware County Fairgrounds.
Terri Hackett Gilbert said the entire Jug weekend is something of a homecoming for the offspring of those who pioneered the race. Officially founded in 1946, the Jug is one leg of the national Triple Crown for pacing horses.
As children, Gilbert, along with sisters Susan, Cheryl, Lisa, and brother, Tim, never attended the race because they lived in the Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill and were in school by late September.
Their father trained and drove standardbred race horses for Fransabet Farm, owned by Cincinnati businessman Sam Huttenbauer.
Unlike their distant thoroughbred cousins, standardbred horses pace (legs moving in unison on each side) or trot (legs moving in unison diagonally) with great speed. They race in harnesses, pulling sulkies and drivers behind.
Hackett was a decorated World War II cavalry veteran who hailed from a family that was heavily involved in standardbred racing.
“Dad had a keen sense of horses,” said Susan Hackett Kreiner.
He could spot potential winners in the sale ring and understood the art of breeding fast horses, Gilbert said.
Hackett solidified his place among harness racing’s royalty by marrying Curly Smart’s daughter, Mary, in Delaware in 1951.
Their five children enjoyed carefree lives on and around Fransabet Farm in the 1950s and ’60s.
“There were always a couple of good quarter horses to ride,” Kreiner said. “And we went to afternoon matinee races at a private track on the property.”
A high point for the family came in 1967 when Hackett drove Huttenbauer’s Best Of All to the winner’s circle of the Jug. Congratulatory messages poured in from the likes of then-Gov. Jim Rhodes and Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes, Kreiner remembered.
But a mere three years later, tragedy struck.
Hackett suffered a fatal heart attack while racing at Latonia, Ky., on Aug. 24, 1970. He was 52.
Kreiner, then 13, and sister Cheryl, then 14, were in the crowd and saw their father slump from the sulky at the finish line.
“He took the horse wide and finished third,” Gilbert remembered.
Following her husband’s death, Mary Smart Hackett worked for the U.S. Trotting Association and moved her five children back to Delaware where they could be near her parents.
“The horse community closed (protectively) around us,” Cheryl Hackett Ross said.
In Delaware, Jug day became a big day for the five teenage siblings.
“Being Curly Smart’s grandchildren made us celebrities,” Kreiner said.
Smart died in 1976, but not before earning a reputation not only as a trainer-driver, but also as the Jug’s masterful track superintendent.
“He was an expert at track conditioning,” Ross said.
Kreiner estimated her grandfather earned $2.5 million during his 54-year racing career.
The Hackett–Smart clan takes pride in a horse heritage and growing up in a racing family. They will be on hand when a winner crosses the wire at the 2015 Jug.
“We still have a family box on the finish line,” Kreiner said.
The Little Brown Jug was not named for drinking or pottery. It was named for a renowned pacing horse of the 1870s, according to a race history published in 1995.
The name was selected from more than 4,000 entries in a 1944 contest to find a fitting title for the Ohio contest that was destined to become a national classic for 3-year-old pacers.
Hank Thomson, owner of the Delaware Gazette newspaper, and local attorney Joe Neville headed a group that founded the Jug and eventually made it a feature of the Delaware County Fair.
It was the 1940s and harness racing was a rising phenomenon in American sports — especially in the Midwest.
“Lots of people had an interest,” said Cheryl Hackett Ross.
Ross is a granddaughter of T. Wayne “Curly” Smart who hailed from Delaware and won the first official Jug in 1946 — then a second in 1952. Ross’ father, Jim Hackett, trained and drove the 1967 winner.
The popularity of county fairs was also on the rise in post-Depression America, and Thomson and Neville lured the Delaware County Fair to the City of Delaware from nearby Powell by constructing a half-mile track suited to sulky racing.
Finished in 1939, the fast oval was an instant favorite with horse owners and drivers, the history said.
A year later, stewards of harness racing’s Grand Circuit came calling on Thomson and Neville. The Grand Circuit is a series of prestigious races for trotters and pacers.
“They were looking for a place to host a race,” Ross said.
But some local backers feared the city didn’t have the capacity to host a big race with more than 50,000 fans. Thomson and Neville were urged to turn down the invitation.
But Neville was determined and conveniently “forgot” to reject the invitation within the time frame allotted by the stewards.
“I plumb forgot to send the telegram,” Neville later told Thomson.
The Grand Circuit came to Delaware and the rest is horse racing history.
Jane is a retired staff writer for The Madison Press in London, and the retired media relations manager of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.