Top Ontario Sires Stakes performer R Gauwitz Hanover has racked up an impressive portfolio of wins thusfar this season, but it could be argued that the significance of his victories pales in comparison to the inspiration his budding career has given to the racing fan for whom he has named.
By Dean Hoffman
IT WAS THE SUMMER OF ’68, an annus horribilus in American history. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated that year, and racial and anti-war riots tore apart American cities. Come August, I was at the Illinois State Fair working as a groom, taking care of a trotter that had been the most expensive colt in the Castleton Farm yearling consignment the previous year.
A young man came walking through the barn, using crutches to drag his legs along. He spotted the colt’s nameplate and paused to watch as I brushed the two-year-old blood bay coat.
“Has he raced yet?” the man asked me.
I told him he hadn’t, and that it wasn’t too likely he’d race any time soon. The colt stabbed a hind leg; he was a work in progress.
That was my first conversation with Ralph Gauwitz, and unbeknownst to me at the time, it would spark a friendship that’s lasted more than four decades. Now 71, Ralph resides in a nursing home, and his sole source of income is a dollar-a-day stipend from the State of Illinois.
He’s been in a nursing home for five years now, since illness made it impossible for him to remain at home with his parents. His mother died a few years ago at age 88. Ralph’s father, now 93, continues to live at the family home and cares for another son with developmental disabilities. All too often in our telephone conversations in recent years, Ralph has said, “If I have to stay in a place like this for the rest of my life, I hope it’s not a long life.”
But then there came a horse.
R Gauwitz Hanover, named after Ralph himself, has become a star in the Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots division this season. Ralph is unable to travel, but he follows each start of the Modern Art colt closely, thanks to the efforts of Howard Pearce, member of the Landmark IV Racing Stable (a partner with Katherine Steacy, David Reid, and Bridle Path Stables on R Gauwitz Hanover). Ralph will often listen to the race call over a telephone or watch on a borrowed laptop computer. Besides the owners, he’s certainly the colt’s biggest fan.
RALPH, THE OLDEST OF FIVE Gauwitz children, was born with spastic cerebral palsy. He has never been able to walk. He got around on crutches for many years, but is today confined to a wheelchair. A brother followed in 1941, a sister in 1946, and another brother in 1948. “My parents had a baby girl who died in 1944 the day she was born,” says Ralph. “So I have a sister that I hope to meet in Heaven.”
He shares a birthday with America; he was born on the Fourth of July in 1940. On his 13th birthday in 1953, Ralph told his parents he wanted to see the horse races at the local fair in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. He admits now that he probably didn’t know the difference between harness and thoroughbred racing, but he’d fallen in love with horses, like so many other children, thanks to Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series of books. No one in the family had an interest in horses before Ralph. Certainly not his father, whose grandfather was killed when a draft horse kicked him in the head.
He can still recall the races from that fair six decades ago, particularly the filly Note Book. “She’d let me walk into her stall on crutches and pet her,” he says.
“Until it was feeding time,” he adds with a laugh, “and then she chased me out.”
A month after that visit to the fair, Ralph recalls listening to the radio broadcast of the Hambletonian from Goshen, New York, as Helicopter became the first Canadian-owned trotter to win the classic.
Five years later, Ralph found the program from that 1953 afternoon of racing at Peoria and noticed that Note Book was owned by Dr. G.V. Herring, Denmark, Wisconsin. He had no street address, but Ralph wrote a long and laborious letter to Dr. Herring on the chance it might reach him. Within a week, he received a six-page typewritten reply. “As you know, there is nothing a horse owner would rather do than talk about his horses,” Dr. Herring wrote to Ralph.
Later in 1958, Herring sent Ralph a Christmas issue of The Horseman & Fair World magazine. “I think it’s no exaggeration to say I memorized it,” Ralph smiles.
His passion for harness racing was building, but college beckoned in the fall of 1959. It was Ralph’s goal to teach mentally-challenged children such as his brother Michael. Unfortunately, while attending college, Ralph became seriously ill and his red blood cell count plummeted. His energy dissipated, his grades dropped, and he was forced to abandon his education.
He eventually recovered, though, and worked hard to regain a place at school. His mother was so proud of him in the summer of 1962 that she said, “Ralph, you deserve a reward. What would you like?”
“I want to go to the Hambletonian and watch Impish race,” he told her without pause. The Hambletonian had moved to his home state of Illinois in 1957, but it was still 250 miles from his home. Regardless, his mother made it happen.
Because of his handicap, Ralph could not reach the seats his parents had purchased, so he sat on bleachers and bet quarters on each race with the man sitting next to him. (There was no pari-mutuel wagering on the Hambletonian then.) Ralph’s heroine Impish was no match for the winner ACs Viking that day.
When Ralph graduated from college, he was unable to find work teaching because he had no means of transportation. America wasn’t so hospitable to the handicapped then. So he worked for many years at Couch & Heyle, a Peoria hardware store where his father was the head of the repair shop.
Ralph’s life was his family, his church, and harness racing. Although he could not drive, his parents took Ralph to county and state fairs and he was a regular at The Red Mile and Kentucky yearling sales for many years.
AFTER THAT FIRST MEETING in 1968, Ralph and I became pen pals. When I was out of college in 1972, Ralph came to stay with me in Ohio to see the Little Brown Jug.
Today, Ralph still remembers every detail of Strike Out’s victory in world record times. I remember waking him on Jug day morning. “Rise and shine!” I shouted into his room. “We’ve got to get to the Delaware fairgrounds early. Let’s go!”
Our friendship continued to grow over the years, kindled by the times I’d see him at The Red Mile in the fall or at another Grand Circuit stop. As prostate cancer and other ailments struck Ralph, however, he wasn’t able to travel and our contacts were more sporadic.
There was a lot that I didn’t know about his life until I approached him about sharing his story. I learned that when Ralph had his gall bladder removed, he went through a period where he seemed to choke every time he tried to chew food. He became so afraid that he wouldn’t eat unless someone was nearby who could perform the Heimlich maneuver. “I was tired of being that way, scared to death to even eat,” Ralph says.
Eventually, he admits, he attempted to take his own life. When his parents were away from home one day, he poured a glass of milk, found a bottle of sleeping pills, and headed for the dining room table. Ralph sat down and swallowed the pills. All of them. His plan was simply to lose consciousness and never wake up. Instead, he became violently ill and threw up again and again. “I still expected to die,” Ralph admits. But when he eventually found his way to his bedroom to lie down, he didn’t die. He simply got sick and threw up again.
Finally, leaning heavily on the bathroom sink, he splashed his face with cold water. “Well, Ralph,” he told his reflection in the bathroom mirror, “apparently God isn’t ready for you yet.”
His parents came home and immediately asked what had happened to the pills. When Ralph confessed, they called his doctor, who told them to keep him awake all night. Afterwards, Ralph was placed in a suicide prevention unit.
WHEN I LEARNED THAT RALPH was in a nursing home and despondent, we reconnected by telephone. Luckily for our friendship, Ralph has never been at a loss for words. He can talk the hind leg off a mule. We usually discuss arcane areas of pedigrees and performances, and Ralph will occasionally laugh about our conversations. “Dean,” he tells me, “I couldn’t talk about these things with anyone else in the world.”
His father is truly a saint, and Ralph has also enjoyed the friendship of Fred Elmore, a businessman and horse owner. “I had a local TV show on racing years ago and Ralph recognized me at a fair,” says Elmore. “He told me the pedigree of my horse back to the Civil War. I almost fell over.”
Two years ago, the Illinois State Fair honored Gauwitz for his many years of support of harness racing in the state. He was wheeled into the winner’s circle at Springfield for the ceremony. It was the first time he’d been able to see the races there for several years. The Springfield Journal-Review featured him and ran a colour photo of the ceremony.
It was the fall of 2009 that I asked Russell Williams at Hanover Shoe Farms if he would kindly consider naming a yearling after Ralph. Williams – a class act all the way – went me one better. He named two yearling colts, a trotter and a pacer, after Ralph. It was the only time that Hanover had named two yearlings for a person in the same year, he said later.
The trotter was a Yankee Glide colt named Gauwitz Hanover, and the pacer the Modern Art youngster R Gauwitz Hanover.
Ralph was enthralled and immediately began studying their pedigrees in depth. Nothing captivates him more than standardbred breeding and he has an encyclopedic memory dating back decades. In the fall of 2010, the trotter was purchased by Celebrity Farms, which has a practice of using the farm name as a prefix, so Gauwitz Hanover became Celebrity Gauwitz. R Gauwitz Hanover was purchased by Mark Steacy.
Sam Stathis, owner of Celebrity Farms, had several conversations with Ralph during the winter and gave him glowing reports on Celebrity Gauwitz. The colt showed great promise in training and was paid up in the Peter Haughton Memorial. When he began to race, Celebrity Gauwitz proved to have a wandering mind. He was castrated in hopes that would focus his attention on the track, but he’s continued to have problems. “I still love him,” says Ralph simply. He understands that patience is a virtue with trotters.
Meanwhile R Gauwtiz Hanover was training down under the radar for Steacy, and has today banked $85,532 in 10 lifetime starts. His 8-1-1 record boasts wins in each of his five OSS starts (making him the points leader in his category heading into the Grassroots semi-finals), and Ralph has been buoyed beyond belief by his namesake’s string of successes. Already he is talking about the colt’s promising future. Ralph knows all the possible pitfalls in racing, but it doesn’t cost him a dime to dream.
It’s clear, then, that the true success of R Gauwitz Hanover goes far above and beyond his collection of impressive victories. This colt has lifted the spirits of a lifelong racing fan, and given him reason to live.