If timing is everything, driver Mickey McNichol’s and trotter Alf Palema’s were impeccable 30 years ago.
Pulling one of the greatest upsets in Hambletonian history, unheralded Alf Palema took the lead two steps from the finish line and whisked past stablemate King Conch for an unexpected victory in 1:56.3 in 1992.
“I was just looking to get some money,” said McNichol. “We just came up the rail. I couldn’t have had a luckier day in my life.
“I had never heard of him until the week of the Hambletonian. I was told the horse was OK, that he was a handy guy. I wind up driving him in the eliminations and we finish second.
“In the final, I stayed along the rail and hoped for the best.”
That is exactly what McNichol and Alf Palema got capturing the $1.38 million Hambletonian.
Per Eriksson, who trained both Alf Palema and King Conch, was completely focused on King Conch. Eriksson was about to celebrate a great victory. Actually, he did just that. It took a few minutes for Eriksson to realize it.
“I was in the driver’s room and watching the race inside,” Eriksson explained. “King Conch was in the lead, and I was focused watching him. He gets beat and I’m kicking a cabinet, and I was mad, and I didn’t realize it was Alf Palema who beat him. Everything just opened inside, and he was there to win.
“Of course, I was very happy and surprised. I owned 25 percent of him, and it was just wonderful. I felt bad for King Conch, but that is racing. It was a great win for Alf Palema.”
Eriksson became the first trainer to win consecutive Hambletonian’s since Billy Haughton did it in 1976 and 1977. Eriksson won with Giant Victory in 1991.
The harness racing world was stunned.
Because Alf Palema and King Conch were an entry in the race, they went off at 3-1 odds.
“If (Alf Palema) weren’t part of an entry, he’d have gone off at 50-1,” McNichol speculated.
“He probably would have gone off at least 30-1,” said Hall of Fame driver John Campbell, who drove filly Armbro Keepsake in the race, “maybe way more than 30-1.”
Prior to the Hambletonian, Eriksson was skeptical of Alf Palema having success in the race. He seriously thought of not entering the trotter.
“I was so-so on putting him in the race,” Eriksson said.
Karl-Erik Bender, the majority owner of the horse, decided Alf Palema would be one of a then-record 27 entrants.
Eriksson was more focused on King Conch, the 1991 Breeders Crown champion, who was considered a top contender to win the final.
Neither Eriksson nor McNichol thought Alf Palema had a chance even after Alf Palema (Speedy Somolli – Highland Bridget by Super Bowl) finished second in one of three nine-horse eliminations that day.
Campbell, who had Armbro Keepsake right with King Conch at the head of the stretch, said there are reasons why Alf Palema was able to win and steal the victory.
“I did feel good about my horse,” said Campbell, who now is the president and chief executive officer of the Hambletonian Society. “I thought we had a really good chance when we tipped out. But we hung mid-stretch. We didn’t have her equipment figured out just yet.
“You have to give Mickey the credit. He drove the horse like a 30-1 shot. He found a spot and stayed with it.
“It was a tired stretch, as I say. He had his horse in position and (Alf Palema) outmuscled all the tired horses and he won the race with his last two steps. It was a textbook drive. He never used him too hard, and he wins the race. It was a great drive.”
Eriksson did his part as well. Long a proponent of allowing horses to compete and train without shoes, Eriksson took the shoes off Alf Palema for the race.
“We thought it might help him pickup another one-fifth of a second,” Eriksson. “He was a longshot. We had nothing to lose.”
The way the race unfolded also helped increase Alf Palema’s chances to make history.
“I had more or less wanted to cut the mile.” John Patterson Jr., King Conch’s driver, was quoted as saying after the race. “But doing that might have meant that I might not have been able to win it. I had to go a little more than I wanted when Armbro Keepsake came at me. And that strong (20 mph) wind hurt.”
King Conch left strong from post two with Valley Boss Bi second followed by Alf Palema, Baltic Sonata and Armbro Keepsake. They went to the quarter in :27.4.
Baltic Sonata pressured King Conch to create a duel to the half. Valley Boss Bi sat in the pocket third while Campbell moved Armbro Keepsake second-over in fourth ahead of Alf Palema. King Conch reached the half in :57.2.
Armbro Keepsake applied pressure to King Conch, tipping three-wide to advance beside the leader. While Baltic Sonata started to fade, Valley Boss Bi sat in the pocket followed by the lurking Alf Palema. The horses hit three-quarters in 1:28.1.
King Conch maintained his lead. As Campbell said, his horse “hung,” and Valley Boss Bi moved off the rail and went off stride. Alf Palema trotted up the rail while Herschel Walker gained on the leader. It was Alf Palema in deep stretch overtaking his stablemate and doing the unthinkable.
“Sometimes, it’s just being in the right place at the right time,” McNichol said. “Fortunately, Alf Palema and I were in the right place at the right time that day.”
Alf Palema earned $552,000, the winner’s share of the Hambletonian final purse of $1.1 million – quadrupling his lifetime earnings.
After the Hambletonian, Alf Palema went on to win the $655,000 World Trotting Derby. Alf Palema became the first starter to win the Hambletonian by winning only one heat – the final.
He was named the 1992 Trotter of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association and the North American Racing Secretaries. Alf Palema was also named 3-year-old trotting colt champion.
A foot injury ended Alf Palema’s career. He became the most prolific stallion in Sweden where he stood in stud during retirement.
“Alf Palema peaked at the right time,” Eriksson said. “He earned what he got.
“He turned out to be a great horse. As a stallion, he was one of the best ever in Sweden.”
Alf Palema was the last horse bred by George Alexander, whose Chestnut Farm raised and bred trotters. It was the first Hambletonian winner bred by Alexander, who was a director of the Hambletonian Society and a member of its Executive Committee.
“I think because I got him to go early, he got a spot and we got a good trip,” McNichol said. “He made history. We had a lot of luck that day. Our timing was just right.”