barberry s0pur

Barberry Spur with driver Dickie Stillings and owner Roy Davis.

Before Barberry Spur hit the track at The Meadows Saturday afternoon, Aug. 9, 1986, no local horse had found ultimate success in The Adios.

Not many even had a chance.

But in the minds of local racing fans, Meadows’ employees and – most important – the late owner Roy Davis and driver/trainer Richard Stillings, things were about to change.

Barberry Spur was going to end the draught. A local horse and driver had a great chance this time. The horse had the necessary desire and strength to make history.

Anything less than an Adios victory would be disappointing.

Neither Davis nor Stillings would even consider defeat.

“He was one of the favorites going into the race, and I thought if he raced good, he’d win,” Stillings said. “Mr. Davis thought the way he was racing coming into The Adios that he’d win.

“(John) Campbell (Hall of Fame driver) and (his horse) Tylers Mark were coming at him, but he was fine. When it got to a point down the lane, and we had the lead, that was it.”

By the time track announcer Roger Huston called the action coming down the stretch, Barberry Spur was eyeing the finish line:

Huston’s stretch call: “It’s Barberry Spur with the lead, Tylers Mark racing second, Cash Asset is third. . . Barberry Spur, Tylers Mark on the outside. Down the lane, it’s Tylers Mark coming on. . . Barberry Spur, Tyler’s Mark second, Barberry Spur’s got some more, here he is. . . one-fifty-three and one (1:53.1).”

It was a world record performance for two heats for Barberry Spur. The horse, which won his elimination race earlier that day, went a combined two-heat time of 3:46.8, breaking the previous mark of 3:76 set by Storm Damage in the 1980 Adios.

“I was very tickled,” Stillings said.

Barberry Spur’s victory brought a record number of people to the winner’s circle and set off a jubilant and somewhat chaotic scene –not seen before or after in the winner’s circle. Delvin Miller, who established The Adios, presented the trophy to Davis and Stillings.

“It was hard to get everyone in the frame of the camera,” Stillings said. “Everybody was hooting and hollering. That day was very special in my mind, as special as any I’ve had. It was my first major stake (driving) victory. I had won a lot of sired and other stake races.

But nothing like The Adios. For (Barberry Spur) to win The Adios, in our home territory, and for me being here some 20 years or so previous, it was such a great honor and a great thrill – especially that (the race) is Delvin Miller’s showcase. I was very proud.”

Spurring a champion

Christy MacIsaac was caretaker for Barberry Spur early on.

“He was huge as a yearling,” she said. “He was really smart, exceptionally smart. He was more athletic than we thought as well. You knew he was a special horse.”

His 2-year-old season featured a victory in the Governor’s Cup. In all, Barberry Spur earned $971,147 as a 2-year-old, winning eight of 19 starts, finishing second four times and third twice.

Davis, owner of Royal Travel – a business that was located next to The Meadows on Racetrack Road in North Strabane Township, made sure Stillings and all Barberry Spur’s handlers were given all they needed to help the horse become a champion.

Davis, who owned Barberry Spur with Barberry Farms of Sewickley, was a key reason for Barberry Spur’s success.

“Mr. Davis was the main person, the mainstay,” Stillings said. “He’d call and asked if I needed anything. He never asked any questions about what we were doing with the horse or about race strategy. He was there to make sure we had everything we needed when we were at home or on the road. He took care of all the details and we did not want for anything.”

Stillings picked Hall of Fame driver Bill O’Donnell to drive Barberry Spur throughout his career, particularly in the horse’s big stake races.

O’Donnell, who drove many great champions, said Barberry Spur was special because he combined great size with an ability to adapt and find his way around different kinds of racetracks.

“He had a lot of fight,” O’Donnell said. “Barberry Spur was a very good horse. You could slow him down or stop him on a dime and he’d get right back to his speed. He was a very willing horse.”

Stillings opted to drive Barberry Spur in The Adios in a bid to become the first local driver and horse to win Miller’s race

When Barberry Spur paced behind the gate 35 years ago today, the anticipation and atmosphere for victory among the horse’s handlers, the employees at The Meadows and the crowd was intense yet party-like.

“There was a lot of hype coming into the race,” said Bob Sabot, who served as The Meadows’ publicity director from 1984 to 1995. “Barberry Spur was a tremendous horse. Dickie Stillings was (nationally) under the radar as a trainer and a driver.”

Sabot was unsure if Barberry Spur could win the race but had a strong belief that Stillings would find a way

“Dickie knew every inch of the track,” Sabot added. “He was confident in Barberry Spur and I was confident in Dickie. After they won, it was pandemonium in the winner’s circle. Barberry Spur clearly was the better racehorse that day.”

Dave Palone, who looks up to Stillings, knows the feeling of being a local driver to win The Adios. Palone won in 1999, driving Washington VC to victory. While he wasn’t in attendance for Stillings’ landmark victory because he was stabled at The Meadowlands in N.J. at the time, Palone was ecstatic.

“Everybody knows Dickie is my hero,” Palone said. “It was so easy to root for him and Barberry Spur that day. It was big for so many reasons. Barberry Spur won other races but that one meant so much.

“For a local driver, there is no victory more satisfying than winning The Adios in front of your people and your fans. Barberry Spur was such a great athlete. He was a handy horse for his great size. He could do a lot of things many big horses just can’t do.”

Stillings retired from harness racing earlier this year. During this year’s Adios – a week and a few days ago – Stillings was honored on the track.

Many of his friends and fans cheered him on. Palone, who was present, said it was a moving tribute.

“It was pretty emotional down there,” Palone said. “Dickie is beloved. I miss the daily interaction with him. Ask O’Donnell how good Barberry Spur and Dickie Stillings were.”

Huston, who retired as, “The Voice,” of The Meadows a couple years ago, returned to call a few races on Adios day and spoke about Stillings during the on-track ceremonies.

Of all the races Huston’s called in his illustrious Hall of Fame career, the 1986 Adios is at the top.

“Everybody was pulling for him,” Huston said. “It was a strong field. But it wasn’t unexpected that he won. I’ve never seen anything like that winner’s circle at The Meadows. It was a thrill for me to call the race and to call Barberry Spur’s win in the Little Brown Jug later that year. Those were very proud moments for me and great moments for Dickie Stillings.”

An unappreciated career

For all his accomplishments and great victories, Barberry Spur seems to be unappreciated by history and the industry itself.

Despite being the third-fastest pacer in harness racing history at the time of his retirement in November 1986, and being syndicated for $10 million, Barberry Spur is not talked about much.

Barberry Spur time-trialed in 1:50.4 at The Red Mile in September 1986 to become the third fastest pacer. Only Niatross’ 1:49 1/5 time trial and Nihilator’s 1:49 3/5 race mile – two of the greatest – topped Barberry Spur, who earned more than $1.6 million in his career.

Huston and Palone speculated it was because Barberry Spur wasn’t a great stallion. That could be a reason he isn’t perceived as great as some other horses.

“He probably wasn’t given enough respect,” Palone said. “His (racing) career speaks for itself. I think as a sire he might not have gotten the highest quality mares. I know he was a terrific racehorse.”

Sadly, after Davis sold Barberry Spur, all those who loved him and looked after him, lost track of him.

Davis, Stillings, O’Donnell, Huston and many others in the industry have no idea where Barberry Spur went.

“As far as I’m concerned there is no debate about what kind of horse he was,” Huston said. “He changed hands so much after his racing career and we kind of lost track of him. I guess it’s one of those things that can happen. But it’s disappointing to me that we don’t know what became of him. It’s a shame.”

Further evidence of the disrespect was Amity Chef was voted 3-year-old colt Pacer of the Year in 1986, despite Barberry Spur defeating Amity Chef in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Barberry Spur did not race in the Breeders Crown at Garden State because of a pulled suspensory ligament. Amity Chef’s trainer, Blair Burgess, boasted in a New Jersey newspaper that the door was open for Amity Chef.

He bemoaned that the “other horse” (Barberry Spur) had a “huge following”, and it would be difficult for Amity Chef to win the 3-year-old colt pacer of the year without a Breeder’s Crown championship. Amity Chef failed to win the Breeders Crown as Masquerade pulled off the victory.

Yet, Amity Chef was named 3-year-old colt pacer of the year and, incredibly, finished third in the Horse of the Year voting.

“I’m not sure why,” said O’Donnell. “He was the 2-year-old Pacer of the Year in ’85, won the Governor’s Cup and then the Cane Pace, The Adios and Little Brown Jug in ‘86. That’s pretty good. He was a great horse.

“I remember going to dinner after the Messenger Stakes (where Amity Chef defeated Barberry Spur) and the owner of Amity Chef came over to my table and said something about stopping Barberry Spur from winning the Triple Crown.

“There was so much hype all year about Amity Chef and I looked at him and said, ‘I think we beat (Amity Chef) from winning the Triple Crown. You ever think of it that way?’ You didn’t hear anything (trash talk or hype) from us. It was a long year and Barberry Spur raced as good as he could have.”

Said Stillings: “Once he started racing, Barberry Spur was always a gentleman. He never asked for anything. We never had trouble with the horse, not a mean bone in his body.”

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