You can argue all you want, but everybody knows that the greatest UNC-Duke football game happened in 1948, when one great Tar Heel, Art Weiner, used his rear end to block a last minute field goal attempt by future PGA star Mike Souchak to preserve a 21-20 Tar Heel victory over the hated Blue Devils.
What most have forgotten is that a few weeks before, the undefeated Tar Heels had invaded New York with high hopes of defeating the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium and eventually becoming the 1948 national champions. The railroads put on special excursion trains from the Tar Heel State to New York, transportation and game ticket for one price.
On Friday night, thousands of partying Tar Heel fans showed up in Times Square and formed a seemingly endless conga line, chanting “All the way, Choo Choo, all the way!” Jaded New Yorkers, who thought they had seen it all, were flabbergasted. Unfortunately, the next day, the Tar Heels lost to Notre Dame,
Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice (22) and Art Weiner (50)
But a few months earlier, another significant Tar Heel sporting event had occurred out of view of the rest of the world, on a farm on the banks of the Yadkin River in southwestern Forsyth County. It was on April 25, 1948, that a farm hand raced up to Delvin Miller and said “You’d better get over there and help ’em out with that mare. She foaled out in the field and now they can’t catch her.”
When Miller got to the field, the mare had been running for 45 minutes, with her newborn colt trying to follow. “The colt was just blowing like mad…exhausted but still on his feet,” Miller recalled. He helped catch the mare, let the colt nurse for the first time, then confined mother and son to a shed. He was worried that all the running might have ruined the colt for good.
But later that afternoon, he checked the shed and was delighted to find “…a big, tall colt…”, healthy and solid black. For some time he had been saying to his boss “You live here in the Tar Heel state, which you love…you’ve named your horses for darn near everything, the mares for nearly every woman in town, yet you’ve never named one for your own home state.” And finally he said “Well, if you don’t mind, the next colt that I really like real well, I’m going to name him Tar Heel.” And his boss had agreed.
So that night when he and his wife Mary Lib sat down to dinner with the boss at Tanglewood Farm, he said “We’ve got a fine new colt on the farm, and his name’s gonna be Tar Heel.”
Tar Heel (left) and his stablemate and great rival, Solicitor
The boss, of course, was William Neal Reynolds, the youngest brother of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. “Mr. Will”, as he was known to three generations of local folks, had been a major force in harness racing in the USA for three decades. His horses, both trotters and pacers, had won hundreds of races across the nation. The Forsyth County Fair, second only in the state to the North Carolina State Fair, every year featured major harness races. But Mr. Will had never had a real championship horse.
The W.N. Reynolds #1 Pace Stake at the Forsyth County fairgrounds, 1951. #5 is Theme Song, driven by Benny Schue. #6 is Gemette Bunter, driven by L.E. Payne
Tar Heel would change all that. His mother, the errant mare, Leta Long, was the daughter of Volumite, both known for their “attitude” problems. Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said that “Well behaved women rarely make history.”
Mister Will, stopwatch in hand, at the Tanglewood Farm track, 1946
Miller had had many problems with Leta Long. Even though she was fast in practice, she had never won a single race with him driving. So one day at Roosevelt Raceway in New York he handed her over to a young man named Johnny Simpson. Later, after workouts, he asked Simpson how Leta Long was doing. Simpson said that she might be worth a bet. Miller pulled out an old watch fob and said that he wouldn’t even bet that on Leta Long. Minutes later, Leta Long pulled Simpson across the line in first place, lighting up the board with boxcar-sized payoff figures. So Johnny Simpson became a part of the Tanglewood racing team.
Johnny Simpson driving Tar heel at Lexington, Kentucky, 1952. Time was 1:56 2/5
And Tar Heel’s father was Billy Direct, a former world champion. The right combination?
Yes. Tar Heel was intended to be a pacer, not a trotter. But after his first workouts, he couldn’t seem to do the pacer stride. Miller came up with some ideas and was astonished to find that Tar Heel quickly adapted to become “…as slick as you’d ever want to see in a pacer.”
In his first year as a pacer, Tar Heel won 18 of 29 starts, and over $52,000. His second year, 1951, began even better. But his owner, Mr. Will fell ill. Out of respect for his illness, Miller withdrew Tar Heel from several races. Mr. Will died on September 10, 1951. Miller went to Winston-Salem for the funeral, then entered Tar Heel in the most important pacing race, the Little Brown Jug, the pacing equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, the following week in Delaware, Ohio.
The Little Brown Jug was decided by heats. The first heat winner was matched against the best finishers of the first heat. If another horse won, the race went to a third heat, and so on, until one horse had won two heats. Tar Heel won the first heat in a close race over his chief rival and stablemate Solicitor. In the second race, Solicitor led most of the way, but Tar Heel made a surge at the end to win and become the top horse in US pacing.
Johnny Simpson holds Tar Heel in the winner’s circle after the 1951 Little Brown Jug. The driver is Del Cameron
Shortly afterward, in the settlement of Mr. Will’s estate, Tar Heel was sold to Hanover Shoe Farms for the then record price of $125,000. Due to injuries to his front legs, he was retired from racing and placed at stud. If he had been successful at racing, he proved even more successful at stud. “He was an extremely fertile horse,” owner Lawrence Shepperd said. “If you didn’t want your mare to foal, you’d better not put any of his semen into her.”
$125,000 horse! L-R: Lawrence Shepperd, Tar Heel, Johnny Simpson and Delvin Miller
From 1954 through 1981 Tar Heel sired the winners of over $39 million in racing purses. He produced 99 $100,000+ winners.
Hanover Shoe Farms ad in Harness Horse Magazine, Sep 8, 1954. Del Cameron driving
Tar Heel’s richest performer was Lavern Hanover, a winner of $868,557 who also won the Little Brown Jug. His most well-known performer is perhaps Nansemond (named for the son of Chief Powathan, of Jamestown fame), a winner of $448,436 and also a Little Brown Jug winner, and a major entry in the harness racing Hall of Fame.
Tar Heel died in June of 1982 at the ripe old age of 34, a few weeks after some guy named Michael Jordan made a shot with 17 seconds remaining against Georgetown to win the NCAA basketball championship. Oh, and some other guy named James Worthy was named that tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Tar Heel spanned a long era, from Choo Choo to Michael and James. As always, you can choose your own greatest Tar Heel athlete. We’ve got a lot of them.
Quotes and pictures:
Forsyth County Public Library picture collection