William “Billy” Popfinger has been training and driving horses for more than 50 years. He was a 25-year resident of Garden City, Long Island during the heyday of Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceways before racing the prestigious Grand Circuit and wintering every season at Pompano Park.
The trainer/driver began by paying his dues at county fairs and smaller tracks in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Popfinger’s top horses over the next 25-plus years read like a Who’s Who of Harness Racing. By the 1990s, when he cut back on his driving, he had won more than 1,500 races and more than $12 million in purses.
Popfinger developed a top trotting filly in the ‘60s named Lady B Fast who beat both Fresh Yankee and Nevele Pride, two of the greatest trotters of all time. She was his first major driving win. That victory came in 1969 behind Lady B Fast in the Goshen Cup. It was raced in those years as part of the Grand Circuit Week at Historic Track. Bill’s stable was a cavalcade of champions in the mid- to late-‘70s through the early ‘80s, but his top student on the racetrack had to be Happy Escort. His greatest drive, considered by many to be one of the most memorable upsets in the history of harness racing, was when Bill Popfinger “stole” the 1978 Little Brown Jug with Happy Escort. Matched against Hall of Famers Joe O’Brien behind Flight Director and Bill Haughton with Falcon Almahurst, Popfinger quarter-moved to the lead in the final, a virtually unheard-of maneuver in a three-horse race off. He surprised O’Brien, took the lead, and held off the two favorite drivers in a stunning upset to win the premier pacing race. That same year Bill chauffeured Happy Escort to a second-place finish behind the legendary Hall of Fame equine Abercrombie in the Messenger Stakes.
In 1977, Popfinger had a pair of freshman champions in Say Hello and Spicy Charlie who split the Fox Stakes win. In 1978, it was Happy Motoring who began his career and took Bill to the winner’s circle on many occasions and went on to win the 1980 Cane Pace at Yonkers and the OTB Classic. Other Bill Popfinger stakes winners included Shirley’s Beau with earnings in excess of $495,000, who won a leg of the 1976 U.S. Pacing Championship; Crackers, 1978 Fox Stakes; Karrill Hanover, 1980 International Stallion Stakes; Kay Ellen Hanover, 1982 Tarport Hap; Princess Glory, 1980 Hambletonian Oaks; and Praised Dignity, who won the 1984 Shepard Pace, with earnings in excess of $1 million at age 2. Still others were 1988 Woodrow Wilson winner Kassa Branca, Tyler’s Brother, Rashad, Crowned Elegance, Storm Tossed, and 1988 Sheppard Pace winner, Count N Sheep. He trained 2000 Merrie Annabelle winner Spellbound Hanover, who retired with earnings of $962,000. The new millennium marks the sixth decade in which Bill Popfinger still maintains a much-respected barn.