Historic Harvard-Yale Regatta pits fierce rivals, elite rowing programs

Gales Ferry — Front-runner status clearly belongs to Yale heading into Saturday's historic race against Harvard.

The Bulldogs are riding momentum from winning their third straight IRA national championship last week.

They also beat their long-time rival in the Eastern Sprints.

But the longer than usual four-mile race in the Harvard-Yale Regatta is unique.

Nothing compares to the painfully grueling battle on the unpredictable Thames River. The upstream varsity race begins at 2:30 p.m. at the Gold Star Bridge and ends at Bartlett's Cove.

So throw out previous results when it comes to predicting the outcome of the 154th running of the nation's oldest collegiate sporting event.

"You can look at the boats and project, Yale is more powerful and been able to establish significant leads every race this year," Harvard coach Charley Butt said. "That's not going to change. But the fact is, it's a longer race. And it's on a river where the race has been 120, 130 years here. And it's a big river and there are an awful lot of unknowns.

"So it's a boat race, so to speak. There's no telling what can happen."

Yale coach Steve Gladstone agrees.

Gladstone pointed out that Harvard was in contention in two previous competitions this season.

"If you noticed, they were second in the Eastern Sprints, not third, four, sixth, seventh, eighth," Gladstone said. "Harvard is very good. They're proven that. At the IRA, they probably were no more than five seconds behind us and they were the third best.

"So this is a different event. Mentally, it certainly is a different event. ... It's a real challenge. It's an unusual race. Given Harvard's record and given our record, it's going to be a race again."

That's what Harvard is counting on.

In the not so distant past, the Crimson thoroughly dominated the varsity eight race, losing only seven times over a span of 51 years.

The rock at Bartlett's Cove rarely needed a fresh coat of paint.

When Yale started winning more than its share of recruiting battles, it surged ahead of its rival. The Bulldogs haven't lost since 2014. Officially, their winning streak is three. In a controversial ruling, the 2016 race was called a no-result because Harvard didn't finish after taking on water in rough conditions.

Harvard, which leads the series, 95-57, would like to swing the momentum back in its favor.

"We have a very good crew," Butt said. "Your main rival also happens to be ahead of you. They're the national champions and we're number three. They're No. 1 on the East Coast and we're No. 2.

"So it's very hard to have your main, your historical rival also be on top. And that was the case for Yale for years when Harvard was on top. So now it's our turn to be pursue this from a different perspective. We're very good... We race well and so do they. So there should be a lot of respect on both sides."

Yale has a chance to accomplish something that has happened since the early 1980s.

That's the last time it won four straight regattas, going unbeaten from 1981-84.

The weather forecast looks good. The third varsity competition starts the day at 12:45.

Yale senior Charlie Elwes, a world-class rower, appreciates the historical significance of Harvard-Yale. He's proud of what his class has done during their careers.

He also paid tribute to past Bulldogs, who jump-started the program's rise.

"That's just a testament to classes above us," Elwes said. "They were the guys that really did the heavy lifting in turning the program around. They committed to Yale not knowing that Yale was going to be good in a few years. They were committing off the back of some pretty average performances and they just took a leap of faith.

"So it's pretty special to follow in the footsteps of some of those people."

While senior Angus Morrison admits the Bulldogs have a bit of a mental advantage after beating Harvard twice this season, they're not resting on their front-runner's status. 

"You go into the race thinking that it's never going to come easy," Morrison said. "If it is going to be your boat that crosses the line first, it's going to be that they're not going to give it up until the last. And the same goes for the other result."

g.keefe@theday.com

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