Once each year, in the lazy heat of early August, the elm-shaded village of Goshen, N.Y. (pop. 3,311) swells with a meandering crowd of outsiders who move through its narrow streets to a race track that becomes, for the day, the epicenter of the harness racing world. Next Wednesday some 25,000 followers of the trotters will meet at the Good Time track to witness the 30th running of the greatest and richest light harness racing event in America—the $100,000 Hambletonian Stake.
The Hambletonian is the crowning event of a booming sport. Ever since a horse named Yankee trotted to the first accepted record (a mile in 2.59 at Harlem, N.Y.) in 1806, light harness racing has been a favorite American spectacle. Today it is a multi-million dollar business which yearly attracts more than 19,000,000 fans to race tracks and county fairs all over the nation. In New York State alone attendance at harness-horse meetings last year totaled 5,026,168 (more than flat racing) with a pari-mutuel handle of $269,510,458.
GREATEST SIRE NEVER RACED
Goshen was trotting's cradle in America more than 150 years ago. In 1801 an imported thoroughbred named Messenger came to this village via Philadelphia. By some curious phenomenon of nature, he was found to be able to hand down to his descendants the remarkable characteristics of speed at the trotting gait. One of his third generation descendants was a horse named Hambletonian, born in 1849 of what one biographer called, "a rat-tailed, hollow-backed, big-headed, ugly horse by the name of Abdallah."
No beauty himself, Hambletonian made so little impression on his owner that he was sold, together with his mother, for $125. But though he never raced in his life, he turned out to be an extraordinary sire. His get quickly showed themselves to be the fastest trotters afoot. Before he died in 1876 Hambletonian serviced a phenomenal 1,908 mares, getting 1,331 foals and earning immortality as the dominant sire of all time. Ninety-nine percent of all harness horses racing today trace directly to him in the male line. He also earned his owner $200,000 and for himself the distinction of having the great stake named after him.
Luck plays a large part in a race like the Hambletonian. Run off in three or four heats, it is contested over a triangular-shaped track with a very sharp first turn. To win, a horse must be first in two out of three heats. If a different horse wins each heat a fourth heat is run off between the three winners.
This year, unless the favorite Scott Frost makes a clean sweep, it looks as though the trot derby may go the full four heats for the first time since 1934, largely because there are four top horses entered instead of the usual one or two. There will be a smaller field this year, too, due to the fact that only four monies are being offered instead of six.
Essentially the race has to be played the way it unfolds. No preconceived strategy is much good. At the start there is a dash for a good position, preferably the "garden spot" right behind the leading horse. This is the most coveted position because the horse and sulky in front shield the wind.
Then skill takes over. Drivers must "message" their horses over the measured mile, carefully pacing them against time and the distance still to go. As quarter-and half-mile posts flick by, they check a stop watch hidden in the palm of their left hand, making split-second moves and decisions to the time clock.
To enter a horse in the Hambletonian an owner must nominate it as a yearling for a $10 fee; keep it in as a two-year-old by posting $200; post another $250 when it is a three-year-old and pay a $1,000 entrance fee before the race. About 500 horses were nominated for the 1955 Hambletonian, but all except 68 have since dropped out. Of these about 10 will probably start.
Scott Frost, a snip-nosed bay colt with a small star on his head is the expert's favorite. Although he yawns every five minutes and has such an unorthodox, windmill hind action that he needs a custom-built sulky, he can romp it if he gets no bad breaks. Owned by S. A. Camp, a cotton-and-potato farmer from Shafter, Calif., the winter book favorite is all a great trotter should be. He can leave fast, can race on top or in behind, can trot all day, has near-perfect manners and the ability to turn on blinding speed when required. That he is driven by 38-year-old Joe O'Brien, possibly the best driver in the country, in no way hurts his chances.
Biggest threats to Scott Frost, and hot contenders for the runner-up spot, are Galophone and Childs Hanover. Insiders tag Galophone on the basis of his superior manners. In an ordinary year either horse would be considered tops, but this is a Scott Frost year. Galophone can trot a long way and is game, but he lacks Scott Frost's tremendous burst of finishing speed. Driver Billy Haughton, however, believes he can win. "If Scott Frost draws a bad post and we draw a good one, we'll give him the battle of his life," says he.
Childs Hanover is a very fast colt but has bad post manners. Trainer Ervin schooled him behind a gate all winter to break his habit of jumping as the field goes away, but the colt broke gait at the start of two heats against Scott Frost at the Goshen Historic meet.
DARK HORSE IS MISS RODNEY
Colbymite, trained by Ralph Baldwin, should be among the first four. Showing only fair last season, he has come on fast and may have more "quick lick" than any horse except the favorite. He has been making breaks for reasons unknown but has also gone some great miles "out on the rim," finishing strong at all times. He is rated around the stables as having an outside chance to win and a good chance to finish in the money.
Other probable starters will include Butch Hanover, a stablemate of Scott Frost's, who is considered by some to be the second-best colt of 1954 and a much better-looking and better-gaited horse than the favorite. Like others, though, he has not shown himself capable of racing as fast as Scott Frost. Jack Richardson will be his driver.
The No. 1 dark horse is Miss Rodney, who will be driven by 75-year-old Fred Egan, Hambletonian winner in 1940 with Spencer Scott and again in 1949 with Miss Tilly, the mother of this year's entry. Miss Rodney is a strapping mare who can go a long way, but has as yet to prove she can put a 28-second quarter on the end of a fast mile as can Scott Frost.
A third O'Brien stable entry is Home Free, a good, consistent colt, who has Clint Hodgins at the reins and who might place in the money.
Trainer and Driver Harry Pownall will enter the fast but erratic Trump Hanover for the Arden Homestead Stable, but unless he goes the race of his life he is unlikely to give the leaders any trouble. Also eligible to start is Tasselman, a colt from the same stable, who is not as good as Trump Hanover but who might be a possible surprise third or fourth money winner.
The No. 2 dark horse of the race is Something Special, who has been taken to Goshen by Trainer-Driver Stanley Dancer and who is being prepped over the Hambletonian track. Although he can go fast, he does not have the class of the top horses.
THE IMMORTAL HAMBLETONIAN, grand sire of America's trotters, was a bay stallion who never raced but produced 1,331 racing foals.