After a winter of uneasy truce in harness racing's civil war (SI, Sept. 10) a new season has opened without any reasonable settlement in sight of the causes of friction between factions. Today, as it was six or even 12 months ago, it is obviously the clear determination of New York Commissioner George Monaghan to throw the U.S. Trotting Association out of his state—which action would, in effect, drastically curtail the USTA's ability to function in most other states as well. For its part, the association is still determined to have Monaghan thrown out of office or, at least, to curtail his powers by persuading the New York Legislature to add two other members to the Harness Racing Commission.
In the closing days of the recent legislative session, bills aimed at accomplishing both the USTA's and Monaghan's purposes were thrown into the hopper. All died in assorted committee pigeonholes, but a little-known backstage maneuver that took place in the last hours of the session should be vastly encouraging to the USTA forces. New York's Governor Averell Harriman is, of course, a Democrat, but the legislature is, as usual, dominated by Republicans. Nearly every item of business, therefore—even if it pertains to something as theoretically nonpartisan as horse racing—must run the political gamut before approval. With sitting time running out, the Republican leadership decided to support the bill for a three-man commission and so, earlier, had Harriman. It was agreed (naturally) that the governor would appoint one Democrat and one Republican to the commission vacancies that would be created, and the Republicans came to Harriman with a list of deserving party members from which they proposed he choose their man. At this point Harriman balked, refusing to commit himself to any list of names before the bill was passed. Admittedly, this kind of impasse over political etiquette has stymied far more critical legislation in the past, but the result was that a three-man commission for harness racing flew out the window then and there, and the idea cannot be revived until the next session of the legislature—in January 1958.
Meanwhile, the man Harriman appointed to look into the Monaghan-USTA feud (ex-Harvard Law School Dean James Landis) is still examining briefs and pondering his report. While it may be pleasing to both factions that Landis is obviously being extremely conscientious about his task (he was appointed nearly six months ago), it is rather a pity that his report could not have been available to this year's legislature. Landis has refused to talk about his findings thus far, but he has indicated to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that he favors a three-man rule and is deeply concerned about the USTA's charges that a number of undesirable stockholders and officials are still in management positions at Batavia Downs in upstate New York.
At the same time that the Western Harness Racing Association concluded its most successful season to date at Arcadia, Calif., both Maywood in Illinois and Yonkers in New York have opened before huge crowds betting record amounts of money. And once again it is being demonstrated that trotters and pacers trained up north have a clear edge in spring racing over those that spent the winter in Florida. This appears to be especially true for older horses, whose schooling in gait is not affected so much as that of the youngsters by the uncertain footing of frozen and thawing ground. It generally takes several weeks of getting used to chill northern spring weather for Florida-trained colts to lose their "mushiness" and be ready to race all-out. Which undoubtedly accounts for the fact that Stanley Dancer, for example (who winters at New Egypt, N.J.), has won 17 races to date.
Early speculation about harness racing's two top events—Hambletonian for trotters and the Little Brown Jug for pacers—has perhaps a firmer basis for establishing favorites than in any recent year. There is little doubt that the Sherwood Farms's Torpid is head-and-withers in front of the Jug field and also the eligibles for pacing's other two races that comprise its triple crown—the Messenger Stake and the Yonkers Futurity. Only in the Futurity is really stiff competition presently anticipated—from the Castleton filly, Good Counsel.
It never pays, however, to count out two trainers like Del Miller and Joe O'Brien, and neither has, of course, conceded to Torpid. Miller's Meadow Lands, who was such a disappointment last year, has already won twice this season, and O'Brien's Adios Express is also being pointed for the Jug.
In the Hambletonian, one of the most remarkable coincidences in racing history may be in the making. Last year, Allwood Stable Trainer-Driver Ned Bower won with The Intruder, whose distinguishing qualifications at the time were three:
1) He was an extremely good-looking animal.
2) He was the highest-priced yearling of his year.
3) He was unsound as a 2-year-old and did not race that season.
A PURIST'S APPROACH
This year, Bower has Junior Executive, who has the same three qualifications. At the moment, Junior Executive is once again in good health and condition, but Bower does not intend even to let him see a half-mile track before Hambletonian day at DuQuoin. The Hambletonian is raced around a mile track, of course, but these days few trainers take the trouble to limit their Hambletonian eligibles to mile-track training. Unquestionably, trotters use different gaits in going twice around the half-mile with its sharper turns, but it remains to be seen whether Bower's purist attitude will pay off with a triumphant carbon-copy victory on the big day at DuQuoin.
Strictly on form, the solid early favorites in the Hambletonian field are Fred Egan's Cassin Hanover, Johnny Simpson's Hickory Smoke and Joe O'Brien's Bond Hanover, with Billy Haughton's Flicka Frost rating an outside chance if she learns to trot away from the gate. Flicka's atrocious manners are all that have held her back from winning consistently, and Haughton, who has never yet won a Hambletonian and wants to with considerable desperation, has been working on them all winter and spring.
Cassin Hanover has one particular item in her favor, aside from the fact that Egan is her trainer. She will start in two consecutive races (at Springfield and Sedalia) over mile tracks immediately preceding the Hambletonian. Egan, incidentally, is 77 years old. If Cassin wins the Hambletonian, Egan will be the oldest driver to accomplish this feat, Bi Shively having held the record by winning with Sharp Note in 1952, when he was 74.
"I wonder what kind of grass seed they use."