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Johnny's Gamble

Driver Simpson took a big chance with the ailing Torpid when the stake was a harness racing classic: the Little Brown Jug

In a corner of the large clubroom one evening last week, a chubby little old man sat on a high stool in the slot of a semicircular table and took on all comers at blackjack. His short, fat fingers caressed the cards with the quiet affection of long familiarity; he also never lost, which is probably why he follows the harness racing circuit. In other corners there were table-stakes stud and rummy and take-your-pick. The clink of silver dollars made it all seem like Las Vegas instead of Delaware, Ohio.

But you knew it was Delaware, traditional home of the Little Brown Jug pacing classic, when the auctioneer finally called the crowded room to order and began selling pools on this year's $73,528 Jug, to be raced the next afternoon. The card games were forgotten.

A horse-race auction pool is pretty much like a golf Calcutta: the highest bidder "buys" each horse and gets all the money in the pool if he wins, less the auctioneer's 10% commission. This auctioneer quickly discovered he would have to work hard for his 10%. Nobody would bid on a single horse other than a bay colt named Torpid. The only pool tickets he could sell were on the whole rest of the field of 15 horses and on Torpid himself. As fast as he found someone brave enough to bet on the field, there was Torpid money to cover it. He made up 17 pools and quit.

The reason for all this was simple. In two years of racing, Torpid had gone to the post 37 times and won 34 times. He had set all manner of speed records and never been extended. But what few people knew was that the animal laboring through sleep in his stall at the Jug track that night was hardly the real Torpid. He was laboring under the effects of a cold that filled his head with phlegm and his throat was raw. He was sore and tight all over, both from the cold and from the wet night just a week ago at Hazel Park in Detroit when, in calf-deep mud and water, he had lost one of his few races—to Adios Express. It's been a long time since the astute Johnny Simpson, Torpid's trainer and driver, had to say of one of his horses what he said that night: "I honestly don't know what to expect. He's a strong horse and he could be all right tomorrow. But he could also be as dull as dishwater. If he were right, I'd go my race in two minutes flat and leave the rest of the field dizzy." The field against Torpid was a darn good bet that evening. A bet on Joe O'Brien's Adios Express or Del Miller's Meadow Lands was reasonable.

But early the next morning Torpid's cold broke. In a few hours his head had drained, and he was breathing pretty easily. The only question now was: How weak had the cold left him? No one could answer it, not even Simpson.

Horses don't talk, but Torpid did answer the question when Johnny took him out in the first heat of the Little Brown Jug before 39,000 people. Simpson rushed to the top as he always does with Torpid and won going away after appearing to hang for an instant at the top of the stretch. The time: 2:00 4/5, a brilliant mile even for Delaware's speedy track.

After the showdown was set, when Miller and Meadow Lands won their heat, a near cloudburst turned the track to molasses. The top five finishers in the first two heats were to come back for the payoff mile—and they had to wait two hours for the track to be scraped and sanded into respectability. During that time, Simpson played the percentages by replacing Torpid's front shoes and using "frost" nails that stuck out about a quarter of an inch, for better traction. Joe O'Brien was the only other driver to do this. Simpson kept on playing percentage when he came out to warm up before the race, studying every inch of the track carefully, marking in his mind where the footing was good, where it was still doubtful. Then he crossed up everybody at the track by driving a different kind of race from any he had ever gone with Torpid. He held back, in fourth and fifth place, for a full three-quarters of a mile. As he explained it later: "I figured I had two horses to beat—Adios Express and Meadow Lands. So long as they stayed behind me I was O.K. Those horses up front could fight it out until they got tired." Picking the precise moment when they did tire—the three-quarter pole—he went four wide over the solid footing he had noted earlier. Torpid took off like an ICBM and the race was over. He won by two lengths. It will be another year, at least, before even Simpson knows just how fast Torpid can pace. When he meets the top class Free-For-All pacers in 1958, he will likely have to go all out to win. Then we will all know.

Simpson became the first man ever to win the Jug two years in a row, and only the second to win the Jug and the Hambletonian in the same year (SI, Sept. 9). The next morning he flew to New York for another day's routine work at Roosevelt Raceway.

Back in Delaware, the chubby little old gambler was packing his bags for the next stop on the circuit: Lexington, Kentucky.