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Original Issue

The unsmiling Irishman

Joe O'Brien, a shy little man with a big, explosive talent, won the Jug in a quick move

Winter is a long and rugged season on Canada's Prince Edward Island, where Joe O'Brien was born and raised and learned to drive his father's horses. Keeping animals in shape during those months is a problem, and Joe used to solve it by hitching his trotters and pacers to a two-seat sleigh and driving them through the streets of the town over the hard-packed snow. He became a familiar local sight as he drove in the characteristic manner which today is a trademark on harness tracks all over this country: the hunch of concentration, the arms immobile, the fixed, tight line of the lips. The style gave strength and dignity to the slight, slender figure of the man.

One who watched on a snowy afternoon 18 years ago was pretty Betty Flood, fresh from college and liking what she saw. She eyed the empty sleigh seat and passed the word. Promptly at the appointed time next day came Joe O'Brien.

"Hello, Miss Flood," said Joe, and "Goodby, Miss Flood," said Joe an hour later, and the rest of the time, as they drove over the snow, he said not a word else. Betty Flood tried every conversational gambit known to pretty girls and some, perhaps, that are learned in college. Alas.

"He seems like a nice boy," she told her mother, "but he doesn't say very much."

A week later, it was the same. "Hello, Miss Flood," said Joe, and "Goodby, Miss Flood," said Joe.

"He is a nice boy," Betty told her mother, "even if he doesn't say very much." So, they were married.

The scene and the horses have now changed, but it is still the same Joe O'Brien who last week won the Little Brown Jug, premier event for 3-year-old pacers, at Delaware, Ohio. Shy, no lover of his own voice, and something of a genius in the sulky.

The special quality of that talent, which takes it beyond judgment of pace and the courage to compete, is native only to truly great athletes. It is the can't-be-acquired instinct to react instantaneously to the barest opening by which the opposition betrays itself. It had won for Joe every other major event the sport offers, and last week it won the Jug. In a flash of opportunity and response, the race was over. Just that quickly.

Joe and his horse, Shadow Wave, had drawn No. 12 post position in a 12-horse field. That meant he would start in the second tier of horses behind the gate and four wide of the rail. On any track, this is bad; on Delaware's saucerlike track with hardly a straight stretch for passing room, it was terrible. And then, as the gate approached the starting line, the No. 5 horse in the front tier lagged a step or two behind. There was a slice of clear daylight. It would be gone in seconds. It might be wide enough for a sulky. Joe O'Brien went through it like a bullet through wet paper.

On the same momentum, a hundred yards farther, he was ahead of every horse that might beat him. Now they had to pass to win, and they couldn't. Winning the first heat earned Joe No. 1 position in the second. With that favorable start, he was first all the way. There is no intent to slight a game colt like Shadow Wave, who paced all-out with little urging, but he was given the race track by Joe O'Brien in one quick move.

In the winner's circle, later, the crowd of photographers met the quiet man from Prince Edward. "Come on, Joe—a big smile!" they called repeatedly. Joe would give it a try, and the corners of that tight line would curl up slightly. Betty O'Brien, wet eyed, watched this, a step apart. She could have explained it to the photographers. "He doesn't smile very much, either," she might have said, "but he really is a nice guy."