Sometimes, apparently, a man can be too good at his job. Wednesday, at the 34th renewal of the Hambletonian, trotting's great classic, in Du Quoin, Ill., Ralph Baldwin had the best horse in the race, but his name will not go down in the record books as the winning driver. He'd done his job too well: he'd developed not one but two superb trotters and had both at their peak for the race. Then, in as fine a gesture as this sport has seen, he gave the favorite, Diller Hanover, to someone else to drive and handled the other, Tie Silk, himself. Diller won; Tie Silk was second.
Ralph Baldwin's face has the same gently wistful look that comedian Harry Langdon's used to display on the silent screen. And, like Langdon's screen personality, Ralph is extremely shy. He and Jeanette Baldwin travel the harness circuit around the country year after year, keeping pretty much to themselves, although trotting folks generally are a highly convivial lot. The fact that the Baldwins are among the sport's most popular couples tells a great deal about what kind of people they are.
At 43, Ralph Baldwin has been for many years in the select company that comprises the truly expert developers of gaited horses. There are two membership requirements in this exclusive club: top-grade horsemanship and infinite patience in applying it to the task of making a trotting race horse out of a young, spirited animal who has notions on his mind other than staying on the trot at top speed for many a mile.
Ralph has both qualities. It is worth noting that he has often turned out first-flight trotting fillies, who generally demand even more skill and attention than do colts. In 1957 he was second in the Hambletonian with a filly named Hoot Song; last year he was fourth with another named Sandalwood. He has been trying to be the winning driver in the Hambletonian—the dream of every horseman in the business—since 1948 without success.
Then along came Diller Hanover, and he was a good one right from the start as a 2-year-old last season. He won 14 of 23 races for Ralph, and most of the big ones whose fields included future Hambletonian starters.
Tie Silk, however, was another kind of horse, surely a far greater challenge to a man of Ralph Baldwin's skill and temperament. "He has," says Ralph, "a very light mouth. You can't take hold of him at all. If you put pressure on him through the reins he'll jump. A colt like that takes a long time to develop, because he has to learn to do everything almost by himself, with only the slightest signals from the man in the sulky.
"For this reason, too, he has to be taken away from the gate very slowly, clear of other horses. Finally, Tie Silk has a capricious streak in him which shows itself in, among other things, his refusal to enter his stall any way but hind end first."
So he developed slowly. Ralph was able to start him only six times last year, winning but once. He was still just another colt, eligible for the Hambletonian but hardly worth the starting fee, until just a few weeks ago, when all of Baldwin's patient care paid, off and Tie Silk came on with an amazing rush. On August 26 at Sedalia, Mo., with Baldwin in the sulky, he beat his stablemate Diller by a nose and set a season's record of 2:00[2/5] in the first heat of The Matron Stake. Diller reversed the decision in the next two heats, but Tie Silk was just a nose and a half length away from him, successively.
Last Monday, Ralph Baldwin had to decide which of his colts he would drive. Diller might be his once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride into the Hambletonian winner's circle. On the other hand, would it be fair to turn over the reins of as touchy and odd-tempered a colt as Tie Silk to another driver—fair, that is, both to the new driver and the colt?
Ralph gave Diller to the skilled veteran, Frank Ervin, who had handled him in Sedalia. At 55, Ervin had been vainly pursuing a Hambletonian victory even longer than Ralph.
The setting at Du Quoin was just about perfect. Great clouds of fluff spreading welcome patches of shade under a brilliant sun; a magnificent, milk-chocolate-colored track drying out from a previous day's rain to lightning-fast condition; in the stands, 22,000 trotting buffs from all over the country, drawn to this race despite the fact that there is no betting in Du Quoin; a field of 15 horses that included the best of the country's 3-year-olds. For nearly everyone but Ralph Baldwin the result of the race was a fitting, thrilling climax.
In the first heat, Diller Hanover demonstrated the courage that has sustained him all season. Outside all the way through a blazing first half mile, his greatest trial came with an eighth mile to go when, appropriately, Tie Silk came at him. These two fought out the last yards, stride by stride, and only Diller's handsome neck was over the wire before Tie Silk's nose. Ralph Baldwin, as usual, had been obliged to start slowly with Tie Silk. He'd been ninth at the half-mile post, had made up possibly a dozen lengths in a spirited rush, and all it had earned him was second place.
The second heat was marred by a jam-up of horses on the first turn which kept a number of them from putting Diller to a second severe test. Diller escaped the first-turn trouble by a few strides, was covered up on the rail to the head of the stretch and breezed home by two and a half lengths.
Frank Ervin drove him well. His name, deservedly, goes into the records. As for Ralph Baldwin—luckily, in addition to being a fine sportsman he is also a patient man.
TRAINER RALPH BALDWIN (LEFT), DRIVING TIE SILK, WATCHES THE DILLER WIN