The finest spectacles in sport are those contests in which great champions win greatly, and in all trotting history there may have been none finer than last week's Hambletonian. The wondrous Kentucky bay, Speedy Scot (above), triumphed. That was expected But he did so only when forced to draw upon his last reserves of heart and sinew. That was not expected.
Speedy Scot, trained and driven by an artist at his calling, 47-year-old Ralph Baldwin, had been favored to destroy his 13 rivals in two swift heats. Instead he was roughly challenged by a chestnut named Florlis. Tuned to concert pitch by another craftsman, Harry Pownall, 60, Florlis astonishingly captured the first heat from Speedy Scot in world-record time for 3-year-olds (1:57 3/5) and then gamely fought the big bay from starting gate to finishing wire in Speedy's two winning heats. That Speedy Scot trotted the second mile in 1:58 and the last in 1:58 2/5, equaling the old Hambletonian record after two savage heats, gives an inkling of his class.
But in other ways, too, the $115,549 Hambletonian was an event of rare purity. It was blessedly free of press-agentry and image-mongering. Baldwin and Pownall both possess the old homely vir tues of hard work and plain speech. They train for people of pride and principle: Baldwin for the Van Lenneps of Castleton Farm in the Kentucky Bluegrass, Pownall for Roland Harriman and Elbridge Gerry's Arden Homestead Stable of Goshen, N. Y. The Hambletonian, first among the world's trotting races, is further blessed with an ideal setting amid the lovely greenery of Gene and Don Hayes's state fairgrounds at Du Quoin in southern Illinois. Some outlanders grumble over Du Quoin's remoteness from big-city airports. Let them. As long as the Hayeses have it, The Hambletonian will be worth the trip.
Consider one additional bit of evidence. Joe O'Brien, the silver-haired trainer who has twice won The Hambletonian (with Scott Frost and Blaze Hanover), had a hard spill in a race in Chicago two weeks ago. He fractured his right hand and smashed a knee. Joe has an ornery but fast filly named Star Act. Convinced she had a chance in The Hambletonian, Joe appeared at Du Quoin on crutches. On race day he picked up one line with the broken hand and, in acute pain, eased the damaged leg onto his sulky. Joe had post 13, which meant he started from the third position in the second tier—a handicap that even the best horses rarely overcome. Moreover, he was away poorly in the first heat. He started his watch at the starting line and, finishing fifth, stopped it at the wire. According to Joe's watch, Star Act trotted that mile in 1:57 1/5—two-fifths faster than Florlis' winning time and equal to Star's Pride's alltime record for a race.
On in tight-lipped agony went Joe through the second and third heats, although he believed the first mile had taken too much out of Star Act for there to be any real hope of victory. He was last in each dash, but he held on to the lines, and he finished. That is the kind of passion—not too strong a word—that makes The Hambletonian the race it is, that made last Wednesday perhaps the race of them all.
So extraordinary are the Joe O'Briens and Johnny Simpsons and Del Millers at pointing a chancy dark horse for such a prize that they contribute much to The Hambletonian's appeal. They are like hair-trigger pistols that might go off and shoot down the favorite—as in 1961, when Miller's fabulous cripple, Harlan Dean, driven by Jimmy Arthur, was the winner.
But as the largest of all Hambletonian crowds, 41,980, went out to the fair, few seriously believed Speedy Scot could be beaten except by himself. After all, he had won 19 of 25 races and $182,000 in his brief career and probably would have taken the rest but for breaking gait in those races. When in mid-August he blithely won the Yonkers Futurity, the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown, despite breaking, he had the look of the first Triple Crown horse since O'Brien's marvelous Scott Frost (1955).
At the Castleton barn, Frederick Van Lennep, owner of the Kentucky show-place with his wife, the former Frances Dodge, was cheerfully confident. Italian horsemen who had at first attempted to buy Speedy Scot had now shifted their sights to Speedy's young sire, Speedster. Van Lennep chortled, explaining that the son would be a perfect replacement. "They'll let us have one bucket and buy the well," said the Van Lenneps' breeding manager, Woodford Lawlis. Baldwin, a notably unflappable man, was as calm as ever.
Frances Van Lennep did not go to Du Quoin. She is an astute horsewoman, well known as a breeder of both saddle and trotting horses and a champion of the Kentucky persuasion in harness racing, but she was apparently a little on edge and preferred to escape the tensions of the race. Much, indeed, was at stake. A victory by Speedy Scot, who is out of Speedster's first crop, would add to that stallion's already considerable value. As a homebred, Speedy Scot is a special favorite. And, as a Kentucky-sired colt, he was clearly the one to break the near monopoly enjoyed for a decade by the immense Hanover Shoe Farm of Pennsylvania. Hanover stallions had sired eight of the previous 10 Hambletonian winners. All Kentucky loyalists would be pleased to toast a Kentucky winner in bonded bourbon.
Florlis was perfectly acceptable, of course. His sire, the Arden Homestead's Florican, actually stands at Castleton. The thing was, he was supposed to be second all the way, not first in the first heat and second in the summary. With Frank Ervin's excellent filly, Cheer Honey, off form because of a virus attack and sniffing oxygen to perk up, Florlis and a spookable screwball of a horse named Glidden Hanover seemed to be Speedy Scot's only serious opposition. As programs fluttered in the stands to stir Du Quoin's typically sultry air a bit, Speedy Scot left the starting gate from the favorable third post and Florlis from No. 7. Florlis left like an X-15 and had reached the quarter mark in 28 seconds flat before spectators began to appreciate that he looked exceptionally fit. But when Speedy Scot brushed nicely up the backstretch and went to the top in the turn, nearly everyone, including Ralph Baldwin, concluded that heat No. 1 was the bay's.
True, Florlis was coming on awfully fast in the last hundred yards. But surely Baldwin would get a little bit more out of Speedy Scot and win comfortably. No, sir. Florlis kept coming. As Pownall in his orange and blue silks and Baldwin in his maroon and gray ones flailed their whips, it was Florlis by an unbelievable neck.
Under the intense sun Baldwin's normally ruddy complexion turned a worried magenta. "He just outtrotted me there," Ralph said.
Pownall, Brooklyn-born and still possessed of the pell-mell speech of his native Williamsburg neighborhood, was as surprised as anyone, but for the moment he was not letting on. "Give him an alcohol rubdown," he instructed a groom. Wiping his streaming forehead, he slumped down upon a bench. "I had to go outta there. That's the only chance we've got to get a position. When you get to the top you take back, and then the other guy has to go. From the half on I've got a nice journey. I used him at the start, but I know I've got horse left. When I tapped him at the head of the stretch he dug in, and at the end he was going all he could."
Pownall, who is famous for his patience with young horses and his ability to get them going with little or no extra equipment—toe weights, boots, etc.—then made a small revelation. Florlis, he said, could not get around the turns on half-mile tracks very deftly. Since he had been mostly on the small tracks so far this year, he had not looked the trotter he really was. Now at Du Quoin, on a mile track....
In the deciding heats Pownall again left swiftly, and in each case Baldwin tucked Speedy Scot in behind Florlis; in each case Speedy Scot moved out from the rail nearing the homestretch and went ahead. When Pownall failed to catch up in the second heat and Florlis was beaten by three-quarters of a length, Baldwin probably felt the third and race-winning heat would be his. But he was not smiling until he took the last—by a widening length. By racing eighth, third and fifth, Simpson's filly, Elma, was third in the final ranking.
When did Baldwin believe he had the last dash won? "At the head of the stretch," said Baldwin. "But I thought that in the first heat, too."
The Arden Homestead's Ebby Gerry was equally flabbergasted. "I thought Florlis would be doing well to do 1:59," he said afterward.
Because of that first sensational mile, The Hambletonian really had two winners. They can't take that 1:57 3/5 away from Florlis; he is a world champion. But even so, Speedy Scot is the better trotter. He is one of the great ones. Baldwin believes he may someday have a crack at Greyhound's absolute record (set in a time trial) of 1:55¼ for the mile. Until then, the Triple Crown will do. The third leg is raced at Lexington, Ky.'s famous "Red Mile" on October 4. Speedy Scot is going to win it.