There are 11,988 reasons for losing a Hambletonian," Lawrence Sheppard remarked before the trotting classic last week, "and I've used a good many of them." But when the 1964 race was over and the 20,000 spectators had turned away from trackside—back to the midway and livestock shows at the Du Quoin (Ill.) State Fair—Sheppard and his wife were drinking bubbly, and eight other owners were looking for the excuses.
There was only one. They were beaten by the best 3-year-old trotter in the land, Mrs. Sheppard's Ayres. The tiny bay spitfire took the $115,281 classic in straight heats, smashed the stakes record and equaled Speedy Scot's world record race time of 1:56[4/5]. The performance was so spectacular that it moistened the palms of raceway executives who were resigned to running a weekly dole for trotting's current king, Speedy Scot. This new Hambletonian winner will give the old Hambletonian winner a tussle.
Ayres arrived in Du Quoin a heavy favorite. He had trounced every 3-year-old good enough to be on the same track at the same time, but a few horsemen remained unconvinced. Billy Haughton's colt, Speedy Count, had beaten Ayres the only time they had raced under heat conditions. The winner of The Hambletonian must win two heats, and Haughton was confident his strong black colt would get better the farther they went. Wisconsin-owned Speedy Rodney was also considered a threat. The huge bay was unraced at 2 but came to Du Quoin with a record of 10 wins in 18 races and a trail of eastern horsemen begging to buy him—for $100,000, $150,000, or whatever price the colt's owners would name. They refused to sell. Of the other colts in the field only Dartmouth and Big John had any reason to be there, and Big John was nearly eliminated when he suffered spasmodic colic the evening before The Hambletonian.
Trainer Johnny Simpson warmed Ayres up, as he always does, directly behind a stablemate. The colt elected for this honor at Du Quoin was Toreador Hanover, a bay pacer who early in the week had held court in the Simpson barn in a stall carefully labeled "Ayres." Toreador had received the oohs and adulation and had pricked his ears and posed for cameras from Chittyville, Crab Orchard and places east, while Ayres relaxed undisturbed on the other side of the barn.
The record-breaking performance was anticipated. As Dartmouth's trainer-driver, Ralph Baldwin, said before The Hambletonian, "I've seen them drive in this race like it was the last one on earth." And that, precisely, is the way Billy Shuter drove Speedy Rodney in the first heat. His colt was considered a late finisher, but Shuter threw away past performances; at the start he charged from his No. 8 post across the field and into the lead. Ayres, starting just inside Speedy Rodney, was aimed in the same direction, but he took a few bad steps and for a moment, as Simpson described it later, "went out of gear. I don't know what it was, a shadow, manure, something. I hadn't made up my mind about going to the front when it happened. There was an opening on the rail." But Ayres recovered quickly. Speedy Rodney went the half in a blistering 57[3/5]. Speedy Count, Dartmouth and Big John were strung out behind him. Ayres was fifth. Turning for home, Haughton moved out to overtake Shuter, and Ayres was now right behind. They stormed into the straight three wide, and when Ayres looked a certain winner deep in the stretch, Big John loomed up in the middle of the track, closing fast. He was a length short of Ayres at the wire, but a length ahead of Speedy Count.
Simpson, who is usually taciturn and cautious, came back declaring, "He'll break 1:56 yet [Greyhound's record mark is 1:55¼]. I lost a fifth, maybe two, by that bad step." Ayres had gone the last half in a remarkable 56[3/5].
Between heats Haughton munched on a Popsicle and held his fingers up to his ears as he explained, "I got a grin this wide when I saw Ayres go off stride. I looked over and said, 'Goodby, Johnny,' but I wasn't smiling when he passed me in the stretch." Back under a shed, young Eddie Wheeler put ice packs on Big John's legs. "I feel like a winner to finish second to Ayres," he told everyone around. Then he pointed at Simpson's colt and said to his own, "Take a look at him, John."
In the second heat Wheeler's colt had a good look. He followed Ayres, who lay off the pace set first by Dartmouth, then by Speedy Count. But a horse broke in front of Big John on the far turn, and Ayres stole away. About 30 yards from the wire, Big John ranged up alongside. Simpson hollered and hit Ayres and the little bay went under the wire a neck ahead, in 1:58[1/5].
After the presentation ceremonies Lawrence Sheppard perched on the tailgate of a jeep and rode down the track. People called out, "Shep, how about a match race? How about Speedy Scot?" The master of Hanover Shoe Farm and the owner of four Hambo winners looked serious. "It wouldn't be exactly fair to Speedy Scot," he said. Bystanders chuckled. "That's true," Shep continued, "because Speedy Scot has those rich raceway stakes coming up." The closest the two colts will get to each other, at least this year, will be to appear on the same program. On September 19 both race at Roosevelt Raceway, and on October 9 at Lexington Speedy Scot will attempt to break Greyhound's record in a time trial, while Ayres will be shooting at the same record and the Triple Crown in the Kentucky Futurity.
In the meantime, though, Ayres has made all the Sheppards happy and proud, and he may also cause some disorder around the house in Hanover, Pa. After the victory Lawrence Sheppard's patient wife Charlotte remarked, "You should see our motel room. It's piled high with newspapers that I was afraid to read before the race. But I sure will keep everybody awake tonight." There may be a lot more newspapers and a lot less sleep in Hanover in the year ahead.
CHALLENGED BY BIG JOHN (LEFT), SIMPSON URGES AYRES TO SECOND-HEAT WIN