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Original Issue


Frank Ervin, the man who won the 1966 Hambletonian with Kerry Way (below) and tutored the remarkable Bret Hanover through three years of excellence, looks back fondly on his half a century of harness racing

Through the screen door of his office Frank Ervin could hear the voices of another group of sightseers as they made their way toward his barn on the backstretch at Ben White Raceway in Orlando, Fla. His morning work was just completed, and Ervin began to sense that soon one of the visitors would rap nervously on the door and ask to take his picture—and Frank planned to be ready. Delicately he wiped the dust from his driving goggles and reached into the back of a closet to exchange his mud-flecked fedora for an immaculate white one with a crisp maroon-and-gray band. He affixed a tiny, diamond-studded, horseshoe-shaped pin to his shirtfront and, just as he began buffing his prized, 65-year-old gold ring against his sleeve, the knock came. "Mr. Ervin," a voice asked, "would you mind stepping outside so we can take some pictures of you?" Ervin pushed the door open and said, "No, no, no. I mean no, sir, I'd quite like that."

This winter Frank Ervin, long regarded by insiders as one of the very best trainers and drivers in harness racing, finally has begun to receive some of the acclaim due him for nearly a quarter of a century. He has been invited to countless banquets and cocktail parties and presented with large tin trophies and small silver cups, primarily because he is the man who handled Bret Hanover, the great pacer who won 62 of 68 races in three years and broke a seemingly endless list of time, money and stakes records. "At many of the banquets," Ervin says, "I haven't even had a chance to eat, because people want more and more autographs or pictures. I've waited a long time to see what it would be like and I'm now at the age in life [62] when I can enjoy it."

People who follow harness racing closely find it ironic that toastmasters and ordinary fans now recognize Frank Ervin's talents for the first time. For years his professional reputation has been hammered out in the hot dust of places like Sedalia and Indianapolis and Du Quoin; it does not rest on the achievements of Bret Hanover alone. Ervin has probably trained or driven more winners than the combined totals of Thoroughbred racing's Eddie Arcaro and Hirsch Jacobs. In 1966 he drove 15 races in under two minutes, becoming the first man ever to drive over 100 two-minute miles. When he won last year's Hambletonian with Kerry Way, it marked his second victory in the sport's biggest single event, and he has also won three Little Brown Jugs. The list of trotters and pacers he has either driven or developed since the late 1940s reads like the record book of trotting during its most prosperous era. Even when arbitrarily reduced to 20 horses it includes: Adios, Bret Hanover, Canny Scot, Cheer Honey, Diller Hanover, Good Counsel, Good Time, Hundred Proof, Impish, Kerry Way, Keystoner, N.D. Hal, Phantom Lady, Sampson Hanover, Scotland's Comet, Shoo Shoo Byrd, Sprite Rodney, Timely Beauty, Yankee Hanover and Yankee Lass.

Today, even though Ervin feigns that the spirit is willing but the body is weak, he is still regarded as the master at taking a young horse and aiming it carefully toward the classics. There are few who question that skill, because too many times in the past Ervin has engineered tremendous upsets when other qualified horsemen assumed he did not have a presentable horse in his barn. He possesses a rare combination of patience and a way of communicating with young horses. Only eight 2-year-olds have trotted a competitive mile in under two minutes, and Frank Ervin has handled half of them. No other man has accounted for more than one.

Few men who train and drive Standard-breds ever achieve even temporary fame. Many seem to spend their public lives between parentheses—as in Hangover Hanover (Jones) $9.70, $6.80, $3.40. The group that receives the most publicity consists of those who drive on the illuminated half-mile carousels near large cities, and these men often seem to jump from one horse to another, as squirrels bound from tree to tree. Harness racing traditionalists maintain—and they are right—that the real horsemen are those who live with their horses through the long, tiring hours on training tracks, building the rapport that pays off later in races, and refusing to delegate authority or responsibility. There are a few left whose pride in horsemanship impels them to follow the old ways—men like John Simpson, Del Miller, Joe O'Brien, Billy Haughton, Ralph Baldwin, Earle Avery, and certainly Frank Ervin. They were brought up to respect a horse, and they recall a time when, as Simpson said recently, "You had to know your horse and take care of it and win with it or you just never got back home."

One recent morning at Ben White, Frank Ervin swung his leg over the shaft of the sulky, gave the reins to one of his stable hands and agreed to talk of those old times. Before he did, however, Ervin walked to the front of the horse he had been training and then slowly circled around him, speaking to the animal in a quiet voice. The colt is named Speedy Streak, and he is a Hambletonian eligible who was bought in 1965 for $113,000, the third-highest price ever paid for a yearling at auction. "Slow, boy," said Ervin. "Stead-ee. Not a thing to worry about. Slow-lee. Quiet. Nice job out there. See you tomorrow morning." From his gray wash pants Ervin took a small, plastic-covered notebook and wrote in pencil the time of the mile that the horse had just worked. "I have to keep writing things down now," he said. "The memory is not as good as it used to be. I keep the times of all the miles worked and the track conditions in this book and then transfer them to a bigger book later on. I have books going back for 12 years, but like a fool I recently threw some out that went even farther back than that. Why, Stanley Dancer not too long ago asked me if I would make a copy of all the workouts I put into Bret Hanover throughout his career. Stanley said he wanted to look at them and keep them, and that made me proud. But the memory slips....

"I was born in Pekin, Ill. on August 12, 1904, and my father was a horseman named Tom Ervin who had been born in Hampton Furnace, Ohio. His father had once traveled through Kansas in a covered wagon to homestead and acquire some land out there. But he traded that land for a farm in Rich Hill, Missouri and built a racetrack on it between 1877 and 1880. My grandfather had two sons, Tom and Dan, and they both learned to be horsemen on that track, racing against each other day-in and day-out. Dan was what you might call on the lazy order, and he worked for years for a man named Hutton, who was on the lazy order, too. They made a great pair 'cause Hutton's idea of being around horses was to get dressed up all pretty like and say, 'Hey, look at me! I'm the Hutton who's got the horses.' On Sundays the two of them would put on their pretty outfits and go out to the barns and wait for people to come by and see how nice they looked. They'd sit in canvas chairs all day and smoke cigars, which, when you come to think of it, isn't a bad way to live.

"But my dad. Tom, kept about his business, and more than once he owned Shoo Fly Gyp, the sire of the dam of Single G.—who many thought was the greatest horse of all time. Single G. once won 58 straight heats and 262 lifetime. But the only thing I can recall about Shoo Fly Gyp was that he was a great big old white pacer that my dad kept buying and selling. You know, he'd buy him at Sedalia and sell him back at St. Louis things like that. When I was 6 he took me to see Dan Patch at Galesburg, Ill., and I can remember how just the sight of him thrilled everyone. By the time I was 121 was traveling around with my dad when school let out, and I began to watch him carefully. My father wanted me to get an education, at least enough to learn to read and write. I got through grade school, and he sent me to high school after a summer of racing with him. One of the things they'd do to initiate you into high school in those days was to take your pants down and walk you through the center of town, and I certainly didn't look forward to that. Well, I ducked the juniors and seniors for the first two days of school, but on the third day they came after me. There were about four of them, and they chased me down an alley and backed me up against a fence. I reached up and got a one-by-four and hit one of the seniors, and that was the end of that. It was also the end of my high school education, so I returned to the races with my father, and in 1920 he let me drive in my first race.

"He had a trotter named Black Diamond that was a fine horse. Once won 26 straight races and he was like a machine. My father had him so ready for my first race that I probably couldn't have lost with him if I had tried. It was in Charleston, Ill. and I won with him, beating a field of four. Those days are a far cry from today. You could do things then that you wouldn't even think about doing now. It wasn't too long after that first win that we had an incident in Mt. Vernon, Ill., a mining town. There was a famous local horse in Mt. Vernon named Colonel Cochoran Jr. and he was trained and driven by Lyall Scott. My father and I were to drive two horses against him—Black Diamond and Mightellion. The following week there was to be a race for 2:10 trotters, and my father didn't want to be marked in less than that for either horse." In other words, Tom Ervin wanted to keep his horses eligible for the following week's race and not reveal how fast they were. "So he went to Scott and suggested a three-way split in the purse. Well, Scott wouldn't go for it, so my father said, 'Just make it look close and it will tickle these people.'

"Colonel Cochoran got the lead at the top of the stretch, and I came up on him with Black Diamond near the finish and got beat a neck. Those were the days of near beer. When we had to come out for the second heat and I was warming Black Diamond up, a near-beer bottle went right by my head. I looked over at the rail and here were about 100 tough miners coming over it and after me. Apparently there was a pretty good handbook at Mt. Vernon and quite a few of them had bet on me. They must have been spiking that near beer, but I knew that as long as I had that horse they weren't about to catch me. Someone opened the gap in the backstretch and we drove out horses out through it and right out of town.

"In 1922 at Aurora, Ill. my father fell from a sulky and broke his arm, fractured his skull and cut off the end of his finger, and I drove the horses from the next heat on. No one will ever know how much he taught me. He had a way with a horse. I took over the stable in 1929 when times were bad. Trained, fed and took care of horses for a dollar a day. But there were plenty of good times. One day in Hutchinson, Kansas I drove in 12 races and won all 12. There was once a time at Sedalia, Missouri when we had 22 races in one day. They started at 11 in the morning and ended up in the dark. The track was muddy when the races began and bone dry at the finish.

"During World War II, I raced on the West Coast at places like Pomona, Stockton and Santa Rosa. I had the leading money-winning stable on the coast for a time, but in 1943, at the end of the racing year, I had no horses at all. I came down here to Orlando, and the great Henry Thomas called me and I worked for him for two months and then left and went up to Lexington and somehow picked up six horses. I worked my way to the North Randall track in Ohio with them, and one day Rupe Parker, one of the finest horsemen that ever lived, called me. He said he had been taken ill and wondered if I would train his stable for him until he was well. Through the years I had often stabled next to Mr. Parker to learn things from him, and I had the highest regard for him. Twenty-five of the best horsemen in the country were stabled around Cleveland then, and when I got Mr. Parker's horses a lot of eyebrows were raised. Just a couple of weeks later Mr. Parker died, and I was left to take care of the horses. That was the big break. Three of them were Adios, Scotland's Comet and The Colonel's Lady. All of them went in under two minutes that year. By that fall I had gone out on my own, and by 1945 I had all the horses I could handle."

Ervin pushed the seat back from his desk, put his cigarette out and walked over to some pictures hanging oh the wall of his office. He rubbed his clear blue eyes and said he was tired and had talked far too long. "I was up late last night with my wife," he said. "We were watching the movie we have of Good Time's win in the Little Brown Jug of 1949. A man took the movie in color from the top of the grandstand at Delaware, Ohio, and I found out about it and paid him $50 for it. Every once in a while we take the movie out late at night and watch it. It's too bad that Good Time came along at a time when communications were not as good as they are today." Ervin pointed to one of the pictures and said, "Good Time. Good Time!" There was a sound to the voice that had not been there before, as if a bell had been struck with a hammer.

Those who never saw Good Time are the poorer for it. He was a tiny pacer who raced with a shuffle and walked like a camel, but he gave hands and pounds and consistent beatings to his opponents. Good Time won 78 races and finished in the money 104 times in 110 starts. He drew huge crowds at a time when harness racing was just beginning to burgeon and needed a star. Sportswriters who had never deigned to cover harness racing began finding copy in him, and they quickly made a cliché of "The Diminutive Sidewheeler." How he got his real name remains a mystery.

Good Time was owned by Bill Cane, a builder who got his start with the notorious Hague administration in Jersey City. He promoted The Hambletonian when it was raced at Goshen, N.Y., and later turned the old Empire City flat track into Yonkers Raceway. (His opening night there became a near-disaster when inexperienced mutuel clerks left the daily-double windows open after the first race had been completed.) Cane's stable was called the Good Time Stable, and it was known for trotters. He had bred two Hambletonian winners, but the mating on May 31, 1945 of Hal Dale and On Time produced a fragile thing that Cane chose to call Good Time.

"Maybe he called the foal Good Time because of the dam, On Time," Ervin said, "but I doubt it. He could have named a load of horses for his stable before that. He must have had some instinct. I remember seeing Good Time as a suckling colt in Lexington, and the story goes that people always wanted to put him in the back of cars and drive him around like a dog. When it came time to ship some of the horses to auction they shipped little Good Time right along. Mr. Cane came up to me when we got to the sales and said, 'Frank, where's Good Time? I want to see him.' I told Mr. Cane that Good Time was around in back of the barn and they brought him around to the front where Mr. Cane was standing. Mr. Cane had cataracts and leaned on a cane, and I guess he could just about make out that a horse was there in front of him. He raised his right hand above his shoulder and reached up to touch Good Time, but he didn't get anything. He lowered his hand maybe half a foot and said, 'Where, Frank? Where?' I said, 'Keep goin' down, Mr. Cane.' He lowered his reach maybe three, four times 'til he touched the horse. 'Little jigger, ain't he, Frank?' Mr. Cane said. 'Awful little,' I said. 'Won't never amount to nothin'.' All Mr. Cane said was, 'Hello there, little Good Time.'

"When I started to train Good Time I didn't know what we had. He cheated, just did what he wanted to do. We brought him to the races in St. Louis for the first time, and as we left the gate in the first heat a guy ran into us sideways, and we were in the outside post position to begin with. But once little Good Time got going he rambled by colts like pickets on a fence, and we ended up second to Favonian Chief. When I looked at my watch I saw that Good Time had gone a half in a minute, and I thought the damn watch was broken. In the second heat he ran to the quarter pole and then caught stride and finished third, and I knew I had something. Unfortunately, he got sick, and when I did get him to the races at Goshen he drew in the third tier, but he raced a hell of a mile. Ralph Baldwin drove him for me there, and only four men ever handled him besides myself.

"I was also driving N.D. Hal as a 2-year-old, but I knew that I would have to drive Good Time for Mr. Cane in the Jug. N.D. Hal was owned by a couple named Resnick, real nice people, and I was worried how I was going to tell them that I had to drive Mr. Cane's horse and not theirs. They were at Springfield at the time of the Little Pat Stake and Mr. Cane wasn't, so I drove N.D. Hal and had Ken Cartnal drive Good Time. Good Time beat the hell out of N.D. Hal, and after the race the Resnicks came to me and I told them I would have to drive Good Time. 'Could you get Cartnal to drive N.D. Hal?' they asked. I did, and I have always suspected they really might have wanted to get rid of me and get Cartnal, anyway. When I told Cartnal, he said, 'You son of a gun, Frank! You son of a gun.'

"Shortly before his Little Brown Jug in 1949, Good Time got sick with influenza. It looked like his biggest moment was going to go by, and I wanted the Jug for him. I shipped him from Indianapolis to Delaware, Ohio 14 days before the race, and I walked him for miles out under the trees and just let him eat the fresh green grass. He started to come back to health little by little, and on the Sunday before the race I worked him in 2:07, and everyone said how dull he looked. Sure he was dull, because he had been sick, but the time of that work caused everyone to want to start in the Jug. The race had to be split into two divisions, and Good Time drew the seven post in his, but we got to the lead on the first turn and won. Ralph Baldwin won the second division with Stormyway. Ten horses came back for the race-off a little while later, and Good Time murdered them." Ervin stood up, stretched and looked out the window. "That's John Simpson there," he said. "Great horseman. He can tell you about Frank Ervin better than Frank Ervin can. Frank Ervin is due at home for lunch. Overdue, in fact."

Ervin," Simpson said, "is one of my closest friends, but a deadly enemy on the racetrack. Good Time broke the hearts of a lot of my horses over the years. You live and die with a horse when you are getting one ready for the Jug or The Hambletonian. People don't understand what it's like to balance a horse and keep him in shape and get his mind ready. You have to feel it, sense it, know that nothing is wrong. Watch Frank Ervin any day when he's bringing a horse off the track. He'll take it and move it away from all the activity and just talk to the horse. No other man in the world could have done the job that Frank Ervin did with Bret Hanover. He has remarkable hands. It's hard to explain, but a man's hands adapt to a horse's mouth, and the horse can sense how the man feels. Frank went through hell with Bret Hanover and kept him sound and in shape over every kind of racetrack, in every kind of weather."

The next morning Ervin arrived at his barn at 7, and when he had finished his chores he talked of Bret Hanover. "Let's get one thing straight," he began. "I did not teach Bret Hanover to bow. That all started in New York when people were trying to make something out of what was not there. I don't teach horses to bow or jump through hoops."

Those who should know, however, say that Ervin teaches many tricks to horses because of his sense of showmanship. They tell a story about Ervin winning a heat at a fair on the Midwest circuit and bringing the horse back to the front of the crowd and aiming it at the people and doffing his cap as he always does when he wins. Two farmers were supposed to be standing by the rail, and one said to the other, "Look at that show-off Ervin. He gets a hand here because we're just a bunch of farmers, but if he ever tried that stuff at Roosevelt or Yonkers or those big-city places the people would boo the hell out of him." (Actually, when Ervin does it at a big-city track, he always gets a huge ovation, because the public seldom sees any other driver do a thing like that.)

"There are those who come to the races," Ervin said, "who want to see a horse. The night tracks and the starting gate made harness racing what it is today, but that doesn't mean that you should not show people a horse. When I see some of those guys at places like Sportsman's Park win a race and get a blanket in the winner's circle and then go tear-assing off to their barn with one leg dangling out of the sulky I think that maybe we haven't come quite as far as we think we have. Give the people something. Give them maybe just a moment they can remember. Show them a horse."

Bret Hanover's records may stand forever, but few recall how close Ervin came to disaster with the colt. It was the night of May 27, 1964 at Lexington, Ky., and Ervin was warming Bret up for the fourth start of his career. They came into the stretch just as a Shriners' band was playing and beginning to raise its flags. Bret wheeled and fell, pitching Ervin from his cart. Ervin lay on the track. An ambulance came out to get him, but he sent it away and walked to Bret's barn. Bret had jumped the infield fence and had to be captured and brought to the stable area. The horse had only been bruised, but Ervin had been badly hurt and he refused to recognize it. He wanted Bret to sense that everything was still fine so that the rapport between man and horse would be the same as it had been since those early days when he had broken Bret to harness.

"Afterward I sat in the office," Ervin said, "and people brought me some coffee. I was still convinced that I was going to drive him, because I knew by then what kind of a horse I had. I sat there in the chair for 30 minutes with my wife nearby, and when I started to get up I couldn't raise myself out of the chair. I had to go to the hospital, where they found I had two broken ribs and the disc in my back had been pushed out. I got Dick Buxton to drive Bret that day, and he won, but I couldn't wait to get back to him. I was in the hospital for three days and out of action for five weeks, but I forced myself into coming back too early, and I ended up in bed again."

Bret Hanover smashed his opposition as a 2-year-old and won 24 of 24 races to break the record Tom Ervin had set with Black Diamond nearly 50 years before. He was Horse of the Year at 2, 3 and 4, and won $922,616 to become the leading money-winning harness horse of all time. To almost everyone, though, his most significant achievement occurred on the Big Red Mile track at Lexington last October, when Ervin drove Bret in a time trial in 1:53 3/5. Ervin had waited for the right day for a week, checking and arguing with weather bureaus and track officials until he thought things were perfect. Time and again he looked at the flags on the poles and walked over the track in his bouncy stride. He decided to go after the record (1:54 3/5 on a mile track) following the last race of the day on the next-to-last day of the meeting, and the crowd of 2,561 stayed on. Ervin felt that if Bret could reach the three-quarters in 1:24 he could break the record, and Bret arrived there exactly on time. The best description of what happened thereafter comes from Jim Harrison of the United States Trotting Association, who was standing with a group of horsemen an eighth of a mile from the finish line.

"I was suddenly engulfed by a wave of ear-splitting sound. Grown men were screaming and yelling at the top of their voices. 'Hi Ya, Hi Ya,' they chorused. 'Hi Ya, Hi Ya!' These men were not cheering a particular horse. For them, this was a horse that for these few fleeting seconds had neither name nor breeding, nor owner, nor trainer nor driver. He was, in essence, everything that they had ever dreamed of, and as he approached the finish line, tired but pacing straight and true, they were urging him on because he belonged to each of them."

That was the way Frank Ervin closed out 1966. At the end of April or early in May he will pack up his stable and ship north from Orlando to Kentucky and then out onto the trail that leads to the classics. "The body is getting old," he will tell people.

But Ervin's opponents know that the little horseshoe-shaped pin given to him by his wife over 30 years ago as a birthday present will be in place on his shirt-front when the hot dust begins to rise again in places like Sedalia and Indianapolis and Du Quoin. "If I can have just seven, maybe eight good horses ready by summer, then maybe I'll get another chance at The Hambletonian, and you can't ask for more than that," he says. His rivals know, too, that the blue eyes will be clear and, more often than not, when the traditional races are over other drivers will be making their way back to the barns while Frank Ervin will still be out in front of the crowd, aiming his horse at the stands and doffing his cap.