The malevolent roar started deep in the old Yonkers Raceway grandstand and rolled across the half-mile track toward the horsemen who were watching from the paddock. Karen Adios, the favorite in the third race, had gone off stride before the start and was out of contention. The shirtsleeved sportsmen on the asphalt apron in front of the stands waved their fists at Driver George Sholty and their voices rose in a bitter chorus that was to set the tone for the whole evening of the $150,000 harness race called the Yonkers Futurity.
The 22,271 people at Yonkers last Thursday were there, as usual, to bet on nine races, mainly ones like the third, for nonwinners of $4,000 lifetime. But they were also there to see the best 3-year-old trotters in the country compete in a race that was supposed to be one of the classics of the sport. They got eight of the races they expected, but they did not get any classic. In fact, the Futurity, the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown and the race that was supposed to begin sorting out the best horses among this year's wide-open field, could barely be classified as a race. A colt named Pomp won it, virtually by default, after almost every other contender had been racked up in a mad 13-horse scramble around the first turn. "We were the luckiest," said Winning Driver Harry Pownall. "This race was just a matter of breaks, and we got them. Of course, it doesn't prove anything about who had the best horse."
Since Triple Crown events are generally expected to prove something, the Futurity must be ranked as a major disappointment. But this was not really a surprise to the horsemen. "Too many horses," Joe O'Brien was saying before he began warming up his colt, Halifax Hanover. "A man pays a lot of money to stake his horse for a race like this, then he draws a bad post position and gets eliminated right at the start. So he goes home mad, and the next year he doesn't pay to stake anything." Since the owners' nomination fees made up half the total purse of the Futurity, O'Brien had a point.
Fourteen horses were entered for the Futurity, some of them nondescript outsiders lured by the promise of purse money all the way back to sixth place. If 16 had been entered, the track management would have been required to split the race; with 14, it had a choice. "There have been some great races here with large fields," explained a track spokesman. "They can produce some great shows for the fans." "They can also produce some great accidents," said Billy Haughton, trainer of the favored entry of Flamboyant and Keystone Pride. "The only reason they won't split it is because they want to advertise that one big fat purse."
Don Larlee, who rushed all the way from a race at Martinsville, Ill. that afternoon to drive a long shot named Speedy Love, explained the thinking that produced the bulky field. "My filly admittedly hasn't shown much this year, but she did show some trot last season. And frankly, I entered her hoping the race would split. Now that it hasn't I guess we have as good a chance as anyone."
The luck involved was accentuated in the draw for post positions. Halifax Hanover drew near the outside, and the Haughton horses and Dazzling Speed, the early Hambletonian favorite, all drew places in the second tier, behind the first eight starters. Only one real contender, Norman Woolworth's Pay Dirt, received a good position—but Pay Dirt was lame. "Calcium on the knee, the vet tells me," said Trainer Earle Avery. "He's been going all right lately, so we entered him. But as soon as I push him he'll probably go lame as a dog." Avery pushed Pay Dirt a little in his prerace warmups and came back frowning. "He's dead sore," he said. "Guess I'll have to scratch him." Avery went into the horsemen's locker room, bought two 10¢ cigars, pulled on a plaid flannel shirt and settled down in a chair to watch the remaining 13 horses go for the big purse. He may have been luckier than he realized. Earle is 73 years old, and a man of his age does not belong in the carnage that followed.
At the start of the mile race Crack Shot, one of the colts that shouldn't have been in this company, went into a break. The adroit Sholty maneuvered him to the outside as well as he could without bothering anyone, and watching horsemen sighed with relief. Then Marcel Hanover, on the inside, also broke. His driver, Roger White, is not as experienced as Sholty on half-mile tracks, and his position right in the center of the mob scene really gave White little chance to get out of people's way. Marcel Hanover galloped into Arden Vance, driven by Ned Bower, and later unseated White. Farther outside, Speedy Love also broke and forced Blaze Frost and Driver Tic Wilcutts toward the inside. This produced a frightening traffic jam just where the second-tier starters were trying to get through.
Flamboyant got the worst of it. "I can't say exactly who hit us," said Haughton. "Wilcutts was there, and Bower. But they can't be blamed, because other horses were running into them. I was too busy trying to survive to pay much attention to who was around me."
Dazzling Speed fared better, but only after giving Stanley Dancer some bad moments. "I've never been jolted so high out of the sulky in my life," Dancer said. "I came back down on the crossbar and was lucky to keep my seat." Keystone Pride almost managed to sneak through unharmed, but caught a sulky wheel and also broke. "If I had just gotten past that one hole," Driver Del Insko told Trainer Haughton, "I could have jogged home on top." "Let's just be glad," said Billy, "that we got back at all."
Two long shots with good post positions, Flying Cloud and Proven Freight, came out of the turn in front. Pownall somehow steered Pomp around the wreckage and into third place, and O'Brien seemed to have found a perfect spot on the rail for Halifax Hanover. Pomp took the lead near the three-quarter mark and pulled away, while Dazzling Speed closed a tremendous gap along the rail, and Halifax, then forced to race on the outside, went off stride. Pomp held off Dazzling Speed by three lengths to win in the modest time of 2:04⅘ with Keystone Pride third.
While Pownall and Pomp waited in the winner's circle, the other drivers returned to the paddock in a black mood, angry at the track and at each other. "I hope they're satisfied with their 13-horse race," growled Dancer. "This was just a glimpse of what could have happened out there," said Haughton, who was consoled somewhat by the fact that Flamboyant came back uninjured. Wilcutts rushed in to call the stewards and accuse O'Brien of letting Halifax Hanover gallop through the stretch to get sixth money of $4,500. O'Brien, in turn, had some words for Dancer. "I was sitting in a good spot a few feet off the rail," he said. "Then Stanley drove his horse up just inside my wheel and forced me to race parked out for the whole second half. He had no business in there, but I had to either let him come all the way up inside me or else cut him down. Come to think of it, I probably would have been better off cutting him down."
The arguments were just subsiding when Pownall came back, still panting heavily from his efforts and the excitement of the largest pot he had ever won. "The horse was fitter than I was," he joked. But Pomp probably was not fit enough to win a tough and honestly run race last week. "He's been sick twice this spring, and he's come along slowly," said Pownall.
Pomp is owned by the Arden Homestead Stable of E. Roland Harriman and Elbridge Gerry and, like all that stable's good horses, he has been pampered and handled patiently, with next month's Hambletonian in mind. In an eight-horse Futurity, Dazzling Speed probably would have won. "He was really flying at the end," said Dancer, "even after all he went through." But Dazzling Speed is at his peak; Pomp has not yet reached his. Pomp won the hectic Futurity because he was the luckiest. He could win the Hambletonian because, by then, he may be the best.