They weren't much, just a couple of old tractors crawling around the track, driven by a couple of guys named Andy Huntley and Lee Cash, and they had been finishing an unnoticed one-two all Sunday afternoon. Then Nevele Pride, warming up, bore down on them, the prettiest legs in Du Quoin, Ill. flashing a rich black in the warm afternoon sun, Stanley Dancer chirping in the sulky. And—"Damn it, Pride, turn! Turn, baby, turn!" An instant before disaster the super colt swerved to the right, missing the front-running tractor by less than a foot. That was as close as Stanley and Pride were to come to losing this Hambletonian. "Close," said Del Miller, who had Keystone Spartan, and he was laughing. "After the way Nevele Pride won that first heat I knew there was nothing left but a heck of a tight for second place."
This was the big one that had eluded Dancer in eight previous tries, and he wasted no time showing everyone that this one was his, breezing straight heats, wire-to-wire. After the first turn of the first heat his only worry was how to get Nevele Pride out of the winner's circle before he killed somebody.
For the first heat Dancer had the far-outside post, but somehow he had the Pride of Nevele Acres and Louis Resnick streaking along in the seven hole before they ever got away from the gate. "Well," Dancer said later, "I saw some of them weren't leaving too quick, and I figured, what the heck, there was no sense in fooling around. I just fired him up." Dancer had his big 3-year-old colt so fired up that Nevele Pride's nose was sticking through the gate as they flashed past the starting line. Cutting quickly into the rail, Pride was on top going into the first turn. He trotted a blistering final quarter of :27[4/5] and won in a comfortable 1:59[3/5] by four lengths. Del Miller finished second, with not even the thinnest of thoughts of challenging Dancer. "He was so far out in front," said Miller, "that I didn't even think about him. I was only worried about Dart Hanover, and he was behind me."
Snow Speed, Ralph Baldwin's fine colt and the only horse to win a race against Nevele Pride this year, was also the only one given an outside chance of beating Pride, and he lost even that when he broke no more than a few strides past the starting line. He finished last. "He just tried to overtrot himself," said Baldwin, shrugging. "You bring them to a peak, and when you ask for just a little more that's what happens. But I gave up being disappointed about anything a long time ago. A man who lets himself be disappointed spends half his life that way." Snow Speed broke again in the second heat and finished eighth overall, just ahead of one of the two fillies in the race, Carolyn Sue.
In the second heat there was no challenge at all, not even at the start, and Nevele Pride won as he pleased in 1:59[2/5]. At one point he led by as much as 10 lengths, and he won by only 5½ because Dancer didn't want to extend his luck trying for a record. "Shucks," said Dancer, "I wasn't even thinking about a record. This Hambletonian has been escaping me for a long time. That's what I was thinking."
Oh, well, you are saying now—Nevele Pride won, and the sun came up at dawn, and one and one makes two. Ho-de-hum. And what other little tidbits of news are going to be dropped on us? That Mary had a little lamb? Or that Lucrezia Borgia was a lousy bartender? So what's the big deal? Well, last week, it suddenly didn't seem all that easy, not even for this great power wonder of a colt. Whispers were circulating the barns about the Dancer jinx. After all, wasn't he oh for eight in The Hambletonian? ("I don't know about the eight," said Dancer, "but I sure as heck know about the oh.") And, of course, there was a lot of talk about the year Dancer came in with Noble Victory, who couldn't lose, and who didn't even finish in the money. "I feel sorry for Stanley," said one man who didn't sound sorry, "but I'd have to bet he couldn't win this race in a Ferrari."
Then there was that race two weeks ago in Springfield, Ill. when Pride tangled with Snow Speed and finished seventh in the first heat. That had ended his winning streak at 18. And if that wasn't the old Dancer jinx warming up in the bullpen, then what was it?
"Greatest thing that ever happened to us," said Andy Murphy, Pride's oft-bitten groom. "What it did was take a lot of pressure off at just the right time. Nobody's going to win every race, not even this horse, and there's nothing like having that loss behind you."
"It was just bad racing luck," said Dancer, taking another view. "Bad luck and Pride's getting mad."
The bad luck came when Dancer and Baldwin, driving Snow Speed, locked wheels in the first turn. They remained locked for more than 90 feet, burning rubber all the way. "I couldn't see what the trouble was, but I sure could smell it," said Del Miller, who was far behind the pair with Keystone Spartan.
Finally Pride had enough of such nonsense and broke stride angrily, almost bouncing Dancer from his seat. Later Dancer said he wasn't afraid of the fall but of a hot-tempered Pride running free. But the colt's temper cooled, and he came back to win the second heat in a stakes-record-equaling 1:58[3/5].
"If you think that horse is looking to kill somebody after he wins," said the scarred Murphy, "you should see him after he loses. It was 20 minutes before I dared to take the bit out of his mouth."
If the pressures of a Hambletonian were getting to Dancer, he covered it well. He flew to Du Quoin early Thursday morning, and an hour later, whistling and singing, he took Pride on the first of three trips around the mile track. "Boy, has he got the other drivers psyched out," said a photographer as Dancer flew past, happily bellowing the words of an off-key Sweet Georgia Brown. Later, comfortably slouched in a blue-and-yellow camp chair in front of Pride's fan-cooled stall. Dancer wondered if anyone thought he should challenge Frank Sinatra to a singing duel.
"Hell, no," said a friend. "Nevele Pride sounds better when he snorts."
"Just for that," said Dancer, "you can walk all the way over to the grandstand and pull our post position. Number One would be nice."
A half hour later the friend returned, reluctantly, and said that if Pride was any farther away from the rail, he'd have to pay for a seat in the grandstand and would Stanley kindly loan him a knife so that he could slash his wrists.
"Number Nine!" said Dancer, hooting and slapping his thigh. "That may be the greatest thing that ever happened to us. And don't worry about it. You can't win any race by pulling pills out of a little bottle." Behind him, Nevele Pride whinnied.
Eddie Wheeler, who lost his ride in The Hambletonian when Kerry Pride injured a leg on Tuesday, came around the corner of the barn, pulled a chair into 85° shade and sat down.
"Hey, Eddie," said Dancer gleefully, "guess what—Pride got the rail."
Wheeler shook his head. "You are the luckiest...."
"Yeah, he got the rail," growled Dr. Edward Churchill, a veterinarian. "The one against the grandstand."
"Now I know you are lucky," said Wheeler. "That's just where you should be, a long way from trouble. And stay out there, way, way out."
"Well, Stanley," said a passing newsman, "are we going to see history made Sunday?"
"If I win," said Dancer, "it has to be history."
So Stanley Dancer made his history. It took less than four minutes, and when they came up to give him The Hambletonian jacket, he brushed his fingers lightly across the gold emblem over the breast pocket, and he said, "Would you please give it to my wife, Rachel. I think I will wear it tonight. But right now I have another race." And that's the way he celebrated his historic victory—in a sulky.
Breezing along lengths in front as they come off the backstretch into the last turn. Dancer and Nevele Pride are in easy command of the first heat.