At the mellow age of 75, when a man must be careful lest empty hours make life a bore, Earle Avery has trouble finding time to enjoy a cigar. Such is the nature of Avery's character, and of harness racing itself, that days begin before 6 a.m. and often do not end until nearly midnight. These days, especially, the old man is always on the move because there is a big horse in his barn, and the Hambletonian, a prize that has escaped him through a full half century of training and driving, is there for the taking.
"I've won bigger purses," said Avery, drawing the cellophane wrapper off a cigar during a rare breather last week, "but the Hambletonian, well, there's all that tradition." He blew out a puff of smoke and smiled a grand-fatherly smile. "Of course, I guess I'm too old to win it now. And besides, it seems that every time I get a good horse, dang it, somebody else has a better one." (There are still a lot of people in trotting who say dang it.)
This year nobody else may have a better one than Gun Runner, the star colt Avery is training and driving for Norman Woolworth's Clearview Stable of New Canaan, Conn. Besides a catchy name, Gun Runner has all the attributes of a classic champion: size, manners, breeding and, mainly, a long, ground-devouring stride. "Shoot," said one of Avery's grooms, "the boss just don't like to brag about his stock. Gun's the best Hambletonian prospect that ever was. Why, he's gonna win that race with no trouble."
The real Hambletonian is still months away (Aug. 27), but a sort of mini-Hambo, the General George Washington Trot, was held the other night at Brandywine Raceway near Wilmington, Del. Of the top prospects, only Lindy's Pride and Tarport Devlin, neither of whom has started campaigning yet, were absent. There was Dayan, named after the hero of the Six Day War who has been formally invited to the Hambletonian by the colt's owners. There was Nevele Major, stablemate of last year's trotting Triple Crown champion, Nevele Pride, and last year's 2-year-old trotter of the year. And there was Nardin's Gayblade, winner of the $25,000 U.S. Harness Writers Trot in his only start of the year.
Of these opponents Avery was worried most about Dayan. At Atlantic City Raceway the week before the Brandy-wine race, while an older horse beat them both, Gun Runner barely nosed out Dayan to place. "But Dayan was parked out all the way," Avery said. "He's a tough one."
As soon as the Brandy wine race began Avery shot from the No. 2 post to take the lead as the seven-horse field went into the first turn. At the quarter Dayan dropped right behind him into second place, and that's the way they went, Gun Runner and Dayan, through the next half mile. Neither Nevele Major, off to a slow start, nor Nardin's Gayblade ever was a factor. Turning for home, Driver Fred Bradbury quickly maneuvered Dayan from behind Gun Runner, next to him, then past with a rush. Bradbury and Avery never used their whips, and at the wire it was Dayan, easily, by 2½ lengths. The time was 2:03.4, a season's record.
"I got outtrotted, that's all," said Avery after the race. "When he gets right behind me like that I can't beat that bird. I was pleased with Gun Runner's race, though. I think. I hope, he's still improving."
Aside from the fact that he would like to win his first Hambletonian, Avery has a special horseman's attachment to Gun Runner. His sire, Porterhouse, was a big winner for Avery and Woolworth early in this decade. "Porterhouse couldn't have been more perfect," said Avery, "and Gun Runner is exactly like him. The first time I ever got behind him he acted like a racehorse. He started right off like his sire, except better, with more wallop."
A very and Woolworth bred Gun Runner, then sold him at auction for $18,000 to one of Avery's old friends, Ray Kaizer of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Avery, who agreed to train Gun Runner for Kaizer in the States, drove him for the first time a year ago February. "I called Mr. Woolworth after that and told him he'd better buy that horse back," says Avery. "He called me two days later and said, 'You got him.' He cost $35,000, but that's the way Mr. Woolworth operates. He doesn't fool around."
Hampered by knee trouble, Gun Runner did not start until last August. He still managed to win $72,901 as a 2-year-old, with finishes in the money in nine of 11 starts, including four victories. "He didn't go any poor ones, I'll tell you that," says Avery. "He was always there; they had to beat him."
Somewhere along the line Gun Runner also developed an unusual sweet tooth. "He drinks Pepsi right out of a bottle like a baby," says his groom, Alexander Capps. "He will worry me to death until I get him one. Why, every time we pass a Pepsi machine he tries to pull me toward it."
In the weeks between now and the Hambletonian, Avery's plan for Gun Runner is simple: "I'll race him in all the stakes along the way, as long as he's fit." His unswerving belief in hard work, for his horses as well as himself, goes back to Avery's farm-boy days in Canada, and this has been the crux of his life style from the time he started competing in match races over the cobblestoned main streets of his home town, Knowlesville, New Brunswick. Avery won his first professional race in 1919—the same year he was married—then spent the next 33 years between racing and running a 600-acre potato farm. He began training and driving exclusively for Woolworth in 1955 and has managed to get three horses into the Hambletonian, the best being a filly, Egyptian Princess, which finished fourth in 1956, the last year the race was held at Goshen.
A short, stocky grandfather of four, who is known around the track as Pops, Avery wears thick glasses, has a modest potbelly and sometimes tends to be a little absentminded, but these are his only concessions to age. "You can stay in this game as long as your eyes and ears stay all right," he says, "and as long as you're quick to think."
His boss, his employees and his rivals all marvel at Avery's industriousness. "Earle keeps moaning about his health and says he's going to retire, but he keeps going," says Delvin Miller. "Like I told Whitey Ford this spring, a baseball player has to quit when he reaches the prime of life; in trotting you get in the prime and you still have 30 more years to go."
"He's here at a quarter to 6 every morning banging on the door to wake me up," says Capps. "In the winter he's there at 5. He's a little forgetful about some things, but he never forgets his horses. He can go down through the barn and tell you what each horse wears and how he's shod without missing a one."
"I don't think there's anyone else who can do what he does," said Woolworth, shaking his head. "I'd like to know how he does it, working that long a day and keeping his reflexes. I don't think he'll ever quit."
Still, there is betting around the barns that if Gun Runner does win the Hambletonian, Avery will give him a Pepsi, light up a cigar and retire to the farm and to spoiling his grandchildren. "I don't know," demurs Miller, "Earle's such a hard worker that he wouldn't know what to do if he quit." Avery himself isn't talking. He doesn't have time for such idle foolishness. There is work to do, and there are promises to keep—and some race miles to go before he can rest.