The years have been kind to Curly Smart. Oh, maybe his body and reflexes have slowed just a bit—no longer those of the daring young driver who used to delight the crowds at New York's big harness racing plants, Roosevelt and Yonkers. But Curly is as healthy as any 64-year-old anywhere, and his face is lined with happy wrinkles, and he still sits there in the sulky, stiff as a board, elbows tucked in tight, his head moving from side to side as he looks for the edge to yet another victory.
It has been a full decade since that day when Curly, having tired of the cities and the travel and all the other pressures of the big time, decided that he would take his stable back home for good and race almost exclusively at those tracks "where I can go home at night and, you know, sleep in my own bed." So, his bed being in a big two-story, white frame house in Delaware, Ohio, Curly has contented himself with racing primarily at the Delaware County Fairgrounds and nearby Scioto Downs, outside Columbus—with side trips, for fun, to the county fairs in little places like Attica, Troy, and Washington Court House. "Shoot," says Curly, "I'd rather pick beans out here than go back up there to race in New York."
The reward for Curly's outrageous chauvinism has been his elevation to the status of folk hero, first-class. Around his little domain Curly is known by everyone as "grampaw," or, grandiloquently, "the squire of Delaware," and he cannot get through lunch at Bun's Bakery and Restaurant in downtown Delaware without at least a dozen friends stopping to shake his hand or bend his ear.
There are almost as many Curly Smart stories told in central Ohio as there are Woody Hayes stories, most of them dealing with how Curly always has something in his barn—or up his sleeve—to win the big races. And while the fans who frequent Delaware and Scioto sometimes harass Curly more or less good-naturedly when one of his odds-on favorites loses, they never fail to back him heavily at the window. "Curly would be the favorite," said one oldtimer at Scioto last Friday night, "if he drove a billy goat out there."
In nearly 45 years of racing and more than 1,800 victories, Curly has won almost every prize except the biggest of them all, The Hambletonian. He has driven a horse in that classic five times, the first in 1940, but, says Curly, "I've never come close, that's for sure." But now, as this year's Hambo draws near, Curly is bringing along a monster of a trotter, Hiland Hill, who has been the object of much speculation and apprehension among those with Hambo prospects.
Typically, instead of racing in the East, Curly has kept Hiland Hill secluded in Ohio, where he could develop slowly and quietly. Nobody paid much attention until early July, when one of The Hambletonian front-runners, Dayan, ventured into Scioto Downs and promptly lost to Hiland Hill by a neck in 1:59[2/5]—the best time for a 3-year-old trotter this season and only [4/5] of a second off Nevele Pride's world record for a five-eighth-mile track. Suddenly the notion was born that come The Hambletonian on August 27 in Du Quoin, Ill., Curly and Hiland Hill would trot out of the boondocks and ambush everyone in sight.
"He must be good," said one of Dayan's owners, Eric Kirstein, when he returned East, rueful and still incredulous. "Any colt who can beat mine like that has got to be pretty tough."
Thus a good deal of excitement was generated around Scioto Friday night when Hiland Hill trotted out to race five opponents, the most noteworthy this time being Lindy's Pride, the latest Hambletonian favorite by virtue of his recent victory in the $100,000 Yonkers Futurity, first leg of trotting's Triple Crown.
Curly was less concerned about Lindy's Pride than with his colt's condition. The previous week Hiland Hill had been beaten by an older horse, Grandpa Jim. "I softened up on him after he beat Dayan, and that may be why he lost," said Curly. "Now I've got to try to get him back to where he was then."
The race turned out about like Curly expected: the winner once more was Grandpa Jim, who took the lead away from Lindy's Pride after a quarter of a mile, then pulled away down the stretch for an easy victory. Two and a quarter lengths behind, in second, was Lindy's Pride, while Hiland Hill ran into some traffic in the last turn and finished fourth, a quarter length behind another older horse, Steamin Missile, and three lengths behind Lindy's Pride. It was not a virtuoso performance, but nobody in the know seemed upset.
"I think that all Curly is worrying about now is The Hambletonian," said Hiland's owner, Dr. John Jackman. "This race tonight didn't mean enough for him to push the colt. All he wants to do now, I think, is to get him tight, like he was against Dayan."
Even if it develops that he is not the best Hambletonian prospect, Hiland Hill is at least the biggest, standing a whopping 17 hands and one inch, which is 69 inches in layman terms. He was so big even as a yearling, recalls his breeder, Charlie Hill, who also is the president of Scioto Downs, "that he was an ugly duckling, big and clumsy." Hill even offered to sell Hiland Hill to a friend, but the deal fell through. So Hiland was put up for sale in 1967 at Harrisburg, Pa., where Dr. Jackman, 78, a sedate, white-haired Columbus veterinarian, bought him for a bargain $2,700.
As a 2-year-old Hiland Hill raced 19 times and won seven, but the top colts, including Lindy's Pride, were beating him by as many as 20 lengths. Then last January, Doc Jackman turned Hiland Hill over to his longtime friend Curly Smart.
Since beginning his happy exile in Ohio, Curly, the driving champion at both Yonkers and Roosevelt some 20 years ago, has been busier than ever. Training and driving are almost secondary to Curly now, but he had agreed to do what he could with Hiland Hill.
First he straightened out Hiland Hill's gait. Then the hard work began. Hiland Hill trotted 30 miles a week, four weeks a month, for five months. "There's a saying around here," says Doc Jackman, "that when Curly puts a horse in a race, you know he's ready or he wouldn't be there." Curly finally deemed Hiland Hill ready in June, and the colt won his first three straight, hitting a peak against Dayan. Then, as Curly says, "I softened up on him.... He might have been a hair too ready, and I didn't want to put a crimp in him."
After the victory over Dayan, Doc Jackman received a telegram from an agent whose anonymous client was prepared to buy the colt for $75,000. While Doc was kicking that around, the offer went to $85,000, then $100,000. After the last offer, when Jackman still was hesitating, the eager bidder sent another telegram offering to pay the necessary $4.05 cable costs if only he would answer the wire. "I wouldn't sell him now in any case," said Jackman, "not when the fun is just ready to start."
Which brings up another matter. If Curly is so set against leaving Ohio, how is Doc Jackman going to get him out to Du Quoin for The Hambletonian? "Oh, we'll get him over there," says Jackman. "And he doesn't know it yet, but we may get him talked into going to California later this fall."
"Hmmph," said Curly, outrageously twisting a maxim of the late George M. Cohan, "when you leave Ohio you're just camping out."
CURLY SMART SETS UP AN AMBUSH