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Original Issue

Little Joe on the big Red Mile

Joe O'Brien went to the Lexington Trots with a handful of his own horses and set the Grand Circuit on its ear with his catch drives

For years the Red Mile track in Lexington, Ky. has been harness racing's answer to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track's first two-minute miles were trotted in 1903 (one of them by the famous Dan Patch), and ever since the Red Mile has been advertised with ample reason as the "world's fastest harness track." Oldtime Kentucky horsemen need little encouragement to begin ticking off the long list of records that have been set on the track's red-clay surface. Greyhound's 1938 clocking of 1:55¼, for example, endured as the world's speediest trotting mile until Nevele Pride beat it last year at Indianapolis. And Bret Hanover's 1966 pace in 1:53[3/5] still is the fastest ever. Extraordinary feats have come to be taken for granted at the Red Mile, but even the most jaded horseman had to be impressed with what little Joe O'Brien accomplished there last week during the annual Grand Circuit meeting.

O'Brien, of course, has long been one of the sport's premier trainers and drivers, and his consummate horsemanship was never more obvious than it was at Lexington. In nine days he beat harness racing's standard of excellence, the two-minute mile, a total of 10 times, boosting his alltime record for such performances to 133 (next to him is Frank Ervin with 108). Moreover, O'Brien astounded everyone by driving a relatively unknown 3-year-old pacer, Steady Star, to a time-trial clocking of 1:54—third fastest in the history of the sport. Finally, on Friday, Joe got into the sulky behind a 15-to-1 shot named Paris Air and almost stole the third jewel in trotting's Triple Crown, the $76,000 Kentucky Futurity, a heat-racing classic that goes back to 1893 and has the distinction of being the sport's oldest major stakes race.

Friday was overcast and windy in Lexington, and a steady rain the previous day had left the Red Mile in less than perfect condition. Before the race the solid favorite was Hambletonian winner Timothy T., owned by John Simpson Sr. and driven by his son John Jr. (Timmy's sire, Ayres, won both the Hambo and Kentucky Futurity for John Sr. in 1964). Also given a chance were Jimmy Arthur's Formal Notice, runner-up in the Hambo, and Billy Haughton's Gil Hanover, a star-crossed colt who finally seemed to be coming around after a long summer of illness.

Nobody, not even Joe O'Brien, gave Paris Air much of a chance—"He just can't trot quick enough," said O'Brien before the race—and that was a serious oversight. At day's end the winner was the favorite, Timothy T., but most of the fans left the Red Mile talking about Paris Air. He won the first heat and was runner-up overall. Afterward a friend walked up to congratulate O'Brien in the paddock.

"Well, Joe," he said, "it looks like your horse was second best today."

"I don't know if he was second best," said O'Brien, his eyes twinkling, "but he got second money, didn't he?"

Like most horsemen, O'Brien looks forward to racing at the Red Mile. The competition is keen and there is always the chance to set some records. This year O'Brien came to Lexington with only seven of the 50 or so horses that he races all around the U.S., Canada and Europe, but he still had trouble finding time to care for those few. He has a reputation for getting the most out of a horse, particularly young horses, so ambitious owners and trainers literally swamp him with requests either to catch-drive their horses in races or to drive them in time trials.

"Time trials are mainly for breeding purposes," said O'Brien. "The owners want their horses to get the best record possible, because that will increase their breeding fees later on. I'm not much forgoing in time trials with my own horses, but I will do it for other people. I guess I drove more of them this week than I ever have before."

Whether in time trials or in races, O'Brien was the hottest driver on the grounds. He won four heats, all in two minutes or better, with Armbro Kerry, his fine 3-year-old filly. In his first trip behind Desert Wind, a promising 2-year-old trotting filly owned by Hambletonian boss Bill Hayes, O'Brien won impressively in 1:59[3/5]. His week's high point came Wednesday, when he had four two-minute drives on the same day (one in a race, three in time trials), including his record-setting trip behind Steady Star.

The property of the Dave Brown estate, Steady Star (by Steady Beau out of Avaway) brought only $4,900 at the 1968 Tattersalls yearling sale. This year he had raced well, if not spectacularly, around the Chicago area and was fourth twice and fifth in three heats of the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio. In his time trial, he broke Bret Hanover's world 3-year-old pacing record of 1:55. The fractions were :28⅖ :56 and 1:25, and afterward the usually taciturn O'Brien was as surprised as anyone.

"He's quite a little pacer," said Joe. "He has the speed to go with the best. I thought he could go in around 1:56, even though it was not a good day. There was a little breeze blowing. When he got to the half in :56, I decided to let him go instead of trying to give him a breather."

Could Steady Star have gone faster if the wind had not been blowing?

"No, sir," O'Brien said, laughing. "He went every bit that he possibly could."

If O'Brien had any disappointment in Lexington, it was probably about the state of his own best 2-year-olds. His top young pacing colt, Armbro Len, came up with some swelling in a front leg and had to be turned out for the year. And his most promising 2-year-old trotter, Frosted Yankee, was only fourth and second in the heats of the Walnut Hall Cup. "He might be a good enough horse for next year's Hambletonian," said O'Brien. "The best 2-year-old trotters so far have been Noble Gesture, Quick Pride and A.C.'s Orion, but my horse has beaten all of them at one time or another. He was sick here, though, and I probably shouldn't have raced him."

As for his colt in the Kentucky Futurity, O'Brien was catch-driving for a good friend, Howard Beissinger, who won last year's Triple Crown with Lindy's Pride. After Beissinger broke his ankle in a racing accident at Delaware, Ohio, one of his first visitors was O'Brien. Joe agreed to take over Paris Air for Beissinger, even though the colt, with only three wins in 14 starts, did not figure to have much of a chance in the big events. Right away O'Brien drove Paris Air to victory in two heats at Delaware. And when the time came for the Futurity, he did not renege on his promise to Beissinger, even when offered the chance to drive the highly regarded Formal Notice.

On the track O'Brien's trademark is his driving style. He likes to stay back in the field, coolly saving his horse until the last possible moment, and then come roaring down the stretch, jiggling and bobbing around in his sulky in a total effort to get his horse out in front. Says Billy Haughton, one of the sport's finest horsemen and an O'Brien admirer: "You seldom see Joe on the lead. He saves ground and gets a lot out of his horses. And he doesn't use the whip as much as some do, either." Adds John Simpson Sr., "He's always waiting to sneak in there. You're not going to flush him out until he's ready. He saves a horse real good until the end."

His drives in the Futurity were vintage O'Brien. In the first heat Timothy T. got caught in a traffic jam in the first turn and jumped off stride. The race settled down to a duel between Formal Notice and Gil Hanover until midway through the stretch, when O'Brien came moving up quickly on the outside, bouncing around and stinging his colt's flanks with his whip. Formal Notice crossed the finish line first, but he also went off stride just before the wire. Paris Air was named the winner, with Formal Notice placed second.

"Hmmm," said O'Brien later, rubbing his chin. "I'll be darned. That's one way to do it. I hate to win that way, but I'll take it."

The next two heats Timothy T. stayed out of trouble, returned to form and won easily. "He's just the best of this group," said O'Brien. Meanwhile, Paris Air finished third behind Formal Notice in the second heat, then beat Luther Hanover to finish second in the final heat. His showing was a direct reflection of O'Brien's skill.

On Saturday O'Brien flew to New York to drive his superb trotting mare, Fresh Yankee, in the $21,250 Galophone Trot at Yonkers Raceway. She won, by half a length, for her 17th victory of the season. It was a fitting end to a remarkable week.