Down in the horse country at Lexington, Ky. last week it was a little like one of those wonderful, hokey old trotting movies in which Charles Co-burn chomps on a fat cigar and saves the homestead by winning the big race at the county fair. In the modern version the cigar belongs to Hy Lattman, a pleasant, balding fellow from New York who knows nothing about horses. The place is The Red Mile, where harness horses break more records than anywhere else in the world, and the plot switch is that Lattman's wonder trotter, a colt named Songcan, loses both heats of his race. But in true film fashion justice triumphs after some sticky business in the second heat, and our hero emerges more martyr than loser.
Flick back over the script: a year ago Lattman decided he had had enough of New York's garment district. He had spent 40 years there, working his way from street delivery boy to Gimbel's shipping department to his own ladies' apparel business, and he had done well. Now 59, he would turn the business over to his two sons, Norman and Stanley, and go looking for something fun to do. So he found a young trotting trainer and asked him to buy a yearling.
The trainer, Don Prussack, had spent several lean years on little tracks like Green Mountain in Vermont and Georgetown in Delaware with "a bunch of old broken-down horses" he had leased. A bright, good-looking 27-year-old from Long Island, Prussack had started out as a groom for Sacher Werner, a trainer at Roosevelt Raceway. It was in Werner's barn that he met a shy, brown-haired young woman named Gale. Gale loved horses and wanted to become a veterinarian but was discouraged from doing so "because I'm a girl." She and Don were married in 1967. When Prussack got his trainer's license the following year, they began going it on their own.
Prussack was on his way to the Lexington sales in October 1970 when Lattman, an old friend of his father's, called and asked him to buy a horse. Enter Songcan, a handsome bay colt whose breeding—by Florican out of Ami Song—was no more elegant than his name. He sold for, well, a song: $5,000.
But oh what a tune he rapped out on the tracks. By last week he had won 10 of 11 races and $59,420. His only defeat occurred at Roosevelt when he broke stride early in the Westbury Futurity but still made up an amazing amount of ground to finish third. Undoubtedly he was the best two-year-old trotter to come along in years.
"It's been beyond my greatest dreams," said Lattman. Prussack, now Lattman's partner in the Don Hy Stables, agreed that their success had been "remarkable."
In Kentucky their swiftest rivals in the Lexington International figured to be the Dancers, Stanley and Vernon, with Star's Chip and Super Bowl, coupled as an entry in the betting. Songcan might even go after Nevele Pride's 1:58[2/5] record for two-year-olds.
But race day came cool and windy, a bad day for speed, and that made Lattman uneasy. He felt worse after members of The Hambletonian Society told him that Songcan was flatly ineligible for next year's Hambo. Bred by E. Roland Harriman of Arden, N.Y., Songcan was foaled in Kentucky on the farm of J.B. Cannon. Cannon got up the original payments for most of trotting's major three-year-old stakes, but not the $10 fee for the biggest of all. Somebody told Lattman he could supplement Songcan for $10,000. The information was false. The Hambletonian does not permit supplementary entries.
"Oh, well," sighed Lattman. "Let's just think about this race right now."
At 11:45 a.m. Songcan was to be given his first warmup. His driver, the Canadian Gilles LaChance, was en route to Lexington from Philadelphia, so Prussack thought he would take the colt out himself. He could not, however, because drivers are required to wear colors and white pants after 11 a.m. and he had no white pants. Groom Bernie Helie did. Out he went with Songcan. When LaChance still had not arrived by 12:15, Prussack thought of asking Joe O'Brien or Glen Garnsey to drive if Gilles didn't show. LaChance blew in at 12:30.
So roll 'em. Gale affectionately pats Songcan's nose and nibbles on her fingernails. Don says, "Come on, boy, you can do it." Gilles clucks him onto the track. Hy Lattman puffs nervously on a stogie'.
Songcan looks fit, but unfortunately LaChance chooses to set all the pace in the first heat. By the middle of the stretch other colts are challenging Songcan and passing him. They go the last quarter in an astounding 28[3/5] as the big bay holds on to finish third to George Sholty's Flush and Vernon Dancer's Super Bowl.
In the second heat Songcan is doing all right, lying second at the top of the stretch, when Stanley Dancer, inside on the rail, comes out into him, banging against LaChance's sulky and staggering Songcan almost into a break. He falls back to sixth as Vernon Dancer and Super Bowl zip through on the rail to win in 1:59[4/5]. Stanley thumps to the finish on a flat tire. As the drivers head back to the paddock, LaChance, furious, shouts at Dancer: "What do you think you're doing? That's not fair." Dancer—according to LaChance—coolly replied, "When you're racing an entry you can do anything you want."
The judges did not agree. They called all the drivers in for close questioning. Although the finish was made official on the tote board, Presiding Judge Bob Steele was still interviewing drivers and looking at films the next morning and afternoon.
It took nearly 48 hours for the judges to make up their minds. When they did they set Stanley Dancer down for five racing days. That did not help Songcan a whole lot, but then not every movie has a happy ending.