George Sholty, trainer and part owner of the colt Boyden Hanover, was limping when he arrived at New York's Yonkers Raceway last Saturday night, and he was still hobbling, sad to say, when he left. But there were encouraging signs of recovery in between. They occurred mostly after Boyden Hanover won the $121,822 Cane Pace, a triumph that sent Sholty bounding through the paddock as though the knee surgery he had undergone a month before had never happened. "You know," he said slyly, "if I had to, I think I could run clear to the winner's circle."
The therapeutic value of the victory went beyond the fact that the Cane is, as they say, the first jewel in pacing's Triple Crown. Boyden Hanover was the outstanding 2-year-old pacer of 1973, and the big bay has since turned in a couple of 1:56 miles that are the fastest clockings by any harness horse this year. But a week before the Cane, just as the sport's publicists were starting to call him a superhorse, he was twice upset by Armbro Omaha, a Canadian-bred colt trained by Billy Haughton. Afterward Haughton, the biggest money-winner in harness racing history, said pointedly, "Frankly, I don't know why people were that high on Boyden to begin with."
Coming as it did in a 14-horse field that included Armbro Omaha as well as three other Haughton-trained colts, Boyden Hanover's victory was quadruply sweet revenge. The number of entrants was the largest in the event's 20-year history, and Yonkers split the field into two divisions, running them as the first two races of the evening. The first four finishers in each division would then return in a non-betting raceoff for the top prize.
With Billy Herman, Sholty's assistant, driving in place of the boss, Boyden Hanover took both his heat and the final, bringing his 1974 record to eight wins in 13 starts. He earned $51,165, swelling his lifetime winnings to $285,350, a sum that must inspire suicidal notions among the people who spurned him as a yearling.
The poor souls in question had authorized Sholty to buy them a colt at the 1972 Harrisburg sale, and it was Boyden Hanover, by Best of All out of Bouquet Hanover, that the trainer picked. However, after plunking down the $20,000 purchase price he was politely informed that the prospective owners had changed their minds. Sholty was stuck for the full amount until Jim Picciano, a Long Island neighbor, offered to buy a one-quarter interest and to enlist a friend to do the same. But Picciano, a printer, first had to convince his wife of the wisdom of investing $5,000 of their $8,000 life savings in a horse. "What can we lose?" he asked. "We can't be any poorer than we already are." The Piccianos are, in fact, decidedly richer, having netted at least triple their investment.
Sholty retained 50% for himself, and his cut of Boyden Hanover's winnings has seen him through some rocky times. The 41-year-old trainer is a scrappy fellow whose 5'1" height did not prevent him from being a pretty fair guard on his high school basketball team back home in Logansport, Ind. He has been successful both as a trainer and catch driver for other trainers, but a stomach operation sidelined him much of last year. Then came the knee surgery to repair cartilage damaged when he bulldogged a steer—or tried to—at a rodeo party in Florida. He hopes to resume driving in a few weeks, but expects to leave Boyden Hanover in Herman's care.
Haughton, by contrast, seldom slows down for anything. A member of the Hall of Fame of the Trotter, he remains the sport's biggest operator, relying on 11 assistants to help look after his far-flung stable of 120-odd horses. But Haughton has quality as well as big numbers, and it was an honest assessment of his four-horse entry in the Cane when he said, "Any one of them could win. Whichever one gets the breaks."
In June, even before Armbro Omaha won the Adios, another Haughton 3-year-old, Bret's Star, defeated Boyden Hanover by 5¼ lengths at Chicago's Sportsman's Park. He seemed a fair bet to do it again following his fine showing in the opening division of the Cane. Thunderstorms had drenched New York during the day, flooding highways so badly that Ben Webster, hired by Haughton to drive Bret's Star, arrived at Yonkers barely in time to mount the sulky. Despite a sodden track, Bret's Star won the mile heat in a sizzling 1:59⅘ with Keystone Presto, Haughton at the reins, a strong second.
But Haughton's forces fared less well in the next heat. Boyden Hanover was in this one and, starting from the sixth position, he went in front at the quarter pole and stayed there, stubbornly holding off Haughton and Armbro Omaha to win in 2:00[4/5]. Although Armbro Omaha's second-place finish qualified him for the final, Yonkers' half-mile track did not lend itself to the sort of stretch drive he had waged to win the Adios on the five-eighths-of-a-mile track at Pennsylvania's Meadows raceway. "My horse isn't a front-runner," said Haughton, "and the stretch here is too short for him."
In the final Haughton drove Keystone Presto and quickly dropped out of contention. His stablemates, Bret's Star and Armbro Omaha, were first and second at the half, but the poky 1:00[4/5] clocking encouraged Billy Herman to move outside, and there he remained, whipping Boyden past Bret's Star to win in 2:00[2/5] by half a length. "In his first race he went to the front to win," exuded George Sholty. "In the second one he came out of the hole to do it. I don't know what more you could ask of him."
As for Haughton, his stable earned a total of $52,450 in the Cane, which left him just a few big victories shy of becoming the first harness horseman to amass $20 million. Haughton said he would probably enter five horses in next month's Little Brown Jug, the Triple Crown's second jewel, but conceded that Sholty's horse deserved to be the favorite.
"I was impressed that Boyden Hanover could park outside for half a mile like that and still win," Haughton said. "Before, I didn't think he was a strong finisher, but he sure changed my mind." Even Boyden Hanover's No. 1 detractor was sounding like a believer.