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Now the pace quickens


Although he is a member of the clan that brought us the five and dimes, Norman Woolworth was never involved in keeping the family store. His main interest is in merchandise far more fickle than three-ring notebooks and art gum erasers. As a partner in Stoner Creek Stud, Paris, Ky., Woolworth breeds harness racing horses, a line of work that puts him smack in the middle of the question of the moment for standardbred fanciers. Why are harness horses racing the mile far, far quicker this year than last year?

At The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky. last week Woolworth nodded assent to the conventional wisdom that to produce a fast colt or filly you breed the best with the best and hope for the best. But he confesses, "Sometimes you breed the best with the best and get something that can't beat me." Which hardly explains the fact that well-, better-or best-bred, almost any horse worth his whinny is going a mile in two minutes or under these days.

During all of 1975 there were 712 races in which the winner was clocked in two minutes or less. With a fair amount of racing still to come this year, there have been nearly 1,500 winning two-minute miles. Ordinary horses are turning in championship times. More than 40 world records have been established so far this season. In the old days, which is to say last year, a two-minute mile was something slightly special. So spectacular has been the proliferation that the subject preempts most other conversational topics among horsemen, and nowhere does it do so more completely than at The Red Mile, where in any year the main purpose is to produce fast times.

The most candid analysis offered last week came from Max Hempt, owner of a highly successful breeding farm in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Hempt chewed at his cigar, contemplated the question for a while and concluded, "I really haven't the faintest idea."

As if to underscore the point, Jade Prince, a little-known 2-year-old Canadian pacer, showed up at The Red Mile—a track rated one of the two fastest in the nation—and promptly toured the course in 1:54⅕ the fastest time ever recorded in a race by any standardbred, let alone by a 2-year-old. (The only faster time in history was a time trial mark of 1:52 by a 4-year-old, Steady Star, in 1971.) The old race mark was 1:54⅗ set in 1972 by a considerably more distinguished performer, Albatross, and equaled this summer by a fair horse named Taurus Bomber.

While Jade Prince had raced well in Canada, he was a fizzle in his previous three U.S. tries this year. That seemed appropriate enough since the colt had cost C. Edwin Armstrong of London, Ontario only $19,000. "I liked the way he looked," said Armstrong. But didn't he have a big hock, fat legs and a swollen knee? "Well, yes," Armstrong admitted. "But I bought his heart, not his legs."

Attempts at explaining the speed breakthrough often sound like explanations offered when a lamp is knocked over in the kids' room. The best excuse any of them can come up with is, "The wind must have done it." Hempt and many others know it's not the wind. They also know deep down what one of the major factors is: the modified sulky. But the admission sticks in many throats.

This controversial new piece of equipment (SI, March 29) has been on tracks less than a year. In its various forms it is lighter than the conventional bike. Its fans say that it is balanced better; that it shifts the weight from the front legs of the horse to the rear, thus improving the lifting action, especially of the pacers; that its wind resistance is less and that its wheels track better. There are critics of the modified sulky, most notably Joe O'Brien, a trainer and driver who has almost twice as many career two-minute miles (331) as anyone else. O'Brien says, "It was just coincidence the modified sulky hit this year. It's not the reason for these times." He seldom uses the new bike—and continues to belabor the two-minute mark.

Another driver and trainer, Billy Herman, taps his head and says, "It's psychological. These new bikes give confidence. They make the drivers gamer. A guy will think, 'Hey, this bike will help my horse because it has helped others. So why won't it help me? Why, I'll just roll this turkey right on out and win.' So they fiat leave with him and send him down the road faster than they have ever tried to do before." Billy Haughton, the sport's alltime leading money-winner, is not that keen on the new carts, but he concedes, "If a guy goes past you and he has a modified and you don't, it makes you think."

Stanley Dancer, one of the premier driver-trainers, gives most of the credit for the fast times to the new sulkies "even though I don't like them." Dancer believes they are shaving times as much as two seconds for a given horse, but he wonders about their safety and whether they might be contributing to lameness. In some cases they clearly have produced spectacular results. The great gelding Savoir, now eight, was in a slump this year. So when Haughton's son Peter put a modified sulky on him at Meadowlands not long ago and he won, albeit in 2:01, eyebrows were lifted. Last week Savoir went in 1:58⅕ his best time since he was three. Says Peter Haughton, "It has just given him a whole new outlook on life. He was so lackadaisical. Now he's chargin' at horses." Another example is Boehm's Eagle, a decent enough horse that had been racing in 2:02 and worse. A modified sulky was attached, and Eagle found the world a cheerier place, dropping suddenly to 1:58.3 and winning good money.

With sulky designs almost certain to be improved still further, the idea of a 1:50 mile is suggested with a straight face. O'Brien agrees it is not unthinkable. Speed is showing at an earlier age, with some predicting that 2-year-olds soon will hold all the fast marks. And if they burn themselves up, well, they've had one great season, and their life on a breeding farm should be worthy compensation. Fred VanLennep, president of Castleton Industries, thinks the limit on faster times could turn out to be the horse's respiratory system. Already many are becoming allergic to dust.

Certainly tracks have not reached a speed limit; improvement continues. In its first 20 years of operation Detroit's Wolverine Raceway had one two-minute mile; this year the track was leveled and resurfaced, and now it is co-rated with The Red Mile as the fastest track in the country. The newly opened Meadowlands in New Jersey was fast to begin with, and faster still after $150,000 was spent to improve the surface.

O'Brien thinks breeding is the ultimate reason for the new speeds. But while breeding is getting more scientific, it is hard to understand how breeding could make such a dramatic difference in the course of a single year. One simple possibility is that by pure chance there happen to be a lot of awfully good trotters and pacers this year. Certainly artificial insemination has allowed more quality breeding, though the object increasingly seems to be speed to the detriment, some think, of endurance.

The drivers themselves figure in the speed outbreak, too. The game used to be to sit back, save your horse, get in position, then dash home from the top of the stretch. No more. Now the drivers tend to go close to all out all the way; the best ones make it. A one-minute half-mile used to draw raves. Now it takes at least a 55-second half. Peter Haughton says it was about a year ago that he started noticing this gambling, hell-bent driving style.

There was speed to burn at Lexington even when the oval was turned soft by rain for two important heat races—the Kentucky Futurity for trotters and the Tattersalls Stake Pace. The first heat of the Futurity was won by Soothsayer, a hard-luck colt driven by Delvin Miller, in 1:59[2/5] on a track Miller pronounced three seconds slow. Steve Lobell, the winner of the Yonkers Futurity and The Hambletonian and driven by Billy Haughton, was second by inches and thus still very much in contention for trotting's Triple Crown.

Next trip Quick Pay, driven by Peter Haughton, won in a photo in 1:59 over Steve Lobell. The third heat was almost a carbon with Quick Pay winning in 1:59⅕ Steve Lobell second by a neck. Peter had won the $55,000 and knocked his old man out of the Triple Crown.

In the pace Keystone Ore once again demonstrated his considerable talent. Driven by Dancer, the winner of the recent Little Brown Jug left in a hurry and showed up back home in 1:55⅖ a miraculous time given the conditions. Dream Maker, although dead last by 14 lengths, was timed in 1:58[1/5].

In the second heat Keystone Ore had another swift journey, winning in 1:56⅗ and again the entire field was easily under two minutes.

The cold, rainy weather at Lexington precluded what would have been an orgy of record-breaking in time trials. The fine pacer Oil Burner was on hand, for example, poised for an assault on Steady Star's fastest-ever record, but never got to try. And Miller's 4-year-old Songflori hung around all week hoping to beat the alltime trotting mark.

Since theorizing about speed obviously wasn't making the horses any swifter, Jade Prince's trainer and driver. Jack Kopas, was letting nature take its course: "I feed him hay, the best oats, rest him up, and see how fast he will go."