One man looked upon the trotting horse with a wild surmise a number of years ago, and the sport of harness racing hasn't been the same since. This was George Levy, a smallish, peppery type, who was a highly successful lawyer on Long Island, N.Y. He had the notion that trotting races should be run at night to attract the vast army of betting New Yorkers who, because of their jobs, were unable to attend the Thoroughbred tracks in the afternoon. That was 1939. In the 20 intervening years, because Levy's notion was fantastically prescient, this largely bucolic, county-fair pastime has been transformed into a city-slick, multimillion dollar sporting industry.
No one even bothered to keep national attendance figures in 1939; last year the total was close to 13 million. Purse money has jumped from $2 million to $27 million, the betting handle from almost nothing to nearly $1 billion. At the same time tracks have multiplied all over the country and the value of breeding stock has skyrocketed. In many of our major cities harness racing now gives baseball, the Thoroughbreds and all other forms of public entertainment a strong run for their money.
George Levy and his band of pioneers at Roosevelt Raceway have continued as the great innovators in. trotting: from the mobile starting gate to the first so-called dream track, their ideas have led the sport's rapid development. This Saturday, at their magnificent establishment (see cover) in Westbury, N.Y., they present the latest of their innovations, the first International Championship Trot, featuring the best trotters from France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Canada and the U.S. in a mile-and-a-half test of gaited speed, for a purse of $50,000. The highly attractive event is final proof that trotting, already firmly established in the front rank of sport in this country, has come of age on the international level.
The road from county fair to the International has been paved with gold for trotting people generally, but it has been far from smooth on many occasions. In the early 1950s, for example, it became apparent that the opportunity for quick profits inherent in the sport's explosive growth had attracted a number of less-than-respectable characters as track stockholders. A horde of hungry politicians was eager to slurp up the spoils, in privilege, at the newest available trough. The resulting scandals—in New York, Illinois and several way stations between—forced some house cleaning and corrective legislation on the state level, though it is still true that in a few scattered areas there are tracks whose official families would have trouble passing an FBI saliva test.
All along, too, there has been a running, undercover war between the traditional custodians of harness racing's rules of conduct, the U.S. Trotting Association, and the powerful new pari-mutuel tracks. The issue, simply, has been: who is going to assert nationwide supervision of the sport, keep its complex breeding and racing records, have power to discipline drivers in order to maintain public confidence in trotting's honesty and issue licenses to all participants? As baseball, football and other sports have learned recently, any organization which performs such a regulatory function on a nationwide scale is wide open to federal charges of monopoly. At the moment the U.S. Government is prosecuting a suit against the Trotting Association which, if successful, would strip the USTA of its power to govern the sport effectively. Whatever the legal merits of the case may be, it should be apparent to anyone that no nationwide sport can survive without adequate supervision on a nationwide basis. Harness racing, far from being an exception to this rule, desperately needs a centralized agency of control; horses and drivers constantly move about the country among the more than 400 tracks, and if their activities are not subject to review by a body with the power to discipline, the whole sport would fall into chaos. Indeed, the U.S. Government, instead of taking the USTA to task, should urge it to exercise the strictest control over all aspects of harness racing, from the conduct of the racing to the character of its participants.
Meanwhile, we have the first International, and it should be a memorable milestone in trotting history. All of the drama of a world championship event surrounds it, and the setting is superbly worthy of the occasion. Roosevelt Raceway features every accommodation in the way of creature comforts for spectators, from escalators to rare roast beef for the $2 bettor. Thousands will watch the race in trackside, air-conditioned restaurants, others from well-banked grandstand and bleacher seats or the expansive apron; and in the unlikely event that anyone's direct view is obscured, there are huge closed-circuit TV screens on each of the track's four levels. More important than all of this, however, is the racing circuit itself, a model of half-mile track construction. Every possible inch of straightaway distance has been provided within the limits of its dimensions, and the turns, so important in such a relatively small oval, are perfectly banked. The track surface, special loam from Roosevelt's own Long Island farmland, is a neat balance: sufficiently firm to provide all-weather usability, yet not too hard for the surprisingly delicate leg bones of race horses. These features are among the prime reasons why horsemen enjoy racing at Roosevelt.
The distance of the race, a mile and a half, strikes a fair compromise for international competition. American and Canadian horses, generally speaking, have little experience at anything other than the mile, which has become the classic distance on this continent. The Europeans, on the other hand, regularly compete over a mile and a half, two miles and even farther. Here is the opinion of Joe O'Brien, veteran of U.S. and Canadian tracks and one of the most astute horsemen in the business: "Some horses, it's true, just can't go more than a mile successfully. But the vast majority can. You don't even have to train a good American horse to go a mile and a half—the competition, the other horses on the track all around him, will keep him trying all the way." O'Brien's opinion covers the U.S. entry, Trader Horn, and the Canadian, Philip Frost.
What may bother many of the overseas entries is the half-mile track, despite its excellence. Both Italian horses, Tornese and Icare, have had considerable experience on tracks of this size, since they are common enough in that country. But France's Jamin, Sweden's Adept, Norway's Jens Protector and Germany's Ivacourt have had very few engagements on the small ovals. The significance of this is that trotters develop gaits suited to the tracks on which they race, and a horse used to the wide turns of a mile track will not negotiate the tighter turns of a half-mile track with the same efficiency or, actually, with the same feeling of comfort which breeds confidence. Hopefully, their two weeks of training at Roosevelt will help the visitors in this regard.
As to the horses themselves, both his record and his appearance make Jamin the outstanding trotter in the race. He has won 34 races in 54 starts over a four-year career, and most of them were handicaps in which he conceded up to 75 meters (roughly 82 yards) to other horses. U.S. horseman Norman Woolworth, who observed Jamin in European competition, has called him "creeping death" because of his ability to wear down his rivals in relentless stretch drives. American driver Earle Avery says: "I drove Egyptian Princess against Jamin in the Prix d'Amerique in Paris last January. The Princess is one of the best we've had in this country recently, as you know. Well, I was ahead of Jamin at one point and the Princess was trotting up a storm. Jamin passed us, and he was 15 lengths ahead of us before we leveled off!" Jamin's driver, handsome Jean Riaud, says simply, "There has never been such a horse in Europe and there never will be another."
Italy's Tornese and Icare are both speed horses; both have equaled or bettered 2:02 for the mile. Tornese's looks will captivate the International audience. A brilliant chestnut, he is so slightly built that he appears to be a developing 2-year-old instead of a mature 7. A closer look, however, reveals the smooth musculature over the small-boned frame which gives him the ability to skip rapidly over a half-mile track. In his bloodlines, incidentally, is a grandsire named McLin Hanover who, harness buffs will remember, won our own Hambletonian in 1938. Icare, like all the other Europeans, is a much bigger and more powerful animal. Five times this past season he has trotted second to Jamin; once he beat the French horse, though with the benefit of a 20-meter handicap.