That evening Joe O'Brien and most of the other drivers in the Hambletonian were honored guests at a garden party. Everyone congratulated Joe on his good fortune in the draw, and Joe said, "Thank you kindly." A perennial leader on the Grand Circuit—he has topped its winning-drivers list for five of the last six years—Joe had experienced a miserable season because of a virus which hit his stable early last spring. In fact, he hadn't driven 10 winners on the circuit this year and was not listed among the top 10 drivers for the first time since anyone could remember.
But Joe O'Brien did have something encouraging to say about Blaze Hanover. "He has had one good race this year. Well, not really a good race but a good half mile. Up at Sedalia [ Missouri] I caught him going a half mile in :57 3/5 and that, I guess, is what is making me keep him in the race. I've spent most of the year training him slow miles." O'Brien smiled his tiny smile and said, "If I get any kind of luck I might be able to make a horse race out of this thing after all."
Late in leaving
In the first heat of the Hambletonian it didn't look as if Blaze was going to do a thing. Despite his favorable post position, he didn't leave the gate particularly well, and after a quarter of a mile he was ninth. After three quarters of a mile he was seventh and apparently not moving at all. In the last quarter O'Brien and Blaze finally began to cover ground along the rail, and at the top of the stretch a hole opened for them and they slid through. Elaine Rodney was also moving, and the two went under the wire together, with Quick Song just inches away. After eight long minutes of subdued buzzing in the stands, while the judges examined the photo finish, it was announced that Blaze had won by the shortest of noses. Elaine Rodney had beaten Quick Song by another nose. "Well," said Joe O'Brien back in the paddock, "it isn't over yet."
In the second heat Blaze hit the wheel of another trotter's sulky and went into a break in the stretch. "I had a chance," said Joe, "and I goofed it up."
The third heat went to the long shot, Hoot Frost, who had finished fifth in the first heat and 13th in the second. For the first time in 26 years, and only the third time in its history, the Hambletonian would be decided in a fourth heat, since the winner must finish first twice. Blaze, Quick Song and Hoot Frost were in a three-horse race-off.
Joe O'Brien stood quietly in the paddock, looking over his rivals. Then he looked at Blaze. "He's tired," O'Brien said, "but he's got to go again. I hope he's ready." As the horses left the gate, Hoot Frost broke stride, and O'Brien, the master of just such a situation, quickly took Blaze to the front. He slowed the pace down (:33 2/5 at the quarter, 1:08 1/5 at the half, 1:43 at the three quarters). Then he went all-out, rocking back and forth in the sulky with each of Blaze's strides in the style that is his trademark. He used the whip, something he seldom does, throughout the stretch, and he forced the tired but immensely courageous Blaze to go the fastest final quarter in Hambletonian history (:27 2/5) to win by a desperate nose.
Everyone stood and applauded Joe O'Brien, and when he was handed the huge Hambletonian trophy he asked for someone to help him hold it because he was "awful tired." He was given the silver bowl that goes to the winning driver and shook hands all around. He talked to the press until the grandstand had been cleared of spectators. Then, with his gold and white jacket unbuttoned, the silver bowl in his left hand, he walked slowly down the length of the long stretch toward the stable area. He looked to the left and the right to make sure that no one was watching him and then he jumped high in the air.
At Du Quoin also, the performance of two 3-year-old pacers was something to behold. In the Geers Stake, Bullet Hanover beat Dancer Hanover in straight heats, and even though these two were the only ones to face the starter they displayed qualities which elevate them far above the rest of the pacing colts.