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In the field of 19 starters that moved slowly up behind the gate for last week's 35th and richest Hambletonian, 18 had won a race of one kind or another this season. The one that hadn't was a big, powerful chestnut colt named Blaze Hanover, trained and driven by Joe O'Brien of Shafter, Calif. Yet, to the crowd of more than 25,000 suffering in the 92� heat at Du Quoin, Ill., and probably to harness racing fans everywhere, Blaze Hanover was the sentimental favorite.
Just a few months ago trotting experts were generally agreed that Blaze would win this 3-year-old classic. He had been the highest-priced trotting yearling sold at auction in 1958 ($27,000) and had become the outstanding 2-year-old of his generation, with record earnings of $142,052. Early this spring, however, Blaze developed a severe quarter-crack in his right front hoof, and it seemed doubtful that he even would be a starter at Du Quoin. When he finally got to the races in late July, he not only lost in seven successive starts but broke stride in four of them. The competitive zip, stamina and heart-stirring courage that had brought him so many victories and loyal fans had all, apparently, deserted him.
This likelihood encouraged many owners and trainers who ordinarily would not have dared to race against a sound Blaze to crank up their 3-year-olds and aim for the Hambletonian. In a wide-open field, racing luck might well decide the winner.
Two trotters took over the role of favorite in the weeks immediately before the Hambletonian. The first was K. D. Owen's Uncle Sam, who won four straight races, and the second was the filly Elaine Rodney, who won six. The draw for Hambletonian post position went just fine for Elaine Rodney and Uncle Sam. Elaine drew post two and Sam drew post four. Eighteen post positions were quickly drawn, and the best position of all—No. 1—remained in the box. It went, therefore, to the horse whose driver had not drawn. That horse was Blaze Hanover. Joe O'Brien was so discouraged by his recent luck that he didn't even bother to attend the drawing.
Clerk (kiddingly): Well, you had pretty bad luck in the draw, didn't you?
O'Brien: Don't know.
Clerk: Don't kid me, Mr. O'Brien. A smart horseman like yourself knows everything.
O'Brien: No. I don't know.
Clerk (taking a mimeographed list from his pocket): Here, have a look for yourself.