A few minutes after the first heat of last week's Little Brown Jug had been paced over the fast, saucer-shaped track at Delaware, Ohio, two men sat down quietly on the back-stretch to discuss what had happened. One was Earle Avery, the 66-year-old driver of Muncy Hanover, who had just won that first heat in world-record time of 1:58[3/5]. The other was Johnny Simpson, the 41-year-old driver of Bullet Hanover, who, as one of the hottest Jug favorites in history, had finished ninth in a field of 11.
"Congratulations, Earle," said Simpson, "you're going to be tough to beat now." A very chewed on a short, stubby, smelly cigar and said, "Thanks, but you're gonna be pretty tough yourself. You know somebody's still got to win two heats to win a Jug."
Of all the 38,000 people at this year's Jug there was not a person who knew more about winning one than Johnny Simpson. Not only had he won the race in 1956 with Noble Adios and in 1957 with Torpid, but in seven tries in this premier 3-year-old pacing race he had finished out of the purse money only twice.
Ever since spring Simpson had pointed Bullet for the Little Brown Jug, as calmly and patiently as the good archer aims his arrow. After an outstanding 2-year-old season, which included 11 victories in 18 races and five miles in under 2:00, Bullet was slow to find his top form this season. Early in July, for instance, at Monticello Raceway, he finished next to last in so-so company. Later in July one of his ankles filled, possibly as the result of a broken blood vessel, and in subsequent races he seemed like a horse that could not possibly regain his form by the last week in September. At the same time, there were many expert horsemen who insisted that even a sound Bullet would never win the Jug because he could not handle the sharp turns of a half-mile track at top speed.
For a few minutes last Thursday afternoon those people appeared to be right. Going into the very first turn of the first heat Simpson pushed Bullet hard, trying to get the lead. Simpson, in fact, seemed to push Bullet a bit too hard, and the colt broke stride, propping himself high into the air. By the time Simpson straightened him out, Muncy Hanover had the lead at the quarter pole.
Muncy stayed right on that lead, too, for the remaining three-quarters of a mile. Moving along in his short, shuffling strides, he won by a length and one quarter, while Simpson and Bullet were beaten by 14 lengths. This is a misleading figure, however. Once Simpson knew that he and Bullet had been beaten in that first heat, he maneuvered his colt to finish ninth, a prime position for the next heat. Since the field would be arranged in two tiers behind the starting gate, it meant that Bullet would start directly behind Muncy at the rail.
Muncy charged away from the gate in the second heat and led at the half mile, with Bullet in third place behind Betting Time. At the three-quarter pole Simpson took Bullet out from the rail to begin his move, but Muncy moved blithely away and stole off to a two-length lead at the top of the short stretch.
Then, finally, Bullet remembered who he was. He started to pace like his old self, and in an instant he was at Muncy and in another instant he was by him. As Simpson looked to his left to watch Muncy he suddenly realized that another horse was flying at him on the outside, a horse named Merrie Gesture. Fortunately, he and Bullet had a precious half length left at the wire. The time for the second heat was exactly the same as for the first (1:58[3/5]).
After that heat, Simpson was asked for an opinion on how well his colt had performed. "Well," he said, "I think Bullet almost proved to some people that he might have just a speck of ability on a half-mile track. I didn't have to use him too much and I should have a pretty fresh colt left for the third heat." Simpson went to the paddock and took off his jacket and then came outside the iron fence to get a soft drink. "This time I have the rail," he continued. "I hope we'll be able to get the job done."
Simpson turned to go back into the paddock and as he approached, the gate guard stopped him. "I'm sorry," said the guard, "but only people with passes are allowed in here."