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All around harness racing's training circuit last week horsemen were feeling decidedly chipper. Stanley Dancer, the young New Jersey capitalist, burst into song now and then as in freezing temperatures he worked the finest lot of horses he has ever hitched to sulky, and his mood was echoed at warmer points south and west.
Harness racing's postwar boom was showing no signs of flattening out. Last year brought alltime records in attendance (15,719,479 at pari-mutuel tracks, another 8 million to 9 million at county fairs), betting ($857,587,384) and purses ($32,635,694). The new season promises another healthy spurt. In Jersey, in Florida, in North Carolina and in California, where the top trainers are at work, the rewards for producing gaited speed have never been more enticing.
And never, it seems, has there been a more-remarkable band of 3-year-old fillies in training for the classic trotting races. Any one of five is capable of humbling the colts in trotting's most honored race, the August 29 Hambletonian.
Dancer himself, the leading money-winning driver last year, with $671,000, handles one of these fillies. She is Worth Seein, a swift brown daughter of Worthy Boy who at 2 came within two-fifths of a second of harness racing's magic 2-minute-mile mark.
Tuning up at Pompano Beach in Florida is Delvin Miller's Spry Rodney (2:02), a bay daughter of Rodney. At Shafter, Calif, is Joe O'Brien's Laurita Hanover (2:02 1/5) by Hoot Mon. But even more impressive than these are a pair being educated at Orlando, Fla., the biggest training colony, by canny Frank Ervin. One, whose name is confusingly similar to Miller's filly, Spry Rodney, is Sprite Rodney. The other is Impish. They are among only six trotters in history to equal or better two minutes for the mile as 2-year-olds. They are, in fact, the two fastest 2-year-old trotters of all time. Sprite trotted in 1:59 2/5 against time, and were it not for Impish she would be considered something of a wonder horse.
But Impish is incomparable. This smallish bay daughter of the 1956 Hambletonian winner, The Intruder, not only raced a mile in 1:58 3/5 last September but came back to take a second heat in 1:59 3/5. Winner of nine of the 11 dashes of her brief career, she is nearly everybody's favorite for this year's Hambletonian.
When I stopped to pay my respects at Orlando the other day, Impish was sprawling indolently in her stall. Curious, she got up and poked her head out the door.
"She wintered extra good," said Ervin, fondly patting her nose. "Last year she was skinny, but tough as leather. Now she's bellied out some. She's a perfect, clean-going filly. In her top flight of speed she's like a machine—the greatest trotter I've ever seen. But she does like to play. Lord, how she loves to buck when I'm jogging her the wrong way of the track! The only thing that scares me is that she feels so good I'm afraid she'll hurt herself sometime. She bucks as hard as she trots."
Ervin also has a small fund of apprehension in reserve for the top 3-year-old colts. Those of proved class include Joe O'Brien's Safe Mission (2:02), Lou Huber Jr.'s Gallant Hanover (2:01 3/5) and Harry Pownall's Nathaniel (2:01). Less predictable but in the hands of men who point for the big races are Del Miller's Dunbar, full brother to last year's Hambletonian champion, Harlan Dean, and John Simpson's Fury Hanover, one of those growthy colts that look hapless at 2 but are dangerous at 3.
Apart from these uncommonly fine Hambletonian prospects, the new season will also bring a distinct novelty. Miller has in his barn a New Zealand pacer, Snow Time, that looks like an Indian pony. He is white with big brown patches—a color configuration unheard of in harness racing. This skewbald, as he is termed, may or may not have the speed to star at New York's Roosevelt Raceway when he arrives there for the spring meeting (March 20-May 19), but he is likely to spook a few opponents right out of their traces.