On a September day in 1937, an 11-year-old girl slipped into an undersized sulky at the "Red Clay Oval" track in Lexington, Ky. She wore a driver's jacket that had been cut down and basted, stitched and pinned. She tucked her blonde curls under a hat that was several sizes too large and moved her horse onto the starting stretch. Her objective was to break the teen-age harness-horse driving record of 2:05�.
By the time the clay dust of Lexington's "Red Mile" had cleared, Alma Sheppard had driven Dean Hanover to a mile in 1:58�. No one—man, woman or teen-ager—had ever driven a 3-year-old sulky horse that fast. On the way Alma set records for a lady driver and for an amateur driver—records that still haven't been broken.
For a few weeks little Miss Alma rivaled Shirley Temple as America's Sweetheart. Trotting papers and magazines told the story over and over, progressing from superlative to euphemism to rhapsody. "She was fair of face," said John Hervey in The Harness Horse, "with a sweet, childish profile, a rose-leaf complexion, golden hair and her expression not unlike that of some of the cherubs one sees on a Della Robbia plaque." He added that the little lady's feat "strained the bounds of probability to such an extent that it trespassed upon one's credulity."
It still seems implausible. In Alma's native Pennsylvania today, many politicians think that a girl of 11 should have to wait 10 years before even entering the grounds of one of the Keystone State's plush new harness tracks. A bill to bar persons under 21 from the tracks passed the State House of Representatives recently and is now being considered by the Pennsylvania Senate.
Alma had always been around horses. She was born the same year (1926) that her father, Lawrence B. Sheppard, now chairman of the Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission, established the world-famous Hanover Shoe Farms in southern Pennsylvania.
"Horses and all types of animals were her dolls," Sheppard recalled recently. "She had a cocker spaniel named Noodles when she was a little girl and would dress him up in doll clothes, put him in a baby buggy and take him for a ride. The old stallion, Dillon Axworthy, had been retired on our farm when Alma was 7. He was about 25 years old and cantankerous. Alma would go into his stall, wrap his legs like he was going to the races and take him out to graze. He seemed to know that she was something special and he wouldn't hurt her.
"And there was something special about Alma. A horse would try for her—try hard."
When Alma was 4 she started driving harness horses, sitting on the lap of Tom Berry, the famous old driver. A year later she had her own sulky and hitched an old gray mare named Almo to it. Still, Alma might have remained just another rich horseman's daughter had it not been for a fractious 4-year-old mare named Nimble Hanover.
"Nimble was a real outlaw," says Sheppard. "She had been abused somewhere along the line and hated men. Two of the best trainers in the business couldn't do a thing with her. But Alma made friends with Nimble just like a man would with a dog."
On July 27, 1937—less than two months before she set her world's record—Alma climbed into a sulky behind Nimble for her first drive in public. The mare trotted a mile in 2:09�. Alma became the youngest driver ever to put a horse on the select list of trotters that had bettered 2:10 for the mile.