With The Hambletonian, the foremost event in trotting, less than two weeks away, there is a growing tendency to concede victory to Ayres. The beautifully gaited, high-strung Stars Pride colt has been humbling his opposition at every turn and has yet to be beaten by a 3-year-old. His credentials are every bit as good as were the formidable Speedy Scot's at this point a year ago.
But shocking upsets are scattered all through Hambletonian history. Speedy Scot himself was nearly surprised out of his elbow boots when Florlis ripped off a 1:57[3/5] stake record in the first heat last year. True, Speedy went on to win like the champion he was, as did the highly favored A.C.'s Viking the previous year. But in The Hambletonian it is go, go, go, all the way. Driving plans are lost in the dust as a dozen or more of the nation's top trotters boil into the first bend of Don Hayes's fast mile track at Du Quoin, Ill. Ayres, with all his speed and class, has no monopoly. His main opposition is expected to come from Speedy Count, of breeding similar to Speedy Scot's, and Driver Billy Haughton said last week that the Count was never sharper. The rest of the field has been largely ignored, but it contains enough class and speed in the hands of some fine horsemen to spring a surprise or two—conceivably on the order of Harlan Dean's startling win in 1961, Little Rocky's fantastic heat victory in 1958 and Blaze Hanover's upset victory in 1960.
The fastest horse in the probable field at this stage is Frost Ridge with a 1:59[1/5] clocking for the mile. Among his assets are a Hambletonian-winning sire ( Scott Frost), a world-champion-producing dam and the canny colt trainer, Frank Ervin. Frost Ridge has been lame at times, but his flight of speed is extraordinary. If he is right on September 2 he cannot be ignored.
Then there is Dartmouth, contender from the hottest stable in harness racing. This Castleton Farm stablemate to last year's winner is trained by Ralph Baldwin, who is riding a fancy winning streak. Dartmouth has perfect manners, a big advantage in a race in which any mistake is costly.
Another contender, Big John, is driven by jockey-size Eddie Wheeler, and the combination is a strong one. Big John has good early speed. He is now being brought around to peak form.
Shoppers for a real dark horse may have a beauty in the Wisconsin-owned Speedy Rodney, a son of the late, much-esteemed Rodney. He has won all his races since June, but he has yet to face horses of Hambletonian caliber. He has, however, accomplished everything asked of him in the Illinois area, racing within a second of Ayres's fastest mile this year. As for his social rating, he is a full brother to Speedster, the sire of Speedy Scot. It is said that a mile track moves him way up.
In trotting, unlike Thoroughbred racing, the fillies usually have a big say in classic 3-year-old stakes. Ten have captured previous Hambletonians. Golden Make It, Really Something and A.C.'s Jennie have some mild backing for The Hambletonian.
This week's Review Futurity at Springfield, Ill. would normally provide a good line on The Hambletonian field, but since Speedy Count and some others are passing it up, late mile-track form will remain a tantalizing question.
Intriguing as it is to handicap outsiders into Du Quoin's victory lane, it is imprudent to look beyond Ayres. He is trained and driven by that master reins-man, John Simpson, who took the 1957 Hambletonian with Hickory Smoke and might have scored again in 1961 with Caleb but for some maneuvering that boxed him in at a critical point. Because of his headstrong ways Ayres is perhaps the biggest challenge of Simpson's distinguished career. John should be equal to it.