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The fastest ham on four legs
Pat Ryan
October 04, 1965
Strutting like a drum major, Bret Hanover salutes the crowd after setting a world record at pacing's Little Brown Jug and becoming The fastest ham on four legs
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October 04, 1965

The Fastest Ham On Four Legs

Strutting like a drum major, Bret Hanover salutes the crowd after setting a world record at pacing's Little Brown Jug and becoming The fastest ham on four legs

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There are those in Delaware, O. who think the town could do without the Little Brown Jug—why, the very name evokes images of liquor and gambling and sundry evils. They prefer that the community be talked of and remembered as the birthplace of its foremost native, President Rutherford B. Hayes. True, Delaware's first house was not a home at all, but a tavern, and Ruddy Hayes was the son of a whiskey distiller, but that's the kind of information a town keeps to itself. Just last winter, when Delaware needed a new water tower, one of the more liberal citizens suggested it might be appropriate to put up one that was jug-shaped, history being what it is and the tourist business being no business at all except during Little Brown Jug Week. But 55 preachers rose up in their pulpits, and down went the most ingenious plan yet offered to make the town bountiful, if not beautiful.

Like it or not, last Thursday the Jug was the thing in Delaware, O. More than 41,000 people went out to the fairgrounds and, nice as the steer sale and daredevil show might have been, it was horses they came to see. And a horse they saw, as Bret Hanover, the best pacer in years, set two world records, won his 42nd race in 45 starts and made off with pacing's biggest prize.

Not since the days of Dan Patch has harness racing had one quite like this, a pacer with uncommon ability and personality. Old Dan Patch would arrive at a fairgrounds in a gleaming railroad car, his picture painted on the side. For weeks billboards would advertise his coming, and on Dan Patch Day huge crowds would gather just to see him race against the clock. Eighty-two thousand once watched him in Allentown, and 102,000 in Terre Haute. You could buy a Dan Patch sled for your son, and a Dan Patch washing machine would clean your clothes in less than two minutes.

Now, in the Great Society, you are never going to see a Bret Hanover washing machine, but the new champion rivals Dan in a lot of other ways. At 3, he has paced faster than Dan ever did. He travels 11,000 miles a year, is seen by 350,000 people, and not even Lawrence Welk can rouse a midwestern crowd as thoroughly. Bret struts with his head held high like a drum major, and he bows to the crowd. He eats peppermint candy, given a chance, and in the winner's circle—where he spends a lot of time—he often munches on the flowers he has won. Bret is a show, and so is his silver-haired trainer, Frank Ervin. Frank's father raced a horse against Dan Patch, and 61-year-old Frank likes to reminisce about those days. He taught his first Jug winner, Good Time, to camel-walk and nod his head to music. The crowds loved it, and so did Frank, even though he would not admit it, then or now.

Last week he was playing down Bret's antics, but not his colt's ability. "If he'd been turned into an exhibition horse like Dan Patch, Bret never would have been beaten," Ervin said. "The man who had Dan Patch knew he'd lose one if he kept racing him, so he stopped and made a circus horse of him after he had won 27 straight. Bret got to 35 before he was beaten. It had to happen if I kept racing him."

The question now was: Could that happen in the Little Brown Jug? The Jug had a seven-horse field, but it never could have been anything more than a two-horse race. The other was Adios Vic, the only colt ever to upstage Bret Hanover.

A midget pacer with a giant closing rush, Vic had beaten Bret three times, all on mile racetracks. He likes their wide turns and long stretches because he is swift but not surefooted. He shimmies into the final bend so quickly that he often knocks himself off stride—which accounts for his comparatively indifferent record this year of 11 wins in 26 starts. But when Adios Vic keeps his balance he will pace the last quarter of a mile race in 26 seconds. How fast is that? Well, it is two-fifths of a second swifter than Tosmah and Affectionately, the two best Thoroughbred mares in the country, could run their final quarter mile in the big race at Aqueduct last week, and they weren't pulling a 29-pound sulky and a 170-pound man.

But sheer speed did not avail the little colt in Delaware. Although the turns on the saucer-shaped half-mile track are well banked, a turn is a turn. To compensate for them, Jimmy Dennis tightened the leg harness on Adios Vic, hoping that if his hopples were taken up an inch they would hold the colt together. There was nothing at all Dennis could do about the colt's post position. He drew the extreme outside, which is as popular a place as Death Valley. Then, if there was any real doubt left about who would win, it seemed settled the night before the race when a hard rain softened the track. A small, quick-gaited colt like Adios Vic tires on a slow and sticky track, while a big-going Bret just plows through.

By race time, however, the surface was reasonably good. "Only about a second off," Frank Ervin said. Two feet of mud had been bulldozed to the outside rail all the way around the track, and what was left was more hardpan than cushion. Skipper Gene, a colt who spent the summer at places like the Kenton, Ohio fair and was in Delaware more for the glory of starting in a Jug than the hope of winning, had the pole position. At the start Skipper Gene got the glory while he could, taking the lead and going the half in 58. Meanwhile Frank Ervin had Bret in fourth place. He was parked out, but he was using Sonny Dancer's Gee Lee Hanover as a windshield. Adios Vic was fumbling on the turns. As the field turned into the stretch the first time, Frank sent Bret three wide and into the lead. Going to the three-quarters, Adios Vic started his move, but the final bend loomed just ahead, and he had hardly gotten into high gear before the turn stopped him. He fell back to fourth. Bret was eased under the wire, a winner by more than three lengths in 1:57. Never has a pacer raced at such speed on a half-mile track.

In the second mile heat of the Jug, Ervin once more waited until the field had gone almost half a mile before swinging around the leader and letting Bret take off. The big colt again turned into the homestretch nearly three lengths in front of the field, and he was eased up to win by two lengths over Tuxedo Hanover. Again Adios Vic finished fourth. The second mile was two-fifths of a second slower than the first but, combined, the two miles broke the world record for back-to-back heats.

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