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Through the screen door of his office Frank Ervin could hear the voices of another group of sightseers as they made their way toward his barn on the backstretch at Ben White Raceway in Orlando, Fla. His morning work was just completed, and Ervin began to sense that soon one of the visitors would rap nervously on the door and ask to take his picture—and Frank planned to be ready. Delicately he wiped the dust from his driving goggles and reached into the back of a closet to exchange his mud-flecked fedora for an immaculate white one with a crisp maroon-and-gray band. He affixed a tiny, diamond-studded, horseshoe-shaped pin to his shirtfront and, just as he began buffing his prized, 65-year-old gold ring against his sleeve, the knock came. " Mr. Ervin," a voice asked, "would you mind stepping outside so we can take some pictures of you?" Ervin pushed the door open and said, "No, no, no. I mean no, sir, I'd quite like that."
This winter Frank Ervin, long regarded by insiders as one of the very best trainers and drivers in harness racing, finally has begun to receive some of the acclaim due him for nearly a quarter of a century. He has been invited to countless banquets and cocktail parties and presented with large tin trophies and small silver cups, primarily because he is the man who handled Bret Hanover, the great pacer who won 62 of 68 races in three years and broke a seemingly endless list of time, money and stakes records. "At many of the banquets," Ervin says, "I haven't even had a chance to eat, because people want more and more autographs or pictures. I've waited a long time to see what it would be like and I'm now at the age in life  when I can enjoy it."
People who follow harness racing closely find it ironic that toastmasters and ordinary fans now recognize Frank Ervin's talents for the first time. For years his professional reputation has been hammered out in the hot dust of places like Sedalia and Indianapolis and Du Quoin; it does not rest on the achievements of Bret Hanover alone. Ervin has probably trained or driven more winners than the combined totals of Thoroughbred racing's Eddie Arcaro and Hirsch Jacobs. In 1966 he drove 15 races in under two minutes, becoming the first man ever to drive over 100 two-minute miles. When he won last year's Hambletonian with Kerry Way, it marked his second victory in the sport's biggest single event, and he has also won three Little Brown Jugs. The list of trotters and pacers he has either driven or developed since the late 1940s reads like the record book of trotting during its most prosperous era. Even when arbitrarily reduced to 20 horses it includes: Adios, Bret Hanover, Canny Scot, Cheer Honey, Diller Hanover, Good Counsel, Good Time, Hundred Proof, Impish, Kerry Way, Keystoner, N.D. Hal, Phantom Lady, Sampson Hanover, Scotland's Comet, Shoo Shoo Byrd, Sprite Rodney, Timely Beauty, Yankee Hanover and Yankee Lass.
Today, even though Ervin feigns that the spirit is willing but the body is weak, he is still regarded as the master at taking a young horse and aiming it carefully toward the classics. There are few who question that skill, because too many times in the past Ervin has engineered tremendous upsets when other qualified horsemen assumed he did not have a presentable horse in his barn. He possesses a rare combination of patience and a way of communicating with young horses. Only eight 2-year-olds have trotted a competitive mile in under two minutes, and Frank Ervin has handled half of them. No other man has accounted for more than one.
Few men who train and drive Standard-breds ever achieve even temporary fame. Many seem to spend their public lives between parentheses—as in Hangover Hanover (Jones) $9.70, $6.80, $3.40. The group that receives the most publicity consists of those who drive on the illuminated half-mile carousels near large cities, and these men often seem to jump from one horse to another, as squirrels bound from tree to tree. Harness racing traditionalists maintain—and they are right—that the real horsemen are those who live with their horses through the long, tiring hours on training tracks, building the rapport that pays off later in races, and refusing to delegate authority or responsibility. There are a few left whose pride in horsemanship impels them to follow the old ways—men like John Simpson, Del Miller, Joe O'Brien, Billy Haughton, Ralph Baldwin, Earle Avery, and certainly Frank Ervin. They were brought up to respect a horse, and they recall a time when, as Simpson said recently, "You had to know your horse and take care of it and win with it or you just never got back home."
One recent morning at Ben White, Frank Ervin swung his leg over the shaft of the sulky, gave the reins to one of his stable hands and agreed to talk of those old times. Before he did, however, Ervin walked to the front of the horse he had been training and then slowly circled around him, speaking to the animal in a quiet voice. The colt is named Speedy Streak, and he is a Hambletonian eligible who was bought in 1965 for $113,000, the third-highest price ever paid for a yearling at auction. "Slow, boy," said Ervin. "Stead-ee. Not a thing to worry about. Slow-lee. Quiet. Nice job out there. See you tomorrow morning." From his gray wash pants Ervin took a small, plastic-covered notebook and wrote in pencil the time of the mile that the horse had just worked. "I have to keep writing things down now," he said. "The memory is not as good as it used to be. I keep the times of all the miles worked and the track conditions in this book and then transfer them to a bigger book later on. I have books going back for 12 years, but like a fool I recently threw some out that went even farther back than that. Why, Stanley Dancer not too long ago asked me if I would make a copy of all the workouts I put into Bret Hanover throughout his career. Stanley said he wanted to look at them and keep them, and that made me proud. But the memory slips....
"I was born in Pekin, Ill. on August 12, 1904, and my father was a horseman named Tom Ervin who had been born in Hampton Furnace, Ohio. His father had once traveled through Kansas in a covered wagon to homestead and acquire some land out there. But he traded that land for a farm in Rich Hill, Missouri and built a racetrack on it between 1877 and 1880. My grandfather had two sons, Tom and Dan, and they both learned to be horsemen on that track, racing against each other day-in and day-out. Dan was what you might call on the lazy order, and he worked for years for a man named Hutton, who was on the lazy order, too. They made a great pair 'cause Hutton's idea of being around horses was to get dressed up all pretty like and say, 'Hey, look at me! I'm the Hutton who's got the horses.' On Sundays the two of them would put on their pretty outfits and go out to the barns and wait for people to come by and see how nice they looked. They'd sit in canvas chairs all day and smoke cigars, which, when you come to think of it, isn't a bad way to live.
"But my dad. Tom, kept about his business, and more than once he owned Shoo Fly Gyp, the sire of the dam of Single G.—who many thought was the greatest horse of all time. Single G. once won 58 straight heats and 262 lifetime. But the only thing I can recall about Shoo Fly Gyp was that he was a great big old white pacer that my dad kept buying and selling. You know, he'd buy him at Sedalia and sell him back at St. Louis things like that. When I was 6 he took me to see Dan Patch at Galesburg, Ill., and I can remember how just the sight of him thrilled everyone. By the time I was 121 was traveling around with my dad when school let out, and I began to watch him carefully. My father wanted me to get an education, at least enough to learn to read and write. I got through grade school, and he sent me to high school after a summer of racing with him. One of the things they'd do to initiate you into high school in those days was to take your pants down and walk you through the center of town, and I certainly didn't look forward to that. Well, I ducked the juniors and seniors for the first two days of school, but on the third day they came after me. There were about four of them, and they chased me down an alley and backed me up against a fence. I reached up and got a one-by-four and hit one of the seniors, and that was the end of that. It was also the end of my high school education, so I returned to the races with my father, and in 1920 he let me drive in my first race.
"He had a trotter named Black Diamond that was a fine horse. Once won 26 straight races and he was like a machine. My father had him so ready for my first race that I probably couldn't have lost with him if I had tried. It was in Charleston, Ill. and I won with him, beating a field of four. Those days are a far cry from today. You could do things then that you wouldn't even think about doing now. It wasn't too long after that first win that we had an incident in Mt. Vernon, Ill., a mining town. There was a famous local horse in Mt. Vernon named Colonel Cochoran Jr. and he was trained and driven by Lyall Scott. My father and I were to drive two horses against him—Black Diamond and Mightellion. The following week there was to be a race for 2:10 trotters, and my father didn't want to be marked in less than that for either horse." In other words, Tom Ervin wanted to keep his horses eligible for the following week's race and not reveal how fast they were. "So he went to Scott and suggested a three-way split in the purse. Well, Scott wouldn't go for it, so my father said, 'Just make it look close and it will tickle these people.'
"Colonel Cochoran got the lead at the top of the stretch, and I came up on him with Black Diamond near the finish and got beat a neck. Those were the days of near beer. When we had to come out for the second heat and I was warming Black Diamond up, a near-beer bottle went right by my head. I looked over at the rail and here were about 100 tough miners coming over it and after me. Apparently there was a pretty good handbook at Mt. Vernon and quite a few of them had bet on me. They must have been spiking that near beer, but I knew that as long as I had that horse they weren't about to catch me. Someone opened the gap in the backstretch and we drove out horses out through it and right out of town.