Two teen-age girls sat and gossiped in the shade of a tree that Messenger, patriarch of all Standardbred horses, grazed under in 1801. Local citizens relaxed in red-and-green deck chairs near a barn, chatting amiably with Frank Ervin, who was harness racing's Horseman of the Year last season. Small children petted horses that made up part of the million-dollar business that is Billy Haughton's stable, and their parents felt free to approach Haughton and Stanley Dancer and other famous drivers who are merely names on the program at the big raceways. On the track some trotters were warming up, their hooves hitting the hard surface in a rhythmic beat like the distant drums of another era—an era that never seems quite as far away during the week of daytime racing at Historic Track in Goshen, N.Y.
"Everyone in harness racing should support this meeting," said George Morton Levy. "We should all appreciate something that preserves such a rich tradition." Levy, the tough, brilliant little man who is largely responsible for the success of big-time harness racing in this country, was at Goshen to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Trotter. He was not in the happiest of moods; both his sport and the track he built, Roosevelt Raceway, have had their troubles lately. Attendance and wagering have been falling while state and local governments have imposed more and heavier taxes. Roosevelt itself, long the symbol of all the color and glamour of night racing, is in the throes of a management struggle between accountants and promoters, which the bookkeepers seem to be winning. Too many other tracks have also made revenue seem more important than class. In its own small way, the Goshen meeting annually reverses this trend—which explains why many of the leading trainers, owners and breeders gather in this quiet little town during the first week in July every year.
The half-mile track at Goshen is hard and dusty, and the first turn is so poorly banked that many inexperienced horses go off stride trying to negotiate it. Young horses are required to race two heats in one day in oppressive temperatures for purses that might not even lure them onto the track at other places. Yet the best young horses did race last week, to give the small crowds a lot of excitement as well as an early line on later and richer stakes races.
The emphasis, typically, was on trotting, the older and more traditional of the two gaits in harness racing. Pacers now outnumber trotters, and their shuffling gait makes them easier to train and more reliable to bet on. But neither of these considerations is very important at Goshen. In fact, E. Roland Harriman, the 71-year-old sportsman who runs Historic Track, doesn't even deign to include pacers in his own stable. It is not unusual to find nine straight paces on a card at a major raceway; on the afternoon of the Historic-Dickerson Cup at Goshen there were eight races—all of them trots. And in those races and others during the week, Goshen visitors may well have seen the next two winners of trotting's most important race, The Hambletonian.
The Historic-Dickerson was won in straight heats by Irving Berkemeyer's Dazzling Speed, driven by Stanley Dancer; three of the colts that finished behind him also showed promise. And earlier in the week Dancer won Goshen's 2-year-old stake, the E. H. Harriman Challenge Cup, with a sensational trotter named Nevele Pride. A lot will happen before the 1968 Hambletonian, but at this point it seems likely that if Nevele Pride is not to win at Du Quoin, some other trotter is going to have to move awfully fast.
Nevele Pride drew the sixth post position in the seven-horse field for the first heat of the Harriman Cup, and he never did get to the inside rail. First Haughton took the lead with Larengo Hanover, then Eddie Wheeler took over with Kerry Pride. Dancer moved up to challenge on the outside but couldn't get to the front. "I missed two chances to tuck in along the rail, each time by a few inches," he said. "With a green colt, you can't keep stopping and starting to get a position." So Nevele Pride had to do the job the hard way, and he seemed to enjoy it. "He kept grabbing the bit all the way," Dancer said. "He just kept coming at those horses." Nevele Pride drew away from Kerry Pride in the stretch to win in 2:04[4/5], a new track record.
On the gray benches where horsemen gather in the Goshen paddock, there was a brief stunned silence. "I've never seen a 2-year-old race like that this early in the year," said the experienced Jim Harrison of the U.S. Trotting Association. "If he comes out of the race all right," joked Johnny Chapman, "Stanley can race him back Friday in the Titan." Nevele Pride was not about to try the older horses in the Titan, but it may be a while before he finds any colts his own age who can test him. He won the second heat handily, and Dancer came back to the paddock smiling broadly. "This is a real trotter," he said. "I've only had one other 2-year-old come along as fast as this one. That was Noble Victory." Noble Victory was the undefeated juvenile champion of 1964.
Nevele Pride is a son of the brilliant sire Star's Pride out of an undistinguished mare named Thankful. Dancer bought him for the Nevele Acres last year for $20,000. "I wouldn't have paid $5,000 for him," said Billy Haughton. "I had his full brother, Pompous, and he wouldn't trot at all. He finally turned out to be a pacer, and not a very good one, either." Why did Dancer take a chance on him? "He was by Star's Pride," Dancer said simply, "and he was for sale."
The seven starters in the Historic-Dickerson included most of the leading 3-year-old colts except Pay Dirt, who was lame. During Dazzling Speed's first warmup mile on the morning of the race, some horsemen wondered if Pay Dirt was the only lame colt around. "He did feel awful," Dancer said. "I don't know if he was sore or if he just has a bad way of going sometimes. But anyway, he got better in each warmup mile." In the scoring just before the start, Stanley worked the colt an extra quarter mile to get rid of the last trace of trouble. Then he gave Dazzling Speed a perfect drive to win the first heat. He left the gate quickly to grab the lead, then let Haughton rush past him with Keystone Pride. When Joe O'Brien moved Halifax Hanover up to challenge, Dancer sat coolly on the rail. Entering the stretch, he appeared to be hopelessly boxed behind the leaders. "I never thought he could get through," said Haughton. "But when I whipped my colt he ducked in a little, and then I saw Stanley alongside me." O'Brien added, "My colt got a little tired and bore out a bit." That was all the help Dancer needed, and Dazzling Speed rushed through the narrow opening to win going away. "How narrow was it?" Stanley said, "Well, I had to squeeze in there one wheel at a time."
Dancer's tactics also had a lot to do with Dazzling Speed's victory in the second heat. Leaving from the rail, he gave up the lead briefly to Keystone Pride, then regained it and set a slow pace. After loafing through the first three-quarters of a mile in 1:36, Dazzling Speed was able to coast home in front. Because Dancer's driving meant so much to him, and because his occasional soreness makes him a little suspect, Dazzling Speed does not appear to be an outstanding Hambletonian favorite. Keystone Pride, third in both heats of the Dickerson, is honest if not brilliant; Pomp, who was fifth, was making only his second start of the season and should improve. Most promising of all, perhaps, is Halifax Hanover, who raced wide all the way to finish second in the first heat, then was disappointing in the second heat and wound up fifth. O'Brien trains with The Hambletonian in mind and probably did not have his colt cranked up for two rugged heats this early in the summer. At the peak of his form Halifax may be the best of these colts, and O'Brien will certainly bring him to that peak just in time for The Hambletonian.