This was a typically hot August day at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds, and the air was thick with Illinois dust and the sounds and smells of a carnival. Standing there in the cool shade of his shedrow, Harold Dancer Sr. took in the perspiring scene and reckoned that yes, this was as stuffy a Hambletonian day as he had ever seen. And then, as Harold lifted a Coke bottle to his lips, his millionaire little brother, Stanley, laughed and began to tease.
"I knew it," said Stanley, "rum and Coke. Ha, I knew it would get to him." Harold, who—at 57—is 15 years older than Stanley, smiled sheepishly. Then Stanley turned and looked down the shedrow where the third Dancer brother, Vernon, was working on a horse.
"Hey, Vernon," he called, "look here. A little rum and Coke. Boy, it's getting to him."
Nobody would have blamed Harold if he had wanted a little nerve stiffener before the 44th renewal of The Hambletonian, the most important event in harness racing and—with a gross purse of $124,910 this year—one of the richest. The oldest of the driving and training Dancer brothers of New Jersey, Harold also may be the least known, having only nine horses in training compared with, roughly, Stanley's 100 and Vernon's 50. Moreover, Harold is one of the few horsemen left who specialize in young trotters, and it was considered a tribute to his talent that of the nine horses who survived to make this year's Hambletonian, two of them (The Prophet and Viewpoint) were trained by Harold Dancer. So for a man like this, more than for many others. The Hambletonian is the beginning and the end and everything in between, too.
"Stanley operates a big stable and wants to stay at the top," Harold said, "but I've never had any desire to be at the top. The only desire I've ever had is to win The Hambletonian, but I guess that's what everyone wants. It's tough. It takes a lot of horse and a lot of luck."
The word around the barns before last week's race was that Harold had a lot of horse in The Prophet, a sometimes temperamental, swiftly improving colt who supposedly had the best finishing kick since that ill-starred runner, Silky Sullivan. The trouble was, among the nine-horse field there were also three other tough veteran horsemen going after their first Hambletonian victory, and all of them had colts who were regarded at least as highly as The Prophet.
The overwhelming sentimental favorite among the drivers, of course, was Earle Avery, the 75-year-old grandfather who was taking Gun Runner to the post for Norman Woolworth's Clearview Stables. Early in July Gun Runner had been considered one of the leading contenders, but then he came down with a debilitating respiratory ailment. The same problem had knocked two contenders—Hiland Hill and Nardin's Gay-blade—out of the race entirely, and Gun Runner still was about 100 pounds underweight when Avery brought him to the paddock before the race. "He looks so bad that I'm embarrassed for him," said Avery.
In the stall next to Gun Runner little Fred Bradbury, 49, was also looking grim while hooking up his perplexing colt Dayan, who races in the name of Adonis Stable, a two-horse operation from Hempstead, Long Island. At times Dayan had been brilliant, but there also had been enough disappointing performances that the owners reportedly had been quibbling about Bradbury, even to the point of considering a new driver for the Hambo. Most of this was steadfastly denied by the owners, and Bradbury himself tried to shrug off any suggestions of pressure. "I feel fine," he said. "I should have butterflies, I guess, but I don't."
The odds-on favorite—at least he would have been odds-on if betting were allowed on The Hambletonian—was Lindy's Pride, winner of the first event in trotting's Triple Crown, the Yonkers Futurity. Sometimes Lindy's Pride could be a little mischievous—once when he was leading a race at Yonkers he suddenly trotted off the track and down the paddock chute. But his trainer and driver, Howard Beissinger, said confidently that "the results speak for themselves; I think he's the best horse in the race."
The easiest way to get Beissinger to forget the pressure of a big race is to start talking about the folks who race Lindy's Pride in the name of Lindy Farms, Inc., of Lindenhurst, Long Island—the seven brothers and cousins named Lomangino and Antonacci (SI, July 28) who got into racing only as a respite from the problems of their garbage-collecting business. Beissinger enjoys recalling the time he drove one of their pacers, Tarport Lib, to a work record of 1:56[2/5] at Lexington, Ky.