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All afternoon the tall, silver-haired man wandered fitfully around the paddock. He could not sit still, and he could not stop smoking and, altogether, he acted like a fellow who was about to become a father for the first time. While this sort of behavior was unusual for John Simpson Sr., a veteran of more than 30 years in harness racing, it also was understandable. Out there on the handsome mile track in Du Quoin, Ill. his son John Jr. was not only seeking his first victory in the Hambletonian, trotting's premier event, but was driving his dad's pride and joy—a speedy dark brown colt named Timothy T.
The older Simpson had yearned to drive Timothy himself—"It's always been the love of my life to drive in a great race like this," he said—but when an eye operation put him out of action he picked his red-haired, rosy-cheeked son to drive for him. It was a lot to ask of an old hand, let alone a rookie, but young John (Junior, everybody calls him) responded with a performance that his father would have had trouble beating. To the delight of the shirt-sleeved, perspiring Middle Americans who showed up to see the nation's best 3-year-old trotters last week, Timothy T. won the 45th Hambletonian by taking the first and last of three tough, exciting heats. In between he was upset by dark horse Formal Notice, but then Timmy and Junior came back like champions. In the third heat they pulled away from Formal Notice in the stretch to win by a length. And even John Sr. was finally able to relax after Timmy was led up Victory Lane to get a blanket of flowers and a cautious pat on the nose from Governor Richard Ogilvie of Illinois.
At 27, Junior ("I guess I'll be stuck with that all my life," he ruefully concedes), became the youngest man ever to drive a Hambletonian winner, and he beat his dad to Victory Lane by 10 years. His credentials as a horseman are certainly genuine. In the race, his poise was unshakable, even though he was constantly aware that, as Simpson's son, to do less than win would be to fail.
Junior was superb, but the man mainly responsible for Timmy's victory was his father, who proved that he still has few peers in the exacting task of getting a horse ready for a classic race. He has trained and driven two previous Hambletonian winners (Hickory Smoke in 1957 and Timmy's sire, Ayres, in 1964), and this year, despite his operation and his many responsibilities as president of the bustling Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania, Simpson Sr. still plotted Timmy's pre-Hambo course, then trained him to be in peak form at precisely the right time and place—last Wednesday in Du Quoin. "Getting a horse ready for that one day is like tuning a fine watch," says Simpson. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I feel that this is what the sport is all about."
The excitement over the Simpsons and Timothy T. saved what was shaping up as the most troubled Hambletonian since the race was moved from Goshen, N.Y. in 1957. In the early hours of Aug. 8, less than a month before the race, the beautiful Hayes Fair Acres Stable barn, a fairgrounds landmark since it was built in 1941, was destroyed by fire. No lives were lost, but gone completely was everything pertaining to the Du Quoin State Fair and the Hambletonian—files, photographs, contracts, even this year's championship trophy. It was a devastating loss for the Hayes family, which has presented the race ever since it came to Du Quoin, but almost before the embers were cold the family head, Bill Hayes, had plunged into the huge job of reorganization. It was a matter of doing a year's work in less than a month, but somehow it was done.
This was not lost on the members of the Hambletonian Society, who formally accepted bids last week from tracks that are interested in hosting the Hambletonian for the five years beginning in 1972. Besides Du Quoin, bids were submitted by Latonia in Kentucky and the New York State Fair in Syracuse. The outcome of the bidding will not be known until after the society meets in early November, but the odds are with Du Quoin—and rightfully so. As one horseman said, "After the job they did this year, they deserve to get it back."
By noon of Hambletonian day the fair was in full whirl, from the cotton candy machines to the ferris wheels to the wax museum, but a good many of the visitors were more interested in hanging around the barns and tents. There, besides getting an eyeball-to-eyeball look at the Hambletonian horses, it is also possible to rub elbows with the great men of the sport, like Frank Ervin or Del Miller. This is one of the sport's most charming traditions, but sometimes the traffic can become so heavy before the race that the horsemen get nervous. Before he won with Ayres, for instance, Simpson Sr. gave himself—and his horse—some peace of mind by slipping another horse into Ayres' stall and hiding his trotter elsewhere.
To prepare Timmy for the Hambo, Simpson had applied his own ideas about training. He first put him in the care of his best groom, Charlie Coleman, a quiet, efficient man who started in the business with John Sr. back in 1936. Then, Simpson chose not to start Timmy until late June—and he was careful about picking his spots. He insisted, for instance, that Timmy race on nothing smaller than a ?-mile track, so that he would become accustomed to a course like the one in Du Quoin. After Timmy won the Gold Cup at Vernon, N.Y. in a season's-record time of 1:58[4/5] Simpson still could not be lured into racing him over a half-mile track—even with the $100,000 pot at stake in the Yonkers Futurity. Instead Timmy was shipped to Springfield, Ill., where he could work out over a mile track.
While all this may be sound horsemanship, it also entails a gamble that only someone like Simpson can afford: passing up a lot of money and races to shoot for the greater prestige, and future money, that winning the Hambletonian brings. This time the gamble worked, though, as usual, the odds were against it. Too many things can happen to a colt before the Hambletonian—and one of them almost happened to Timothy last week. On Monday, two days before the race, Timmy began to cough, and immediately the Simpsons had visions of all their careful work being undone by a freak illness.
Even as late as the morning of the race, Timothy was still coughing, but it had been diagnosed as nothing more than an allergy—like hay fever—so John Sr. tried hard to act as if he were not worried. "Oh. he'll be all right," he said. "I hope."