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For years the Red Mile track in Lexington, Ky. has been harness racing's answer to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track's first two-minute miles were trotted in 1903 (one of them by the famous Dan Patch), and ever since the Red Mile has been advertised with ample reason as the "world's fastest harness track." Oldtime Kentucky horsemen need little encouragement to begin ticking off the long list of records that have been set on the track's red-clay surface. Greyhound's 1938 clocking of 1:55�, for example, endured as the world's speediest trotting mile until Nevele Pride beat it last year at Indianapolis. And Bret Hanover's 1966 pace in 1:53[3/5] still is the fastest ever. Extraordinary feats have come to be taken for granted at the Red Mile, but even the most jaded horseman had to be impressed with what little Joe O'Brien accomplished there last week during the annual Grand Circuit meeting.
O'Brien, of course, has long been one of the sport's premier trainers and drivers, and his consummate horsemanship was never more obvious than it was at Lexington. In nine days he beat harness racing's standard of excellence, the two-minute mile, a total of 10 times, boosting his alltime record for such performances to 133 (next to him is Frank Ervin with 108). Moreover, O'Brien astounded everyone by driving a relatively unknown 3-year-old pacer, Steady Star, to a time-trial clocking of 1:54—third fastest in the history of the sport. Finally, on Friday, Joe got into the sulky behind a 15-to-1 shot named Paris Air and almost stole the third jewel in trotting's Triple Crown, the $76,000 Kentucky Futurity, a heat-racing classic that goes back to 1893 and has the distinction of being the sport's oldest major stakes race.
Friday was overcast and windy in Lexington, and a steady rain the previous day had left the Red Mile in less than perfect condition. Before the race the solid favorite was Hambletonian winner Timothy T., owned by John Simpson Sr. and driven by his son John Jr. (Timmy's sire, Ayres, won both the Hambo and Kentucky Futurity for John Sr. in 1964). Also given a chance were Jimmy Arthur's Formal Notice, runner-up in the Hambo, and Billy Haughton's Gil Hanover, a star-crossed colt who finally seemed to be coming around after a long summer of illness.
Nobody, not even Joe O'Brien, gave Paris Air much of a chance—"He just can't trot quick enough," said O'Brien before the race—and that was a serious oversight. At day's end the winner was the favorite, Timothy T., but most of the fans left the Red Mile talking about Paris Air. He won the first heat and was runner-up overall. Afterward a friend walked up to congratulate O'Brien in the paddock.
"Well, Joe," he said, "it looks like your horse was second best today."
"I don't know if he was second best," said O'Brien, his eyes twinkling, "but he got second money, didn't he?"
Like most horsemen, O'Brien looks forward to racing at the Red Mile. The competition is keen and there is always the chance to set some records. This year O'Brien came to Lexington with only seven of the 50 or so horses that he races all around the U.S., Canada and Europe, but he still had trouble finding time to care for those few. He has a reputation for getting the most out of a horse, particularly young horses, so ambitious owners and trainers literally swamp him with requests either to catch-drive their horses in races or to drive them in time trials.
"Time trials are mainly for breeding purposes," said O'Brien. "The owners want their horses to get the best record possible, because that will increase their breeding fees later on. I'm not much forgoing in time trials with my own horses, but I will do it for other people. I guess I drove more of them this week than I ever have before."
Whether in time trials or in races, O'Brien was the hottest driver on the grounds. He won four heats, all in two minutes or better, with Armbro Kerry, his fine 3-year-old filly. In his first trip behind Desert Wind, a promising 2-year-old trotting filly owned by Hambletonian boss Bill Hayes, O'Brien won impressively in 1:59[3/5]. His week's high point came Wednesday, when he had four two-minute drives on the same day (one in a race, three in time trials), including his record-setting trip behind Steady Star.
The property of the Dave Brown estate, Steady Star (by Steady Beau out of Avaway) brought only $4,900 at the 1968 Tattersalls yearling sale. This year he had raced well, if not spectacularly, around the Chicago area and was fourth twice and fifth in three heats of the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio. In his time trial, he broke Bret Hanover's world 3-year-old pacing record of 1:55. The fractions were :28[2/5], :56 and 1:25, and afterward the usually taciturn O'Brien was as surprised as anyone.