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Listen now, nostalgia fans, because the world of sport has a goody for you. It's as much fun as watching Ruby Keeler hoof in No, No, Nanette and a lot more exciting than listening to your Rudy Vallee record collection. You won't need nearly as many Kleenex as you did for Love Story and yes, you women can wear last winter's midis and high-button shoes and feel right at home. Know what we're talking about, nostalgia fans? It's the Grand Circuit of harness racing, the oldest continuing road show in American sport.
This is the Grand Circuit's 100th anniversary season, and it could not have come at a more fitting time, nostalgia being the In thing it is. In sport, not even Avery Brundage is more dedicated to the preservation of tradition than the Grand Circuit. Long before there was organized baseball or football, Americans were turning out by the thousands at big-city courses and rural fairgrounds to watch the trotters race. Indeed, harness racing claims, with justification, to be America's first national pastime. And the Grand Circuit was the first successful attempt to organize horsemen and tracks in an orderly progression of race meetings.
The Grand Circuit is the big league of harness racing because week after week and town after town it offers the sport's best in drivers, horses and stakes races. This year the "Roarin' Grand," as it is sometimes called, includes 22 member tracks in 11 states and two Canadian provinces, and it will pony up some $4 million in purses by season's end. Obviously, the Grand Circuit is a grand business—yet it remains a remarkably rural phenomenon. For example, the top prize in trotting, The Hambletonian, is held during Grand Circuit week at tiny Du Quoin, Ill., while pacing's premier race, the Little Brown Jug, is staged during the Circuit's stop at Delaware, Ohio, which is no metropolis either. Only in harness racing are a sport's major events so far removed from the money and masses of the cities.
To attend such a meeting is to move backward in time. So little has changed that the Circuit is one of the few aspects of modern civilization that would be immediately recognizable to a 19th century man. Indeed, the Circuit is one sport in which some of the stars are all but 19th century men themselves, men like Frank Ervin, 66, and Sanders Russell, 71. Even the newer big names, the Stanley Dancers, Billy Haughtons and Joe O'Briens, are men in their 40s and 50s. On the Grand Circuit, experience seems an essential element of success; youth is found in the horses.
Last year it was considered remarkable that John Simpson Jr., an apple-cheeked, red-haired lad of 27, could drive a colt named Timothy T. to victory in The Hambletonian. He was the youngest man ever to win that prize, but his victory hardly signaled the beginning of a youth movement on the Grand Circuit. Old-timers pointed out that it was his father, John Sr., 51, who had trained the colt, bringing him to a peak for the big race at precisely the right moment.
It is more difficult to characterize the fans who follow the Grand Circuit, but like the horsemen, they are mainly unpoor and unyoung. They are among the most knowledgeable spectators in sport. Many come to the races with their own stopwatches, which often are heirlooms. They personally clock each year's new crop of hotshots, then lean on the rail or rear back in their wooden grandstand seats and compare the current stars with such legendary horses as Dan Patch and Greyhound.
Each track gets more or less the same horses and drivers, yet each offers a unique experience. Consider four of the red-letter meetings on any year's Grand Circuit calendar. First, in July, the Circuit comes to the half-mile Historic Track in Goshen, a village about 60 miles from New York City on the way to the Catskills. Goshen is known as the Cradle of the Trotter because the sire Hambletonian, progenitor of all modern standardbreds, stood near Goshen in the mid-19th century. Today, even more than then, the hills around town are dappled with standardbred breeding farms. The Hambletonian was held at Goshen's Good Time Park from 1930 to 1956 and now, although Goshen no longer has the Hambo, the top horsemen still bring their stables there out of respect for the town and its history.
But if Goshen is a clip-clop mile into yesteryear, Du Quoin, Ill. is a now experience, Grand Circuit style, for it has been the home of The Hambletonian for only 14 years. On Hambo day it is always hot, humid and dusty at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds; jackets are removed and ties loosened long before noon. At the track two familiar forms of racing sustenance and stimulation are missing: alcoholic beverages and pari-mutuel wagering. Yet such rigors have become a part of Du Quoin's charm, as have one of the finest fairs in the Midwest and excellent stage entertainment.
For fun, however, it is hard to beat Delaware, Ohio, the home of pacing's Little Brown Jug. This is the let-it-all-hang-out stop on the Circuit. The day before the Jug, fans bring folding chairs and padlock them to the chain link fence surrounding the track to ensure a front-row seat for the race. On Jug Day they begin coming at dawn and keep coming. Long before noon they have squeezed into every corner of the small wooden grandstand and bellied up eight or 10 deep all around the track. They stand on the tops of trucks, cars and hay-wagons. There are tailgate parties in the apple orchard beyond the backstretch. The people gamble—no Hambletonian-type embarrassment about putting the money on the line here—and drink and cheer throughout the most prestigious race in pacing.
The attitude is more reverent at The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky. For one thing, The Red Mile, so-called because of the track's red clay surface, is the home of the Kentucky Futurity, the third race in trotting's Triple Crown for 3-year-olds and the oldest stakes in harness racing, having been inaugurated in 1893. The Red Mile is also known as the "world's fastest racetrack," a claim with merit. Bret Hanover's 1:53[3/5] there in 1966 is the fastest pacing mile in the sport's history, and Greyhound's 1938 time of 1:55� was the fastest trot until Nevele Pride broke the record in 1969 with a 1:54[4/5] at Indianapolis. In late September horsemen flock to Lexington to go after records. Among The Red Mile's attractions is the Tattersalls yearling sale, which runs concurrently with the Grand Circuit meeting, and the proximity to the bluegrass breeding farms, which rival the thoroughbred establishments in elegance, if not in numbers.