The fillies were on top only by courtesy. The instant Baldwin asked Flirth for his speed, the little gelding blew right by. He won this time by three lengths in 1:57[1/5], faster than any gelding has ever trotted in a race before. Baldwin was taking no chances on losing and forcing his horse to go another heat. "I didn't think anything was close to me," he said afterward, "but I tapped him a couple of times just to make sure."
Though Flirth trotted the third-fastest heat in all Hambletonian history and earned $72,355 for his patient owners, the race still leaves open the question of who is the 3-year-old champion of the year. Had there been betting, the favorite for the race would surely have been Knightly Way, winner of eight of his nine previous starts this year. But Knightly Way has a problem. He is a loner. He hates to be around any other living creature, man or beast, except his groom. Even his trainer, young John Simpson Jr., finds it difficult to be friends with Knightly Way. "When I go into his stall," says Simpson, "he chases me right out. He'll tolerate me to race him, but that's about all."
In deference to Knightly Way's tastes, Simpson always keeps him in a stall with no other horse on either side. But one night about three weeks before the Hambletonian, when Knightly Way was nice and relaxed in a barn at the Springfield, Ill. track with no other horse nearby, another stable shipped in a filly and put her next to him. Outraged at this invasion of his privacy, Knightly Way tried to tear down the walls—and bruised his right shoulder.
Because of the injury, Knightly Way could not be raced in the three weeks prior to the Hambletonian and he came up short, tiring badly in both heats. As Simpson said afterward, "He'll be a lot better horse next week, but unfortunately next week is just one week too late."
The horse who would probably have been second choice in any betting, Arnie Almahurst, also ran into problems. Arnie, a powerful colt who looks as if he could trot all day, has his own eccentricities. As a 2-year-old he seemed to be afraid of the starting gate. This year, if allowed anywhere near it, he has seemed determined to knock it down or jump over it. In several races, Arnie's part owner, trainer and driver Gene Riegle kept him well back of the gate—and won while giving the other horses anywhere from three to six lengths head start.
For the big race, Riegle thought he had licked all the problems. He had finally cured some leg troubles that might have caused his horse to be erratic. He had also found that Arnie was less rambunctious behind the starting gate if his ears were stuffed with cotton.
From Post No. 1 in the first heat of the Hambletonian, Arnie went away beautifully. And just before the half-mile pole, when Riegle asked him for speed, he made a tremendous move. Then something went wrong. "He took a bad step," Riegle said, "but I got him straightened out. Then, a couple of strides later, he just simply went into a colt break."
A colt break is the loss of stride that one might expect of a young horse not experienced at racing. In Arnie's case, it was disastrous. Riegle had to pull him up and take him to the outside while trying to get him back on the trot, and he wound up a dead and distant last.
In the second heat a 16th-place finisher starts from Post No. 16. From that post, in a fast heat, Arnie Almahurst had no chance. He trotted a fine mile—Riegle timed him on his own watch in 1:57[4/5] despite all the traffic problems he encountered—but he wound up nowhere.
So the questions remain: Is Flirth really better than Knightly Way when Knightly Way is fit? Is he really better than Arnie Almahurst when Arnie stays flat? The remainder of this year's races for 3-year-old trotters should be interesting to watch.