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Norman's Woe is a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts where, according to Longfellow, the schooner Hesperus went down in 1842. Melvin's Woe, named more or less after the island, is—or at least was thought to be—something of a wreck of a standardbred. Norman's Woe was last in the news during World War II when a German sympathizer was caught lighting candles in a tower there to signal offshore U-boats. Melvin's Woe has been fairly inconspicuous, too, and considering his condition, it was not anticipated that this situation would change at the Little Brown Jug last week.
The Jug, which is the biggest event in pacing, is contested each year on the county fairgrounds track at Delaware, Ohio. By 1973 standards Delaware is an implausible location for a classic horse race but, given the fair's heroic role in horsey nostalgia, it is the perfect site for an implausible animal.
One such was Melvin's Woe. He was lame before his first heat. He stood in ice-water boots between dashes. He was lame after the day's racing. But, with his trainer-driver Joe O'Brien jiggling and joggling like mad in the sulky, old O'Brien style, Melvin's Woe was the winner of the Little Brown Jug.
No one knew better than O'Brien and the horse's veterinarian, Dr. Ken Buckley, just how real Melvin's woes were. O'Brien, a quiet horseman who is known for his ability to get the best out of a horse, arrived in Delaware three days before the Jug. Melvin's Woe had shipped in from Detroit, where he had won a race, but his right foreleg was hurting and he had suffered a bruised eye while rolling around in his stall at the Detroit track. The colt also had reinjured a tendon he had hurt in Indianapolis two months earlier. Buckley began a series of treatments with witch hazel and ice packs. Half of each day Melvin stood in a pair of orange rubber whirlpool boots filled with swirling ice water. "I'm really concerned," Buckley told O'Brien. "We only have a few days to cure something that should take 10."
O'Brien was also concerned about his other horse in the Jug, Armbro Nesbit, just then recovering from a quarter crack. "All year long you try to get horses ready for the big race, and then here you are in this shape," he grumbled. When O'Brien worked Melvin's Woe the day before the Jug the colt was so lame he could barely get around the half-mile oval at a slow jog. "Well," said O'Brien, "I'm afraid that's it. I don't even think he'll be able to start. If he does, he'll have to get a lot better between now and tomorrow." At least Armbro Nesbit seemed to be mending nicely.
Dr. Buckley, Assistant Trainer Tom Caraway and Groom Dick Dailey worked over Melvin's Woe through the afternoon while O'Brien raced other horses on Delaware's Grand Circuit program. Melvin stood patiently in his stall. "He seems to know we're trying to help him," Caraway said.
With a long worrisome night still ahead, O'Brien went off to a sale of yearlings in nearby Sunbury, and Buckley packed his bag to fly home to Mentor, Ohio, 150 miles away. He was piloting a Cessna 182 belonging to Ohioan Thurman Downing, the owner of Melvin's Woe (Downing's late father Richard had been the owner of Bret Hanover, sire of Melvin's Woe). Halfway there Buckley decided he wanted another look at the horse, so he turned around and flew back to Delaware.
He had stopped giving internal medication the previous day (if the horse could go, Buckley did not want any drugs showing up in the prerace tests), and he had left a poultice on the leg. When Buckley got back, Melvin was fussing in the stall. The poultice had caused the leg to get hot and swollen. Another round of ice packs and witch hazel brought the swelling down. Buckley got back in the Cessna, and this time flew all the way home. He tried to sleep but couldn't, so he got up, got back in the plane once again and returned to his patient. The leg was better, and Buckley sat down to the controls of the Cessna for the last time that night. It was one a.m. and a cold wind was beginning to blow across the grounds.
When the crowd began to come into the fairgrounds the next morning a drizzle was falling. Back in town, Buckley put on his windbreaker and a red golf cap and went to look for an iceman. O'Brien massaged Melvin's sore leg until Buckley returned with ice. "That guy charged me $2.75 for one crummy bag," the veterinarian said, "but I didn't even have time to get mad at him."
O'Brien and his group were not the only ones with troubles. Lucien Fontaine, who was to drive Valiant Bret, was stranded in Syracuse because Allegheny Airlines had canceled his flight. He finally got a charter. Johnny Chapman, the driver of J. R. Skipper, was complaining about his ears. He had a bad cold and on a flight out from New York his hearing had gone. Canadian Keith Waples shook his head as he watched his horse, Rob Ron Ritzar, fidget in his stall.