Come last spring, hopes were high for him—until a freakish accident in his first outing seemed certain to have blighted his big year. Ranger not only survived, but went on to win more than $154,000 this season.
Ranger and O'Brien, like Ore and Dancer, deserve each other. Ranger is rugged; so is O'Brien. Joe, the master of short answers to all questions, broke his pelvis in an August spill but kept on driving. Still hurting, Joe? "No." Ranger in good shape? "Yes." Thanks, Joe.
So while Ore and Ranger—and the shadow of Oil Burner—dominated the Jug, the remaining entries were mostly regarded as "others."
Prominent among them was the colt that clearly had the best name, anyway—Windshield Wiper. His trainer and driver, Billy Haughton, confessed that "sometimes Wiper won't give it his all. But there's a theory that 60% of all horses don't want to win. He always has a chance." Haughton had another cheery thought: "Wiper is a superior mudder." Race day dawned dry.
Still, every time Haughton sits down behind a horse, bettors perk up. Especially at the Jug, which he has won five times, more than any other driver. He also has won the most money at the event, more than $250,000. Haughton won The Hambletonian a few weeks ago with Steve Lobell, and while a popular bumper sticker in harness racing reads I'M HOT TO TROT, there was a feeling that Windshield Wiper and Billy might have momentum and be hot to pace.
Because every race needs a long shot, the experts concluded it was Precious Fella. Said Del Cameron, Fella's owner-trainer-driver and twice a Jug winner himself, "He can't beat the kind of horses that are in this race all the time. But once in a while he can." He did so against Ore this year. Once. And with winnings of $128,294 for the season against sometimes fancy company, Precious looked like a distant maybe.
The 16-horse field was divided into two heats with the four best in each division meeting in a third race. If the third heat was won by either of the winners of the first two heats, he would be the Jug winner. If that didn't happen, the three winners of the three heats would meet for the title in a fourth race.
Shortly before 4 p.m. on Jug Day, everything was as it should be: The men had on their hats that said " John Deere," the women were waiting in long lines at the restrooms and the kids were perched atop the Winnebagos.
The first heat was supposed to be Armbro Ranger's. He left from the third post position and by the one-quarter mark was fourth. Hmmm. The leader, pacing better than he had any right to, was Precious Fella. By the head of the stretch things were sorting out, with Ranger second by inches. Ranger got to the wire first by a head in 1:56[4/5]-Precious Fella was second, but Cameron was afraid that he might have used him up. Third was a nobody named Warm Breeze; fourth was Mandate.
The second heat was supposed to be Keystone Ore's and Ore's problems started with his No. 8 post position, worst in the field. Dancer had said that he would hurry to the front, but it turned out he only could get up to fifth in the early going—and it was then that Stanley made the winning decision. He simply tucked his colt in along the rail and raced patiently. This, rather than using Ore up to get past a bunch of shaky horses which at the time were looking like giant killers—including one named Shadow Don Time who would have won had the race been only half a mile. In the second half mile, Shadow and his friends flopped and some of them may not have made it to the finish yet.