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Although he is a member of the clan that brought us the five and dimes, Norman Woolworth was never involved in keeping the family store. His main interest is in merchandise far more fickle than three-ring notebooks and art gum erasers. As a partner in Stoner Creek Stud, Paris, Ky., Woolworth breeds harness racing horses, a line of work that puts him smack in the middle of the question of the moment for standardbred fanciers. Why are harness horses racing the mile far, far quicker this year than last year?
At The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky. last week Woolworth nodded assent to the conventional wisdom that to produce a fast colt or filly you breed the best with the best and hope for the best. But he confesses, "Sometimes you breed the best with the best and get something that can't beat me." Which hardly explains the fact that well-, better-or best-bred, almost any horse worth his whinny is going a mile in two minutes or under these days.
During all of 1975 there were 712 races in which the winner was clocked in two minutes or less. With a fair amount of racing still to come this year, there have been nearly 1,500 winning two-minute miles. Ordinary horses are turning in championship times. More than 40 world records have been established so far this season. In the old days, which is to say last year, a two-minute mile was something slightly special. So spectacular has been the proliferation that the subject preempts most other conversational topics among horsemen, and nowhere does it do so more completely than at The Red Mile, where in any year the main purpose is to produce fast times.
The most candid analysis offered last week came from Max Hempt, owner of a highly successful breeding farm in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Hempt chewed at his cigar, contemplated the question for a while and concluded, "I really haven't the faintest idea."
As if to underscore the point, Jade Prince, a little-known 2-year-old Canadian pacer, showed up at The Red Mile—a track rated one of the two fastest in the nation—and promptly toured the course in 1:54[1/5], the fastest time ever recorded in a race by any standardbred, let alone by a 2-year-old. (The only faster time in history was a time trial mark of 1:52 by a 4-year-old, Steady Star, in 1971.) The old race mark was 1:54[3/5], set in 1972 by a considerably more distinguished performer, Albatross, and equaled this summer by a fair horse named Taurus Bomber.
While Jade Prince had raced well in Canada, he was a fizzle in his previous three U.S. tries this year. That seemed appropriate enough since the colt had cost C. Edwin Armstrong of London, Ontario only $19,000. "I liked the way he looked," said Armstrong. But didn't he have a big hock, fat legs and a swollen knee? "Well, yes," Armstrong admitted. "But I bought his heart, not his legs."
Attempts at explaining the speed breakthrough often sound like explanations offered when a lamp is knocked over in the kids' room. The best excuse any of them can come up with is, "The wind must have done it." Hempt and many others know it's not the wind. They also know deep down what one of the major factors is: the modified sulky. But the admission sticks in many throats.
This controversial new piece of equipment (SI, March 29) has been on tracks less than a year. In its various forms it is lighter than the conventional bike. Its fans say that it is balanced better; that it shifts the weight from the front legs of the horse to the rear, thus improving the lifting action, especially of the pacers; that its wind resistance is less and that its wheels track better. There are critics of the modified sulky, most notably Joe O'Brien, a trainer and driver who has almost twice as many career two-minute miles (331) as anyone else. O'Brien says, "It was just coincidence the modified sulky hit this year. It's not the reason for these times." He seldom uses the new bike—and continues to belabor the two-minute mark.
Another driver and trainer, Billy Herman, taps his head and says, "It's psychological. These new bikes give confidence. They make the drivers gamer. A guy will think, 'Hey, this bike will help my horse because it has helped others. So why won't it help me? Why, I'll just roll this turkey right on out and win.' So they fiat leave with him and send him down the road faster than they have ever tried to do before." Billy Haughton, the sport's alltime leading money-winner, is not that keen on the new carts, but he concedes, "If a guy goes past you and he has a modified and you don't, it makes you think."
Stanley Dancer, one of the premier driver-trainers, gives most of the credit for the fast times to the new sulkies "even though I don't like them." Dancer believes they are shaving times as much as two seconds for a given horse, but he wonders about their safety and whether they might be contributing to lameness. In some cases they clearly have produced spectacular results. The great gelding Savoir, now eight, was in a slump this year. So when Haughton's son Peter put a modified sulky on him at Meadowlands not long ago and he won, albeit in 2:01, eyebrows were lifted. Last week Savoir went in 1:58[1/5], his best time since he was three. Says Peter Haughton, "It has just given him a whole new outlook on life. He was so lackadaisical. Now he's chargin' at horses." Another example is Boehm's Eagle, a decent enough horse that had been racing in 2:02 and worse. A modified sulky was attached, and Eagle found the world a cheerier place, dropping suddenly to 1:58.3 and winning good money.