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Once each year, in the lazy heat of early August, the elm-shaded village of Goshen, N.Y. (pop. 3,311) swells with a meandering crowd of outsiders who move through its narrow streets to a race track that becomes, for the day, the epicenter of the harness racing world. Next Wednesday some 25,000 followers of the trotters will meet at the Good Time track to witness the 30th running of the greatest and richest light harness racing event in America—the $100,000 Hambletonian Stake.
The Hambletonian is the crowning event of a booming sport. Ever since a horse named Yankee trotted to the first accepted record (a mile in 2.59 at Harlem, N.Y.) in 1806, light harness racing has been a favorite American spectacle. Today it is a multi-million dollar business which yearly attracts more than 19,000,000 fans to race tracks and county fairs all over the nation. In New York State alone attendance at harness-horse meetings last year totaled 5,026,168 (more than flat racing) with a pari-mutuel handle of $269,510,458.
GREATEST SIRE NEVER RACED
Goshen was trotting's cradle in America more than 150 years ago. In 1801 an imported thoroughbred named Messenger came to this village via Philadelphia. By some curious phenomenon of nature, he was found to be able to hand down to his descendants the remarkable characteristics of speed at the trotting gait. One of his third generation descendants was a horse named Hambletonian, born in 1849 of what one biographer called, "a rat-tailed, hollow-backed, big-headed, ugly horse by the name of Abdallah."
No beauty himself, Hambletonian made so little impression on his owner that he was sold, together with his mother, for $125. But though he never raced in his life, he turned out to be an extraordinary sire. His get quickly showed themselves to be the fastest trotters afoot. Before he died in 1876 Hambletonian serviced a phenomenal 1,908 mares, getting 1,331 foals and earning immortality as the dominant sire of all time. Ninety-nine percent of all harness horses racing today trace directly to him in the male line. He also earned his owner $200,000 and for himself the distinction of having the great stake named after him.
Luck plays a large part in a race like the Hambletonian. Run off in three or four heats, it is contested over a triangular-shaped track with a very sharp first turn. To win, a horse must be first in two out of three heats. If a different horse wins each heat a fourth heat is run off between the three winners.
This year, unless the favorite Scott Frost makes a clean sweep, it looks as though the trot derby may go the full four heats for the first time since 1934, largely because there are four top horses entered instead of the usual one or two. There will be a smaller field this year, too, due to the fact that only four monies are being offered instead of six.
Essentially the race has to be played the way it unfolds. No preconceived strategy is much good. At the start there is a dash for a good position, preferably the "garden spot" right behind the leading horse. This is the most coveted position because the horse and sulky in front shield the wind.
Then skill takes over. Drivers must "message" their horses over the measured mile, carefully pacing them against time and the distance still to go. As quarter-and half-mile posts flick by, they check a stop watch hidden in the palm of their left hand, making split-second moves and decisions to the time clock.
To enter a horse in the Hambletonian an owner must nominate it as a yearling for a $10 fee; keep it in as a two-year-old by posting $200; post another $250 when it is a three-year-old and pay a $1,000 entrance fee before the race. About 500 horses were nominated for the 1955 Hambletonian, but all except 68 have since dropped out. Of these about 10 will probably start.