Delaware County, Ohio is honest farm country and its annual four-day fair offers the usual quilting bees, sheepshearing competitions and displays of homemade jam. But the lure that will bring some 35,000 to Delaware next week is the Derby of the pacing world, the Little Brown Jug race that will crown one 3-year-old king of his age and gait.
Next week's tenth renewal of the Jug shapes up as a closely contested race for an odd reason: the one horse who seems well superior to all others is a creature of stubborn, quirky habits. His name is Quick Chief.
He should like the track at Delaware, a half-mile affair that is close to being a circle. For the sight of a long straightaway in front of him seems to depress Quick Chief; he races far better on a half-mile track, with its shorter stretches, than he does on a mile track—exactly the reverse of what is true for most harness horses. But two of the Chief's other peculiarities may well cancel out this advantage. First is his dislike of racing behind other horses. No feasible restraint or outside post position keeps him from coming away from the gate determined to head the field by the first turn or as soon thereafter as possible. Since he has the speed to do it, he accomplishes this with remarkable consistency. Unfortunately, it often takes a lot out of him and thereby compounds the difficulty into which the second quirk leads him. This is his refusal, after he hits top speed, to be rated off it and hold back some energy for a final brush to the wire. He tries to go as fast as he can for as long as he can, gradually slowing down and pacing the last quarter slower than the previous three—again, the exact opposite of harness-horse form. In dash events this willful behavior has not been much of a handicap to him: this year he has won 10 of his 15 starts, including the rich Cane Futurity. But the Jug is another matter since, like the Hambletonian (harness racing's equivalent race for trotters), it is run off in heats. To win, a horse may have to go four separate miles, with only about an hour's rest between each, and a colt that refuses to be rated may have little left for that final, payoff dash. (The Jug winner must be first in two heats. If a different horse wins each of the first three, the winners are brought back for a fourth deciding mile.)
Quick Chief's trainer and driver, Billy Haughton, will have all this in mind as the field is led to the starting line by the mobile gate. Haughton, a husky 31-year-old with a sandy crew cut, quick smile and quiet manner that belies his daring in the sulky, has worked hard on the Chief's stubborn ways to no avail. And if anyone could change them, it is Haughton who, in seven busy years in big-time racing, has proved his skill convincingly. Since 1949 horses he has trained and driven have won more than $2 million; for the past three years he has been the sport's leading money-winning driver; for the past two, he has been the leading dash winner. Billy's chances of taking home the winner's share of the purse would seem to depend on his bringing Quick Chief in the winner of the first two heats. If he doesn't, the colt may have lost enough of his speed for any one of several horses to catch him.
The Chief's closest rival this year, though beaten by him seven out of the 11 times they have met, is Libby's Boy, who would have been a second choice in the race. However, Libby's Boy is a converted trotter and ineligible for the Jug. If it is not Quick Chief, therefore, the winner is literally anybody's guess, with Meadow Ace, a son of the great Adios, possibly shading the rest of the field. For those who pick horse-race winners by their names, one entry—Acres of Diamonds—is surely the standout.
Although the Jug is a fairly new race in the sport's 150-year history, it assumes increasing importance each time it is run. The reason for this is that it is far easier to develop a pacing colt than a trotter: instead of spending long hours conditioning a colt to stay on the trotting gait as he stretches out his speed, a trainer merely puts hopples on the colt and makes him a pacer. The hopples, which are leather straps encircling the horse's legs on each side, tend to keep him on gait, lessening his chances of breaking stride and thereby being virtually eliminated from contention in a race. The result has been that many more pacers than trotters come to the races each year. In 1947 the numbers were practically equal; last year there were 50% more pacers than trotters. And the significance of the Jug has grown proportionately. If the current trend to pacing continues on the country's leading pari-mutuel tracks, it is entirely possible that the Little Brown Jug may one day become the Kentucky Derby of the harness world, rather than sharing that distinction, as at present, with the Hambletonian.