As the rains lashed the Saratoga track for two days before the 52nd running of the Hopeful, there was more than the usual amount of excitement among owners of the best 2-year-olds in the East still in training. This, as everyone knew, was the biggest test so far: the first time any 2-year-olds in the country would have to go six and a half furlongs. Furthermore, nobody had to be reminded of Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe's words: "That Saratoga mud has dropped many a champion."
It looked as if the Hopeful would seem more like seven furlongs to most of the seven starters who represented the survivors of an original roster of 302 eligible horses, and nobody yet knew which colts could go the distance even under ideal conditions.
Almost nobody knew, that is. At barn 25, the morning before the race, Leonard Hunt, the diminutive man with a broad smile who trains King Hairan for the partnership of Leo Edwards and Harry B. Massey, sat in judgment as the stable hands put the big brown colt (by King's Stride out of Lady Hairan by Hairan) back in his stall. "Nobody can tell me he isn't a champion," said Hunt. "Some people are making a lot of the fact that we lost twice to Bold Ruler. Well, to tell the truth, I think he was a little short both times. Now I'm only sorry that Bold Ruler isn't in the Hopeful—because we're ready for him and everybody else."
King Hairan was certainly ready for everything within sight last Saturday. So confident, in fact, was Trainer Hunt that, as the field entered the starting gate, he turned around in his box to announce to Co-owners Edwards and Massey, "I figure he'll do it in just about 1:18 2/5." Massey, a prosperous Pittsburgh Buick dealer with a second home in Miami, nodded politely. Hunt looked for some response from Leo Edwards, the former chairman of the Florida State Racing Commission. But Edwards had vanished, and the field was off. In no time at all Edward P. Taylor's Nearctic was barreling off to a four-length lead, followed by King Hairan and then Greentree Stable's Cohoes. They kept this order until Arcaro sent King Hairan to the front at the quarter pole, and from that moment on the race was all but settled. Nearctic bore out and stopped quite badly in the stretch and, while Cohoes was maneuvering to avoid him, Walter M. Jeffords' Gannet shot up along the rail to take second place a length and a quarter behind King Hairan. Cohoes was third. The time—wouldn't you know it—was exactly 1:18 2/5.
As they summoned the winners for the presentation ceremony, the elusive Leo Edwards made a reappearance at trackside. He explained apologetically: "I get so nervous at the sight of watching my horses run that I've never seen King Hairan race. When they go into the gate I've got to get away from everything. Sometimes I go for a walk. Today I went under the stands and had a beer."
It had been a great day for the King Hairan camp. A great day, too, for the state of Florida, which has now sent out two consecutive Florida-breds to win the Hopeful (the 1955 winner: Needles). "It was King Hairan's best race by far," said Trainer Hunt.
Co-owner Edwards, who had gone for a glass of champagne in the trustees' room, was by now all smiles. "King Hairan has now won a Maiden and eight stakes [and $189,575 in purses to his purchase price of $36,000] in 12 starts. If that isn't a wonderful job of training, I don't know what is." He looked around him happily and added "As a matter of fact, I've decided that the next time he runs I'll forget about my beer. I think I'd like to watch him race. He must be good."
The four-week Saratoga meeting, which ended on Hopeful day, was a tremendous success. Attendance was up about 8% over 1955's figures, and the mutuel handle went up some 10%. In 1957 this phase of the GNYA's operation has a good chance to break even.
The men who control racing in the state of New York want Saratoga to keep running for a long time to come. Last week three of the GNYA's top executives—Boylston A. Tompkins, Walter M. Jeffords and Christopher T. Chenery—bought new homes in Saratoga. Do you suppose they bought them just to come up and take the baths?