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The horse on the trot—high-Stepping, mane flashing, tail flying—is surely one of the more esthetically satisfying spectacles in sport, on a par with a crosscourt backhand off the tennis racket of Ken Rosewall or a fast break on the basketball court paced by Bob Cousy. It follows that a field of 15 of the purest bred and most meticulously trained trotters skimming the surface of a fast mile track in competition for a $100,000 prize is a sight to bring a rush of gladness to the heart, blood to the head and money to the mutuel machines. This then is the Hambletonian, premiere event of the year in trotting, which will be raced at Du Quoin, Ill., Tuesday, August 27.
Since 1930, with one wartime year exception, this climactic trot for 3-year-olds has been staged at Goshen, N.Y., a few miles from the farm where the great Hambletonian stood at stud in the middle years of the 19th century and established himself as the dominant sire of all time, with nine out of 10 of today's harness horses tracing directly to him in the male line. This year's move to Du Quoin was one result of the current war between the United States Trotting Association and New York Commissioner George Monaghan (SI, April 29, 1957). And there are reasons to believe that it will stay in Du Quoin for a long time. Don and Gene Hayes, squires of the Hayes Fair Acres and impresarios of the Du Quoin State Fair, have put together a schedule of sport, spectacle and general hoopla for Hambletonian Week that should make it impossible for another move even to be considered in the foreseeable future. They offer the race as but one item—albeit the feature—of a round of cattle shows, midway rides, auto races, water ski exhibitions (on the oval lagoon in the track's center field), and they stage vaudeville galas starring such as Guy Mitchell, the Mills Brothers, Joni James and the Four Aces. In short, a county fair Hollywood-style and a fine horse race to boot.
A paradox of this year's Hambletonian is the fact that it may produce a new record, though there is not a single truly outstanding horse in the field comparable to, say, Scott Frost two years ago. Hoot Mon's 1947 mark of two minutes flat may fall for two reasons: the track at Du Quoin is much faster than Goshen's ever was; and with the race coming off three weeks later than usual it will result in "readier" horses, most with at least two additional major stakes to their credit. The extra training will help, too.
As occasionally happens in important horse races, the betting favorite will by no means be the sentimental one. The latter is Cassin Hanover, and not because this fine filly is a daughter of Hoot Mon. Cassin has been trained and will be driven by Fred Egan, whose Emerald Isle green silks have been flashing around trotting tracks for more than 50 years. Egan is now 77 and is determined to become the oldest driver to win this event. (Bi Shively was 74 when he won with Sharp Note in 1952). Earlier this season it appeared that "the old man and his mare" might have a good chance at the top prize, but Cassin has been disappointing in her last few outings, including one at Vernon Downs two weeks ago when she was soundly beaten in a race with other Hambletonian eligibles. Oddly enough, however, this may be the stage setting for a remarkable coincidence. In 1949, Egan was prepping Miss Tilly for the Hambletonian and was trounced both a month and a week before the event, but came on to win it in straight heats and in record time for a filly. Cassin and the veteran Egan may be only emotional favorites, but they must not be counted out completely.
Despite some bad breaks which have caused inconsistent performances, Hickory Smoke, trained and driven by Johnny Simpson (see cover), is still the horse to beat. Simpson did not send Smoke to the races until comparatively late in the season, obviously aiming the colt for this one event, a trick at which Johnny is an expert. Smoke's one serious flaw, a tendency to bear in on turns, should not handicap him to any appreciable extent on the wide sweeps and long stretches of a mile track. His occasional lapses into stride-breaking this year were practically all the result of near or actual accidents, one of which brought him to his knees and bruised both shins. Simpson says the colt is sound, however, and in such condition he has the best collection of physical attributes—speed, manners, stamina—to surmount the many difficulties presented by a typical Hambletonian field.
These all have to do with the number of post-time entries—15 seems a good guess this year—which multiplies the likelihood that racing luck will play a larger than usual part in the outcome. The size of the field means that the horses will start in two tiers, eight behind the starting gate and the remainder behind them—the No. 9 horse behind No. 1, and so on. There is simply no question but that the second-tier horses are under a handicap right at the start—with two possible exceptions. If the No. 1 horse leaves fast, the No. 9 horse is then in perfect position to stay right behind him and go into the first turn well tucked in in second place—an ideal spot for most trotters. The other possible beneficiary is the extreme outside horse in the second tier. In the event of a jam-up in the center of the track before the turn is reached, this outside horse has the best chance to go wide around the field without slowing down.
After the start, the crowded track will continue to take its toll of racing strategy, with drivers exerting much of their effort in trying to stay out of trouble rather than in planning possible moves. The smartest driver and speediest colt may be three or four lanes wide for much of the race, and thus forced to travel farther than all the other horses. Conversely, they may find themselves locked in tight on the rail all the way, with never an opportunity to use either speed or savvy. These and other problems exist in a normal eight-horse field, of course, but to a much lesser degree. The only entry for whom a Hambletonian poses no such difficulties is the colt who 1) draws an inside, first-tier position, 2) can leave the gate at top speed, 3) can maintain it practically all the way. The first two conditions are reasonable enough, but the third—especially when added to the second—is really too much to expect of any 3-year-old.
All of which may help explain why only twice in the past 10 years has the prerace favorite won the Hambletonian, though in all fairness there is another side to this coin. Many owners and trainers aim their colts toward peak performance in this race, with its excellent purse and the immense prestige which goes with winning the Derby of trotting. They bring their charges along so carefully (one might almost add secretly) that on Hambletonian day it is conceivable that literally no one, and that includes the driver, knows exactly how good the horse really is. The surprise long-odds winner is a surprise to his own driver.
One driver who will not be surprised if he's first at Du Quoin—though a great many experts will be—is Billy Haughton. This young man of 33 has won more money than any other driver in harness racing for five years in a row, and more races for the last four years in a row. In that time, he has stuffed his trophy case with just about every cup, bowl and silver tea service offered on the Grand Circuit as well as the nighttime tracks. But he has not won a Hambletonian. This year he will be driving an erratic little filly named Flicka Frost, and almost no one but Billy will concede she has a real chance. Billy goes further. With any kind of a fair break in post position and the subsequent action, he thinks he can win. Considering the usual reluctance of horsemen even to discuss their own entry's chances, this amounts to wild optimism.
You could compile quite a list of things that are wrong with Flicka—and those same experts will help you. She will break stride at the start of a race, and any other time she doesn't care for the requests her driver makes of her. She has her own ideas about how to go her race. But one thing she has—beyond dispute—and that is blazing speed. In the past month, while Haughton has been occupied elsewhere, she has been worked and handled in races by several other drivers, including Del Miller, possibly the most expert manager of problem horses in the business. She still has her speed and, if her manners have improved sufficiently, she could easily become the newest long-shot Hambo winner.