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Everything, it seems, conspired to make the texture of this year's Hambletonian rich, varied, pleasurable and apple-pie American. The weather was ideal—hot, as southern Illinois always is in August, but quite bearable in the sun and cool in the shade of lofty pin oak trees. A city dweller looked gratefully upon neat, red-trimmed white stables and varicolored racing tack strewn beneath stableside awnings; upon the horseshoer's clangorous, rustic tent; upon the pleasant bustle of livestock show rings and an old-fashioned carnival midway; and upon the droll antics of George Burns and Carol Channing, stars of an open-air show.
The race itself was a dandy, as everyone knew it would be when post positions were announced. Rarely had the best horses drawn so poorly. Five were to start in the second tier, behind a front row 10 sulkies wide, and each of the five trailers was a possible winner. The Viking drew the outside 15th spot; Impish, fastest trotter at 2 in harness history, was two places inside of him; and Spry Rodney, another brilliant filly, was next inside Impish. Spry was stuck behind a slow, forgettable beast named Dubble T.—a somewhat frivolous entry—and Spry's driver, Del Miller, fumed that he'd have to get a fiber-glass pole to vault over this probable roadblock.
Two other sharp fillies, Sprite Rodney and Worth Seein, drew posts 5 and 7. Between them was Joe O'Brien's swift but unsound colt Safe Mission. The miserable 10th post on the extreme outside of the first tier went to Isaac.
"I can't accurately say what's going to happen at the start," mused Mr. Russell, leaning on his crutches in the paddock. "Luckily we drew in behind one of the best leavers, Sprite Rodney, and that should help us. My horse worked a fine mile last week in 2:00 4/5. He just eats, rests and trots. He's a good athlete, and he lets me do the driving."
Because the veteran Frank Ervin trains both Impish and Sprite Rodney and undoubtedly thought Impish the better filly, there was speculation that he might have Eddie Wheeler, up behind Sprite, choke her back at the start to give Russell trouble right away. But no such hanky-panky occurred.
As the starting gate's wide white wings folded, Sprite was away flying, with the Viking right with her. Russell had his big Hoot Mon colt tucked neatly against the rail, up near the front, as the field swung into the first turn. He didn't have to pull out again until deep into the stretch at the eighth pole. Some thought he might never be able to get out. But, as Russell said later, the Viking "found a little place to get his nose through, and then here he come."
And how! Fifth when he began to move, the Viking swung three horses wide and murdered the others with great ground-devouring strides, winning the heat by 1� lengths in the extremely fast time of 1:59 3/5. Safe Mission finished second, ahead of Impish, who had been in front for most of the heat but was laboring at the wire. She had not raced for five weeks and probably was short, as horsemen say.
Russell did not risk being pinned to the rail in the second heat. After racing in fifth place to the half he pulled out, went two horses wide in the turn and again got from the Viking a stunning stretch drive. This time Simpson slipped through along the rail with Isaac, closed with astonishing power but ran out of track. It was the Viking in 2:00 flat, by the shortest of heads.
Meeting at Du Quoin the day after the race, The Hambletonian Society voted to postpone until October 21 a decision on where to hold the stake in 1964 and afterward. Gene and Don Hayes, who have staged it with style and beauty at their Du Quoin fair since 1957, will have the race again next year at least. They deserve to keep it for many more.