Four days before the 31st trotting of the Hambletonian last week, a lean, earnest young man named Ned Bower was out on the track at Goshen, N.Y. for a mile workout behind his colt, The Intruder. At the half-mile mark, Bower glanced at his stop watch and noted that he had traveled the distance in one minute and seven seconds. It was then he decided to see just how fast the leggy, sparely-muscled 3-year-old could go. Under gentle urging (Bower has never used a whip on the colt) The Intruder reached out high and far and took off. He went that second half-mile in 58 seconds, which is about as fast as trotters ever go.
Back at the stables, Bower was feeling pretty good about his chances in the coming race. But he wasn't thinking about the Hambletonian. The Intruder was staked into the Seeger Memorial, which was to be raced the following day. Bower didn't believe it was worth paying the $1,000 Hambletonian starting fee to compete with the cream of the country's 3-year-olds; the considerably slower Seeger field, he felt, was a stiff enough test for The Intruder.
Bower's boss and owner of the stable is Leonard J. Buck, a bluff, lively mining magnate from Far Hills, N.J., who backs his judgment of horses with as substantial a purse as can be found in harness racing. He and Bower debated the matter for a while until he, as bosses will, won. The Intruder would go against 19 other trotters in the Hambletonian.
Long before the first heat, the stable area of Good Time Park was crowded with the curious and the hot-tip seekers. They clustered around the stalls of the favorites—Egyptian Princess and Saboteur—and took long looks at the many dark horses. All alone in front of The Intruder's stall, sitting on a tack trunk and nervously flicking his whip in the dust, Bower fretted away the last hours. To the lone reporter who came to question him, his pessimism was contagious. "This," he said, "is a pretty green colt. He was sick all last year; we didn't race him once. He's won twice in six starts this year, but he still isn't sound. We give him diathermy treatments every day for those back muscles of his that still tie up pretty badly. He's coming along, but how he'll behave in that crowd of 20 horses is anybody's guess."
Tugging at the cap he always wears to conceal his premature baldness, Bower left with The Intruder for his first warmup mile.
While Ned Bower fretted around the stable, two people sitting in the main grandstand and watching the tote board were coming to a slow boil. David and Alice Johnston had brought their trotter Valiant Rodney up from Charlotte, N.C. and were furious at the lack of confidence being shown in him.' The Johnstons, wealthy textile millowners, had never placed a bet on any of the dozens of trotters they have raced over the past seven years, but as he watched Valiant Rodney go from 20 to 25 to 1, Dave Johnston could not contain himself. "I'm going down and put $50 on him to win," he announced grimly. "Couldn't you just make it $25?" was as far as Alice went in trying to stop him.
Valiant Rodney won the first heat of the Hambletonian and paid $60.30. The Intruder finished 11th. A half hour , later, the reporter found Dave Johnston wandering around under the stands looking for the window where they paid off. He led him to it and counted the 14 $100, five $20 and seven $1 bills as they slid under the grille. Dave had bet the $50. ,
At this point, Ned Bower was hardly as pleased as Dave Johnston, but he seemed, oddly, to be pleased about something as he relaxed in the paddock between heats. Yes, he'd finished well back, but twice in that first heat he'd been forced to bring The Intruder to a complete halt as sulkies bunched up in front of him. In between stops, the colt had trotted beautifully. Ned Bower, as an 11th-place loser, was beginning to feel he had a chance.
Minutes later, many others did too, as Bower drove a magnificent second heat. Making the rail early, he clung to it grimly, stayed covered up all the way into the stretch and brought The Intruder thundering down the middle to beat Egyptian Princess at the wire. Valiant Rodney was third.
The third and deciding heat may have been the best-raced of all, but it was also something of an anticlimax for Ned Bower, who now knew he belonged in this company. He followed his second-heat pattern all the way, was seventh at the head of the stretch but a length in front at the finish.
Bower's two-out-of-three victories brought him 10% of the winning purse of $59,155.15 in this $100,000-plus Hambletonian. It was a substantial birthday present for this mild, pleasant athlete from Ravenna, Ohio; six hours after he crossed the finish line in the third heat, he turned 33.
But his day's work was worth much more to Ned Bower. A Hambletonian winner, especially one of his age and ability, does not want for superior horses for many years afterward. And Leonard Buck is undoubtedly the man to buy them for him.
There are also intangibles. After the last winning heat, a huge crowd of reporters, photographers and general well-wishers surrounded Bower out on the track in front of the grandstand. Through it, a pink-cheeked young lady of 12, dressed in her party best for Hambletonian Day, pushed her way to the driver's side and held up her program. "Would you sign this, please, Mr. Bower?" she said.
She was the first to ask Ned Bower for his autograph. There will be many more, on other days.