It was just a year ago that Johnny Simpson stopped off in Hanover, Pa. with something particular on his mind. He went to the office of Lawrence Sheppard, president of the U.S. Trotting Association and the Hanover Shoe Co., and owner of the country's largest horse-breeding farm. Simpson used to manage the farm for Sheppard and still trains and drives the trotters and pacers that Sheppard sends to the races.
"Boss," Simpson said, "have you ever thought of buying that colt of Mr. Brown's?"
"Yes," Sheppard said, "and never did anything about it. But I hear he hasn't looked too good lately."
"That's right," Simpson said, "but I still think he's as good a 2-year-old trotting colt as I've seen."
"You really want me to get him for you?" Sheppard said.
"Do it now," Simpson said.
Sheppard called Bowman Brown in Harrisburg, where Brown publishes The Harness Horse, a weekly trade magazine.
"Brownie," Sheppard said, "I've got a crazy trainer here who thinks he can do something with that colt of yours. Would you consider selling him?"
"I might," Brown said. "What'll you pay?"
"No," Sheppard said, "we've been friends too long to do business that way. You set a price. If I don't like it, he's yours. No dickering."
"All right," Brown said. "Give me a minute to think."
At this point Archie Mudge, vice-president of Hanover Shoe, walked into Sheppard's office. Sheppard's back was to the door; he didn't see Mudge come in. Mudge didn't know who was on the other end of the line. He couldn't hear Brown's voice, of course; neither could Simpson.
Brown's voice came back.
"Would you pay $15,000?" he said.
"You've just sold yourself a horse," Sheppard said.
"I want in," Mudge announced.
Sheppard put down the phone.
"O.K., Archie," he said. "You're in."
"Fine," Mudge said. "Whom did we buy?"
"Hickory Smoke," Simpson said.
Last week, Sheppard and Mudge stood on the edge of the track near the paddock drawgate in Du Quoin, Ill. and watched Simpson drive Hickory Smoke in the Hambletonian, richest ($111,126) race of the year in trotting. Both men are gray, wiry 50-year-olds; both were as skittish as yearlings under the first feel of a rope. They were out on the track, under a blazing sun, because they couldn't stand the confinement of their grandstand box seats. If permitted, they would have run along behind the field of horses, the better to catch every move. And what they saw that afternoon was a major triumph of the art of training a horse. Twenty-five thousand others watched too, but only a handful could have appreciated what Simpson had done.
In the months, and even weeks, before the race, people would watch Hickory Smoke train or race and say, "That sure doesn't look like a Hambletonian colt, let alone a Hambletonian winner." They were right. He wasn't. But what they didn't realize was that Hickory Smoke was not supposed to be a Hambletonian colt in July or August, or even on August 26. He had to be on August 27 (see SI cover and Preview Aug. 19).
The day before the race Simpson, who would only smile and say nothing when he heard criticism of Hickory Smoke's performance, stood in front of Smoke's stall talking to a reporter.
"This colt is better today than he was last week," he said. "He'll be better tomorrow than he is today. And the chances are he won't be that good next week." Simpson was confident that he had correctly gauged the temperament and ability of his colt through months of patient handling. Smoke was ready for the absolute, peak performance of his career.
That's the way Johnny drove the colt the next day. They were confident drives. In the first heat Simpson was ninth at the half. Up to that point he couldn't have cared less about being shuffled so far back. He wasn't even trotting as close as he could to the horse immediately ahead of him. He had only two concerns and took care of both: he wanted to be sure he would have racing room when he made his move, and he wanted his colt covered up not more than two wide of the rail.
While a succession of horses challenged for the lead, Simpson kept his own pace and was still eighth at the three-quarter pole. He began to move midway through the far turn and rounded into the stretch in third place. Halfway through Du Quoin's magnificent final straightaway, Buckeye Demon, the colt Simpson knew he had to beat, was still in the lead. But then all the ground and energy Simpson had saved by not getting excited and scrambling for the front began to tell-as it had to. Smoke won by his handsome head, but going away, in 2:01 flat.
In the second heat Simpson was again far behind at the half—eighth directly behind Buckeye Demon and two wide. Up front the leaders were setting a fearful pace; they went that half in 59[4/5] seconds.
And right then—with a full half mile to go—Buckeye's driver, Harrison Hoyt, made the decision that may have lost the race for him, and Johnny Simpson surely made the decision that won it. Hoyt pulled out three wide and took off like a shot. If Simpson had gone four wide and fought it out with Buckeye Demon—a desperate temptation—he would have had a tiring horse in the stretch and would almost certainly have been beaten. He didn't go.
As it was, Buckeye made the front by the three-quarter pole. To do it he trotted that quarter in close to 28 seconds. Simpson still held; he held until it seemed to many that it was too late. But he came to the head of the stretch again in third place. He was a full length behind Buckeye Demon, but he looked over at him and at Cassin Hanover, who was between them, and he smiled. He admitted later that he knew then be had them both beaten—with an eighth of a mile to race. Under a firm but hardly frantic hand drive, Hickory Smoke gained ground steadily and won by three-quarters of a length in 2:00[1/5]. He had trotted the second-and fourth-fastest miles in Hambletonian history, but there was still one more to come.
The other two elimination heats had been won by Ralph Baldwin's filly Hoot Song. Now came the race-off between the two, with $48,000 for the winner and $26,000 for the loser.
Of the soundness of Simpson's strategy in the race-off there can be no question. And though some may find fault with Baldwin's, such criticism is highly debatable at best and completely beside the point. Simpson had the stronger, better horse. He led all the way through a slow three-quarters of a mile, kept Baldwin outside through the far turn when he challenged, and won, with speed to spare if needed, by nearly a length. Simpson had worked and planned almost 12 months to get this kind of race from Hickory Smoke. It is a feat that places him among the very top as a trainer of trotting horses.
It cannot go unrecorded here that credit for this Hambletonian—the best-attended and best-staged ever—is due the brothers Gene and Don Hayes, owners of the Du Quoin Fairgrounds. State law prohibited betting during the week of the fair, but the Hayeses still attracted an overflow crowd. They have surely earned the right to keep this classic at Du Quoin for a long, long time.