Seventy-eight-year-old Fred Egan sat on a bale of hay in the shade of a tree, brushing aside the questions of reporters with his accustomed pretense of vast irritation. It is a pose Egan assumes as one of the privileges of age, but the ever-present, blue-eyed twinkle gives him away. This was a few hours before the Hambletonian at Du Quoin, Ill. last year, and the reporters wanted to know what chance Egan's filly, Cassin Hanover, had in the big race.
The old man's growls soon chased most of them away, but to a last lingering reporter, Egan winked and beckoned. "Come here, sonny," he said. (The reporter was gray-haired and 42.) "Cassin," Egan said, "is a good, honest mare, but I don't think she can win this afternoon." (She finished fourth.) Egan rose to his erect, trim 6-foot-plus height and led the way to a nearby stall. "But here," he said, "is the reason I'll still be alive and in Du Quoin next year. I'm going to win with this colt in '58."
Inside stood a gangly, attentive animal, all legs and brilliant chestnut coat, a 2-year-old named Gang Awa, Scots for "away and gone," not a bad name for a Hambletonian eligible. Better still, both his sire (Hoot Mon) and his dam (Miss Tilly) are Hambletonian winners, and Hoot Mon's time of two minutes flat, set in 1947, is still the record for this trotting classic. Best of all, probably, is the fact that the colt is in Fred Egan's hands.
Since 1888 Egan has devoted his life to trotting horses, around the clock, day in, day out. Name the important trot, and he's won it at least once—the Hambletonian twice. At the same time, his name means almost nothing to today's new army of harness fans, who began to follow the sport after the war with the advent of nighttime, half-mile-track, pari-mutuel racing. To Egan the half-mile track and racing at night are twin abominations; with the rarest of exceptions, he avoids both. He was bred in the tradition of daylight racing on mile tracks, and that's the way he likes it.
It may be that Egan will win the big race with Gang Awa this year. It is impossible, however, to assess the colt's ability by the record thus far. For Egan, as usual with Hambletonian eligibles, is bringing Gang Awa along slowly and with extreme care, which may well account for the fact that he has yet to win a race of any importance this year. He has the breeding and the look of a champion, and the goal is peak performance on August 27, not a day before. Only Egan and his assistant trainer and driver, Flick Nipe (a mere lad of 64), really know how well Gang Awa is measuring up to his training schedule, and they're not talking.
If Gang Awa fails to live up to Egan's expectations, the old man has another entry whom many rate even higher than the colt—a bay filly named Emily's Pride, with speed and consistency apparently the equal of any of the eligibles. Emily's 2:00 2/5 mile on July 23, which won the Flora Temple Filly Stake at Vernon, was a double surprise—in itself as the fastest trotting mile of the season, and in the fact that Egan would so extend a Hambletonian horse that early in the year. Possibly surprised himself at the clocking, Egan rested Emily until the filly stake at Springfield, Ill., August 12. She won both heats there, literally breezing, with one final quarter in 28 and the other in 29. The only question remaining about Emily can't be answered until Hambletonian day. How well can she do against colts who will force her every step of the way and not allow her to make her own race?
Despite all the foregoing, the trotter that all the entries, including Egan's, have to beat is a chunky, dead-game colt named Sharpshooter, trained and driven by Harry Pownall, another youngster at 55. Through a long (32 starts) 2-year-old campaign last season, during which he was sore-legged most of the time, Sharpshooter repeatedly finished fast miles with under-29-second final quarters, the mark not only of speed and stamina but of the heart to come on when the going is toughest. In the close-quartered, all-out conditions of the most important race in any trotter's career, and a race in which the eventual winner will likely have to go three mile heats within a few hours, the courage that refuses to be drained away by exhaustion can be decisive. Surely Sharpshooter has it, and more. His temper is easy and his manners without flaw. To some it was surprising to see this consistent colt break stride at the start of the Yonkers Futurity earlier this month, and they sought explanation in the fact that Sharpshooter was making his first start after a month's recuperation from a virus. This is not the case. The Futurity is a mile-and-a-sixteenth race, with the start immediately after the stretch turn. As the starting gate wheels around the turn, the outside horses are trotting smartly, while the pole horse is practically marking time, and the gate snaps away before he can get into full stride. Sharpshooter had the pole and broke, not extraordinary conduct under the circumstances. He had won four straight starts up to the Futurity, and his performance at Springfield last week (close second and third in two heats) indicates that he will be ready on August 27. Smallest of the entries, nearly black though he is registered as dark brown, he should be the trackside favorite to bring Owner Roland Harriman his second Hambletonian victory, a deserved tribute to the Harriman family's long devotion to the harness sport.
Two colts who have done everything asked of them thus far and must therefore rate as contenders are Dana Cameron's McColby and Bob Camper's Spunky Hanover. McColby has been first, second or third in his last 12 starts, including a heat victory at Springfield that featured a 27 last quarter. Good manners and consistency alone earn him an in-the-money bet at Du Quoin. With the breaks, he could win. Little attention was paid to Spunky early in the year, but his steady improvement, climaxed by an easy victory in the Futurity at Yonkers, forced his recognition. However, since the Yonkers triumph was clouded when both his chief rivals broke stride and lost much ground, there must still be some doubt about Spunky's ability to accept and overcome repeated challenges over distance. This is especially pertinent since he has had practically no mile-track experience, and it is on such tracks, with their long straightaways, that sustained challenges try a horse to the utmost.
Biggest disappointment among the eligibles is Frank Ervin's Mix Hanover, whose brilliant early-season form as a 2-year-old established him as a Hambletonian favorite more than a year before the event. Repeated sickness and soreness since then have been a severe handicap, and the end of these troubles is apparently not in sight. He could do no better than fourth in each heat at Springfield and did not appear especially sharp or happy even when he raced at that speed. Perhaps it is only the memory of his potential that wins him consideration here.
Respect for a great trainer and supreme tactical driver demands inclusion of Great Lullwater. Del Miller surprised all the experts by winning one heat of the most recent Hambletonian test with this so-so colt; in 2:01 3/5. But the giveaway is that, as he admits, he also surprised himself, and the feeling here is that Miller "stole" the race, a feeling borne out by the fact that he was about eight lengths ahead at the half. No one will be allowed that kind of early-margin at Du Quoin.
Though there may be no standout horse next week, like Scott Frost in 1955, one thing is certain. Gene and Don Hayes, who did such a memorable job of staging their first Hambletonian last year, will set the scene appropriately. The track, already one of the world's fastest, has been resurfaced and may now be the best anywhere.