Mr. Fred Egan had a stiff belt of Old Forester from a coffee mug and walked from his barn to the track to watch the Hambletonian. "Come on, boy," he said to the gray-haired reporter accompanying him, "let's see who wins."
At 78, erect, sturdy'and clear-eyed, Egan (SI, Aug. 25) is a monument to the health-giving properties of bourbon whisky and the profession of horse trainer. Last fall, on his 78th birthday, he had driven a filly named Cassin Hanover to victory in the rich Kentucky Futurity and promptly quit driving in races. But he was still, as he had been for more than half a century, perhaps the best trainer of colts in the business.
All those years, too, Egan has represented the finest traditions of harness racing, which mean, simply, devotion to the horse as a sporting animal rather than an instrument for public betting. This last pursuit, over recent decades, has served the useful purpose of introducing millions of Americans to trotting but has also tended to reduce it to a nighttime, pari-mutuel crap game.
NO BETTING ON RACE
As he walked to the track, Egan could reflect with pride on the enduring traditions. For here in Du Quoin, Illinois, a hundred miles from any city of size, more than 30,000 people were streaming into the Fairgrounds—just to watch a horse race. There is no betting at Du Quoin.
Egan was dressed for the occasion—the climactic race of the year—in high-button shoes, faded blue shirt and baggy, cuffless trousers held up by well-worn galluses. No tie, no coat. No attempt to suggest he was anything but a horse trainer.
He had two horses in the race, one a filly named Emily's Pride, the other a colt named Gang Awa. Emily is a plain Jane among these finely bred animals, long-faced and flat-necked, with ears that stand out a little too far to be fashionable, and hips and shoulders that stick out at odd angles. Gang Awa was the handsomest colt on the track, a brilliant chestnut with near-perfect conformation. Thus far in the season, however, Emily was easily the better race horse, winning eight of 12 starts, while Gang Awa had won one in 11. But the chestnut was still Fred Egan's favorite, perhaps because he posed the bigger problem.
For two years Egan had been pointing Gang Awa for this one race, patiently training him for a single performance. And all had been well until early this summer. A combination of bad weather and a slight indisposition had kept Gang Awa away from the races for a month and upset Egan's schedule. This was bad enough, but the colt's first race after the layoff was the real blow. Gang Awa had been parked outside all the way, had been forced to punish himself in a losing cause when he was not ready for such exertion. Ever since, not unreasonably, the sight of the long homestretch at the end of a tough race had discouraged him. Either he wouldn't try, or he couldn't.
After he explained this, Egan answered the important question, which was: After a horse loses heart, can you ever put it back in him? The answer was a slow, worried shrug.
There was a question about Emily, too. All season she had trotted away from other fillies with ease, but could she stand off the repeated challenges of colts who would be coming at her every step of the way in the Hambletonian?
To bring him the answers to these questions, Egan had hired Johnny Simpson to drive Gang Awa and had given the reins to Emily's Pride to his assistant trainer, Flick Nipe who, at 64, would be driving in his first big race. Simpson, last year's Hambletonian winner behind Hickory Smoke, is a superb driving tactician; he would certainly bring Gang Awa through the 14-horse field in good position to show, at the stretch, whether he had the heart to win. Flick, trying hard to pretend this was just another race and not the opportunity of a lifetime, could be counted on to give Emily her chance against the colts.
Egan took his accustomed place on the track in the dust of the paddock turn where horse trainers watch races, and waited. "I'm nervous, boy," he said. "We should have brought along that bottle." He stood for The Star-Spangled Banner and watched the parade of Hambletonian horses led by oldtime champion Pronto Don, who pulled a high-wheeled sulky of the type that passed out of style around the turn of the century. Fred Egan was probably the only man present ever to have driven such a sulky in a trotting race.
In the first heat of the Hambletonian, one of Fred Egan's questions got a clear answer. Johnny Simpson brought Gang Awa to the head of the homestretch in the middle of the track, clear of other horses and with an open shot at the finish line. He was sixth—and that's where he finished. Simpson came to Egan, and the old man's eyes asked the question. "You want the truth, Fred?" Simpson said. Egan nodded grimly, well aware of what he would hear. "He just wouldn't go after those lead horses," Simpson said. Gang Awa was finished for the afternoon, and Fred Egan knew it.
His personal favorite was through, but his filly was something else again. Flick Nipe had taken Emily to the front before the quarter pole, and she stayed there all the way, trotting as if it were a morning workout. At the top of the stretch, she had yet to be challenged seriously, and Flick Nipe came home looking behind him, saving Emily for the next heat. She did it so easily that it appeared that all the other drivers were also saving their horses—until you looked at the time. It was 2:00⅕ just [1/5] of a second off the Hambletonian record. Emily had the speed, all right, and if there was still doubt about her ability to fight off challenges, what difference did that make? Who in that field would ever get close enough to challenge her?
Well, it turned out in the next heat that all the other horses in the race would get that chance. Though she started from the No. 1 post position, Emily could not make the top at the first turn, and she had horses all around her. Sharpshooter, a spunky, determined colt driven by Harry Pownall, took the lead, and Flick tucked in right behind him. For most horses, this is the best spot on the track; someone else is obliged to set the pace and cut the wind. But Emily would have none of it. She fought to go out and around Sharpshooter and get up front in familiar territory, and Flick couldn't let her. Another horse was ranging up alongside. In the struggle down the backstretch Emily slammed her foot into the wheel of Sharpshooter's sulky and went off stride. In the resulting jam-up, other horses also broke (including Gang Awa), and one of the tires on Sharpshooter's sulky went flat. To all real purpose, the heat was over for Emily. She finished 12th. Joe O'Brien brilliantly threaded the maze of breaking horses with Little Rocky and hung on to win. There would have to be a third heat to decide the winner of the Hambletonian.
Egan watched all this without a sound or trace of expression, motionless in the dust. "Come on, boy," he finally said to the reporter, "this time I really need a drink."
They walked the long way back to the deserted barn area, Egan had his drink and they walked back—all of it in silence broken only by one sentence from Egan. "She'll be all right," he said. It was said flatly. He was sure. Because of where she had finished in the last heat, Emily would have 12th post position next time; she would have to come around a lot of horses to make the top, but Egan was sure she could do it. The question of her gameness would finally be answered.
A RECORD MILE
In the deciding heat, the lead changed hands three times over the first three-quarters of a mile. The shuffling on the backstretch was like a mad square dance as horses moved in, out and sideways in the field. Through all of it, Emily's Pride was two or three wide, far from the comforting presence of the rail, under the strain and pressure of all-out competition coming at her. She took it until just before the three-quarter pole, when Flick decided to find out the ultimate answer to the question. He called on her, and Emily didn't even hesitate. She had gone one blistering mile, one discouraging mile and was just finishing the toughest three-quarters of her life—but she was ready. Around the paddock turn she opened up yards of light over the field and came into the stretch trotting in high spirits, when she had every right to be exhausted. It is a fact that if Flick had wanted to push her, she would have won by several lengths. As it was, she sailed through the stretch until yards from the finish, when she easily handled a last challenge by Ralph Baldwin's game but outclassed Sandalwood. Even so, the time was 1:59⅘ a new record for the Hambletonian.
As the postrace uproar began, with photographers, reporters and assorted dignitaries jamming the track and the winner's circle, Fred Egan headed for the nearest exit. He had his answers. Speeches and flowers and trophies were for the owners and drivers of horses, not him.
"Fred," said the reporter, "you just can't get away with this. You've got to go up there and take your medicine. Come on, boy."
"I hate all that fuss," said Egan. "I'm hungry. Get me out. of here or I'll go myself."
So the reporter got some help and shoved the old man into a waiting jeep that took him through the crowd on the track and up to the winner's circle. There in his faded shirt and galluses, surrounded by pretty girls and flowers and a few horse-owning millionaires, Egan heard himself extolled by the governor of Missouri and other speechmakers. He took it as long as he could, slipped away at the first chance and was soon driving away from the track in search of peace and a steak.
As the car rolled along in quiet, it was hard not to ask this silent, thoughtful old man what it was like, at 78, to achieve the greatest triumph of a memorable career. Out of respect and to avoid "fuss," the question was never asked, but Egan sensed it was there, hanging in the silence.
"Well, boy," he said, "all that's left now is to eat and sleep and wait to die."
Don't believe it. He said it with a twinkle, not a sigh. A good bet is that he was thinking of a frail little 2-year-old filly of his named Emily's Star. Emily's Star was in the stall next to her big sister, Emily's Pride, on Hambletonian Day. She couldn't have missed all the hoopla that followed her sister's winning the big race. If it hasn't occurred to her how nice it would be to be the center of attraction in Du Quoin next year, it has to Fred Egan.