After a decade of steady growth in attendance, betting, purse money and the quality of horses, harness racing has opened its 1959 season with the fastest start in history. Yonkers, Santa Anita, Aurora Downs and Rockingham have all witnessed new records which are the result of increased public support and the progress made by the sport's breeders and trainers in producing an ever faster and more stable standardbred.
At Santa Anita's brief (March 13-April 9) meeting, for example, attendance and betting were up more than 10% over the previous year, and eight two-minute miles, a spectacular number, were recorded, climaxed by Widower Creed's victory in 1:57.2 on the final day. Meanwhile, at training camps in Florida, the Carolinas and California, probably the finest crop of 2-year-olds ever bred is being prepared for trotting's richest series of juvenile stakes. For most of these topflight youngsters, the Reading Futurity series, at Laurel in mid-June, is the first target date. Weekly, from then on, the 2-year-old campaign builds to the $300,000 four-event Juvenile Stakes at Yonkers the end of July and on through a dozen other major stakes and futurities which reflect the sport's growing—and laudable—emphasis on colt racing.
Despite such a future heavy with the promise of fine competition—and not forgetting the perennial enthusiasm for traditional events like the Hambletonian and the Little Brown Jug—the single race which probably will draw the most attention this season is a brand-new one, the International at Roosevelt Raceway in New York on August 1. Beginning with its sponsorship of the starting gate, which undoubtedly allowed harness racing to take its biggest forward step, Roosevelt has consistently led in the development of new ideas in trotting. The International is the latest—possibly the best—in a long line. For it, Race Secretary Alden Gray has surveyed the European trotting scene and invited that continent's national champions to compete against U.S. and Canadian champions which will be chosen in June. At present the top trotters from France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Holland are scheduled to arrive in this country about the middle of July to begin training for the race.
JAMIN IS EUROPE'S BEST
Leading this year's foreign entries is the French champion, Jamin, who beat a field of Europeans and the American starters Great Lullwater and Egyptian Princess in the Prix d'Amerique at Vincennes last January. Like most French trotters, Jamin is somewhat larger than American horses, probably because the typical French meeting includes many events raced under saddle and over long distances (a mile and a half), and they have therefore developed a larger-boned, sturdier animal. Del Miller, who drove Great Lullwater in the Prix d'Amerique, believes that Jamin and the Italian champion, Tornese, will trot in under two minutes on some of our better tracks. He also notes that Jamin's driver, Jean Riaud, and other Europeans seldom call on their horses for quick bursts of speed but prefer to drive each race at a fast, steady clip. Most American drivers, of course, lay off the pace and stay close to the rail through much of a race, and then try to come on in the stretch. It will be interesting to see what happens when these contrasting racing styles meet at Roosevelt. Jamin, incidentally, wears ear muffs during a race (see above) because the noise of the crowds apparently disturbs him. He and the other Europeans will have one advantage in the International: it will be raced over a mile and a half, a distance far more familiar to them than to the American entries.
Among the crack 2-year-olds noted previously, one debut is especially anticipated—that of Dancer Hanover, bought last November for $105,000, highest price ever paid for a yearling. His trainer, Stanley Dancer (who is also a member of the six-man syndicate that owns him), plans to enter the colt in a qualifying race at Yonkers within the next three weeks, and the eyes of the harness fraternity will be on him. Both his sire and dam, Adiosand The Old Maid, have certainly proved their ability to produce champions, but Dancer Hanover is the first offspring of this union.
Very few of the trotters and pacers eligible for the Triple Crown in both divisions have seen action as yet. Off their 2-year-old records, it appears that little Joe O'Brien has a good chance of becoming only the third driver to win the Hambletonian and the Jug, if not the other two races in each division. Both his trotter, Brogue Hanover, and his pacer, Meadow Al, started poorly last year but each appeared the best in his class by the end of the season.
The trotters O'Brien will have to beat in the Hambletonian include, at present, Ralph Baldwin's Diller Hanover, who won the most races, and had the fastest record last year; Billy Haughton's pair, Circo and Hickory Pride; and Del Cameron's Newport Dillon. Jimmy Wingfield has a sleeper in Tartan Hanover, who failed to win a single race last year because he broke stride in nearly every start. Jimmy says Tartan has now settled down; if he stays flat and retains his speed, he may be the best of the lot. Johnny Simpson has similar hopes for Ebby Hanover, a $60,000 yearling who was unable to start last year because of lameness but is sound now.
ADIOS DAY IS CONTENDER
Among the pacers, O'Brien's competition will come from Del Miller's Adios Day, alltime money-winning champion for 2-year-olds, who didn't win many first prizes after Meadow Al developed at season's end; Stanley Dancer's speedy but extremely erratic Honick Rainbow; Archie Niles Jr.'s Mainsail, who was very impressive at Lexington last season; and Johnny Simpson's Carloader, who is far from being another Torpid but should help Simpson realize a good season after his miserable luck of last year.
After Emily's Pride won the 1958 Hambletonian for the Grand Old Man of harness racing, Mr. Fred Egan, many of Egan's admirers hoped he might repeat this year with Emily's full sister, Emily's Star. It is, therefore, hardly a pleasure to report that, at this stage anyway, Miss Star shows little of her sister's greatness. Mr. Egan, whose care and patience in training have brought him great success with fillies, will have to work a minor miracle.