As a horse race, the final leg of the $75,000 American Trotting Classic at Hollywood Park last week was a real thriller. But as theater it proved to have a bad script.
For one thing, the fadeout had no hero. The wrong horse, in a sense, got kissed. And the plot was still hanging from a cliff.
There were seven horses entered in this, supposedly the deciding heat of the rich race. But only two of them got top billing: Jamin, the beautiful French standardbred whose class had told even 6,000 miles from home; and Senator Frost, the $4,000 bargain who grew up into the U.S.'s most valuable piece of trotting horseflesh.
Jamin, with his elegant French trainer-driver Jean Riaud, le beau, had become a great favorite with the California fans. He had won the first leg of the staggered-heat classic on October 24 with ease when Senator Frost broke stride at a critical point in the mile run. He had finished second to the Senator in the second leg on October 31 when he failed to take advantage of the rail. For the third encounter on November 11, Jamin drew the rail, and Senator Frost the outside position, and harness fans settled back for the race of the year. As Riaud climbed into his sulky in the paddock, his officer's boots gleaming and a gold tassel atop his black cap, the crowd shouted encouragement in high school French and fractured English.
"Arise, France!" shouted one emotional partisan.
Frost's backers retorted, "Show him, Senator!"
But in the end France fell and the Senator yielded. Little noticed before the race was a 5-year-old dowager of the harness track, the mare Charming Barbara, who only happened to be the defending champion in this particular race, having won it in 1958. Her incumbency impressed the crowd not at all, and they sent her away at 17 to 1. The bettors were voting heavily for the Senator (who went off at 4 to 5) and sentimentally for Jamin (5 to 2).
Drawing the rail proved the undoing of Riaud, or, more correctly, Jamin. A true mile-and-a-quarter or mile-and-a-half horse, the étranger was in an unenviable position. As a distance specialist, he had to either a) sprint and try to steal the mile race on the front end, or b) lay back and face the risk of Senator Frost crossing quickly over to the rail and on to a runaway win.
Riaud elected to take the track and try to trot away from the speed at the start. He succeeded in keeping Senator Frost off the rail—and out of the winner's circle. But he also succeeded in setting up the race for the lesser horses, and at the finish it was two of them—Trader Horn and Charming Barbara—who were fighting it out.
Jamin flew out of the start for a first quarter of 29 flat, the half in 57.3 and seven furlongs in 1:43.1 (the listed world record for this rarely raced distance, set in 1925, is 1:46¼). It was like starting an evening with five double Martinis. Experts knew it couldn't last.
One of the experts was Trader Horn's driver, Joe O'Brien. Another was Charming Barbara's trainer-driver, Billy Haughton. In the stretch Jamin had killed off Senator Frost by a simple rule of geometry; keeping the Senator from passing him had the effect of keeping the Senator parked out where he had to trot in a concentric circle around the field, a perimeter considerably longer than the inside horses'. The Senator was a-lame duck before the eighth pole, and he finished sixth. But Trader Horn snagged Jamin at about the same time, and just at the finish Charming Barbara, in full trot and flying down the track, shot past both for the win.
Billy Haughton was the least surprised man at the track: "I knew we had a real chance in this one. In the first leg she lost a shoe at the three-eighths pole and went barefoot the rest of the way and still took fourth. In the second she lost four lengths on the turn and was beaten only by two and a half. In this one they were going too fast—which was making it all the better for me. I knew they had to let up someplace." He was least worried about Jamin, he said. "I didn't think we could beat Senator Frost," he confessed. "The other horse confused me. Those foreign drivers never drive two races the same way, and I didn't know what he was up to. But whatever it was, he was up to it too fast."
The impeccable Jean Riaud was gallant in defeat and gracefully accepted the blame for not winning. When Haughton phoned Charming Barbara's owner, Long Island potato grower John Froehlich, Riaud picked up the mouthpiece to add his congratulations: "'Alio, 'allo. Congratulations, sair. Your mare ran a very good race, but I still s'ink, 'How did you ween?' How much did you make? $12,000. Bon, bon. I s'ink you can give me $6,000 of that. I deserve it."
By and large, the press gallery agreed with this Gallic evaluation. Most were still unconvinced that Jamin was not the best horse on the track, even at a mile. Even losing, he had trotted an eye-opening race. Unfortunately, the $10,000 betless race-off—provided for in the event that three different horses win the first three legs—will not include Jamin, who must return to Europe for engagements there. Frost, who won $11,875 (for finishing 7-1-6 in the three heats) in the complicated book-keepery of the classics, must compete alone against Charming Barbara (4-4-1 and $16,250). Jamin (1-2-3) won $20,000.
No devotee of the power of positive thinking, Haughton still feels his mare will lose to Senator Frost. "I doubt if I can beat that horse in a match race," he confessed.
Harness fans will have heavy hearts at the race-off, date still undecided. They will be cheering for Senator Frost or for Charming Barbara but they will be looking down the track for that third part from Gaul, the gorgeous brown with the red ear muffs and the orchid man behind him. Without them the denouement of the 1959 American Trotting Classic will be just another buggy ride.
BACK TO EUROPE
Three days later Riaud flew to Milan to show his fine horse to another audience. In the few short months he had been in the U.S., this young Frenchman (he is only 28) had taken Jamin out against our best trotters in five major races and won three. He had forced American horsemen to reconsider their long-established theories on the training of trotters, and opened a new avenue for the breeding of future champions. But most important of all, he had given a tremendous boost to harness racing's ambitions of becoming a truly international enterprise, by the example of his sportsmanship and the force of his engaging personality. We are all, therefore, in his debt.