While the promoters of other American sports like baseball, football and basketball still circle warily around the prospects of expansion, harness racing continues to grow vigorously in all directions. Last year's big moves were Roosevelt Raceway's ambitious entry into the international arena, and the opening of the world's first one-mile track for night racing at Suffolk Downs in Boston. Both were spectacularly successful.
This year's big news is the opening of Pennsylvania—hitherto a nonracing state—to parimutuel betting on trotters and pacers. Governor David Lawrence has signed the bill authorizing this, and next week, in a statewide referendum, it will be decided where four new tracks will be located.
The governor, a Democrat, must be congratulated for going outside his party in choosing Lawrence Sheppard, a Republican, as state commissioner. Too often in the U.S., the appointment of a trotting commissioner has been handled as a political plum. Indeed, Sheppard is the first trotting commissioner chosen in recent years who is an authority on the sport he will administer—a revolutionary idea, forsooth. Most get the job as a result of party loyalty and are obliged to learn something about the sport after they take office.
The season ahead promises to be memorable for many reasons. For the first time in 20-odd years, there is every prospect that the two most significant records in the sport will be broken—the 1:55 pacing mark for the mile set by Billy Direct in 1938 and the 1:55¼ trotting standard set by Greyhound the same year. Until two weeks ago it appeared that four pacers were taking dead aim at Billy Direct's standard—Bullet Hanover, Adios Butler, Shadow Wave and Bye Bye Byrd. But now we have a likely fifth. On April 2, at Santa Anita, with scarcely any competition to urge him on (he won by five lengths), Widower Creed raced the mile in 1:56 4/5 to become the third-fastest pacer of all time. This is truly remarkable time for so early in the campaign.
GROWN-UP BYE BYE
Of the other four, Bye Bye Byrd probably has the best chance of beating the record. Last year Bye Bye never once had the advantage of racing on a mile track, but he beat every horse thrown against him, became the fastest half-mile-track pacer in history (at 1:57 4/5), earned more money in one season and now has more two-minute miles to his credit than any other standardbred—all this as a 4-year-old. Now 5 and fully mature, he will undoubtedly be sent out on a few mile tracks by Trainer Clint Hodgins in an attempt to crown a great career with a successful assault on the durable 1:55 mark. He opens his campaign this Saturday at Roosevelt in the first of the year's major free-for-all events and, appropriately, his chief competition will come from Widower Creed.
Of the other record-breaking candidates, Johnny Simpson's Bullet Hanover rates special consideration. Big, powerful and sure-gaited, he raced two heats as a 2-year-old (at Indianapolis last season) faster than any 3-year-old has ever gone, a remarkable achievement.
Among the trotters, two of the best—Billy Haughton's Charming Barbara and Dick Buxton's Senator Frost—have already turned in startling performances. Both have trotted two-minute miles at Santa Anita; old-timers cannot recall such a feat being previously accomplished before early September. With Trader Horn also training well, these three are now the outstanding candidates to represent the U.S. in the second International, to be raced August 20 at Roosevelt. France's Jamin intends to be back to defend his International title in that race, and there is every likelihood that a Russian trotter, Prijatel, will also compete. After the International, Roosevelt will send the entire field to Rome for a second meeting during the Olympic program there, and then the same group of horses will go to Moscow for a third International.
New York's Yonkers Raceway has now entered this field too, with an international pacing series to be raced in June. Handicapped by the fact that Europeans do not conduct events for pacers, Yonkers has assembled a field of American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand horses for its series. The best of the foreigners appears to be New Zealand's Caduceus, who won the Inter-Dominion championship in Sydney last month and has been timed for the mile, from a standing start, in 1:57⅗ good enough to beat most Americans. While all efforts to stimulate worldwide competition are surely commendable, it must be said that this international business could easily get out of hand. Too many alleged "world championship" events would confuse the racing public and kill the whole idea before it gets firmly established in our regular seasonal program.
Early consideration of the contenders in trotting's top classic—the Hambletonian—is extremely hazardous this year. Blaze Hanover, Prince Jamie, Uncle Sam, Carlene Hanover and Elaine Rodney are among the outstanding eligibles, with Blaze the favorite here. Trainer Joe O'Brien has an intriguing problem with this colt. O'Brien has trained three horses with the same bloodlines as Blaze—Bond, Butch and Brogue Hanover—and all three were superb 2-year-olds who fell victim to mysterious ailments that incapacitated them in their Hambletonian years as 3-year-olds. Many experts insist it is a family weakness to which Blaze will prove no exception. But Blaze demonstrated extraordinary strength and game-ness last year. He came away from a bad accident on the track early in the season with scars, stitches and bruises over all four legs and two weeks later was again racing in top form. If courage and expert training can turn the trick, Blaze is the trotter to break his family's 3-year-old jinx.