Despite the continuing success of trotting at the metropolitan tracks, where most major events are for older horses, colt racing is still vital to the sport. From it come tomorrow's champions, and last week at Baltimore Raceway most of the top 2-year-old pacers and trotters of the year met for the first time. Some, naturally, were just getting the feel of serious competition, and some showed that cloak of greenness which young horses wear in their early days. It was still apparent, however, that this crop is the best we have seen in a long time.
After two nights of racing at Baltimore, John Simpson, the tall, quiet, studious trainer-driver and Del Miller, the short, energetic, studious trainer-driver sat discussing what they had seen and what they expect in the months ahead. As Simpson and Miller go from track to track they spend much of their time together talking over their horses, their problems, their wives, their money.
It would not be fair, however, to say that Mr. Simpson tells Mr. Miller everything or that Mr. Miller tells Mr. Simpson the total truth all the time, for they are in a game where each one's hand is almost constantly turned against the other's. In 1950, for instance, Miller accomplished an unprecedented double when he won both the Hambletonian with Lusty Song and the Little Brown Jug with Dudley Hanover. Since this had never been done before in the same year by one man, many thought that it would never be done again. In 1957, however, Simpson won the Hambletonian with Hickory Smoke and the Jug with Torpid. In his lifetime as a driver, Miller has sat behind five trotters and 38 pacers who went in two minutes or less, and Simpson has sat behind six trotters and 37 pacers who did the same.
Currently Miller, Simpson, Billy Haughton, Stanley Dancer, Joe O'Brien and Clint Hodgins are aiming their 2-year-olds directly at the $120,000 Empire Pace on July 21 and the Hilltop Trot on July 28 at Yonkers. All these men, save O'Brien, who nearly always is at the top with younger horses, were at Baltimore. (O'Brien has had an outbreak of minor ailments in his stable and they have set back his training program.)
"This crop of 2-year-olds," said Simpson, "might be the strongest we have had in this country in many years. Already many of them are going in 2:06 and this is only early June. Well, if you project their development into July and August, almost anything is possible. The 2-year-olds that end up as the best trotters or pacers won't be able to get by by just being good, they'll have to be extra good."
Miller's opinion is about the same as Simpson's. "There was a time," he says, "when you could move slowly with a young horse, but today the 2-year-old stakes are raced earlier in the year and the purses are bigger than they ever were before. Today you get your horses sharp early and then take back on them near the end of the year and start thinking about readying them once again next year for the Hambletonian and the Jug. You have to watch yourself and not take all your shots at once or you won't have any ammunition left for next year. But it's in these 2-year-old races that you can tell which of your colts seem to have the class and which ones don't."
Within recent years the purses for 2-year-old races have increased sharply and this has had a tremendous effect on harness racing. Higher purses undoubtedly were responsible for the prices at the 1959 yearling sales, where 19 horses sold for $30,000 or more, a figure well in excess of recent years. (In 1956 only five yearlings went for $30,000 or over; in 1957 only four; in 1958 only two.) These large investments, naturally, have made it necessary for many owners to point for the early, lucrative stakes, in order to get a part of their investments back as quickly as possible.
Last week's stakes at Baltimore were a perfect example of this. In the Lady Baltimore Stake, for trotting fillies, the winner, Sweet Miriam, was forced to go in 2:06 2/5, and the Lord Baltimore Stake for pacers was won by Hansen Hanover, in 2:06—both remarkably fast times over a track that was a little deep.
What was most impressive, however, was not the fast times but the consistency of the horses. The Lady Baltimore, raced in three divisions, found Clint Hodgins' first-time starter Patricia Rhythm beating Simpson's Adios Filly in 2:08. The second division was won by Sweet Miriam in 2:08 1/5, and in the final heat they came down the stretch in this order: Sweet Miriam, Patricia Rhythm, Adios Filly, Meadow Pick.
The Lord Baltimore Stake for trotting colts and geldings on June 8 showed exactly how heavy Billy Haughton's hand will be in the stakes ahead. He sent out an entry of Mr. Pride and Vint Hanover, and they finished one-two, with Mr. Pride lengths the best. Vint Hanover, however, may develop into one of the top youngsters if he settles down, for he broke and had to circle his field three wide to pick up second money.
Aside from the show at Baltimore, Simpson has two fine 2-year-olds currently training sharply at Saratoga Raceway—Bill and Ted Hanover, for whom Thomas W. Murphy of Poughkeepsie paid a total of $91,000 at auction. These two have not yet been to the races. Miller has Meadow Betty, Meadow Chuck, Meadow Hudson, Great Duke and Vivian's Adios. The champion 2-year-old seems almost certain to come from the barns of Mr. Simpson, or Mr. Miller or Mr. Haughton. And in the next few weeks we should know which barn it is.