There was a sixteenth of a mile still to go, and 55,000 people stood and shouted and stamped their feet. Four horses were fanned out across the stretch and each of them had a chance to win the $50,000 International Trotting Championship at New York's Roosevelt Raceway.
A few feet from the inner rail was Tornese of Italy, who had led every step of the way. Pressed tightly against the rail was the sentimental and betting favorite of the biggest audience ever to attend a night harness race, the U.S.'s Silver Song. On the far outside, gaining ground after a hideous start, was another Italian competitor, Crevalcore. In the middle of all this, moving along almost gaily, was Hairos II from Holland, and he went on to win what is now one of the world's newest and freshest sporting classics.
Last August, when Roosevelt Raceway presented its first International, there were many people who believed that a harness racing event of this type would have trouble achieving status. Shouting the loudest in this group of dissenters were the majority of American horsemen, who believed that virtually any good U.S. trotter could beat the best of the Europeans and do it with little trouble at all.
In that first International, however, a brilliant French horse named Jamin won. Some of the voices were stilled, but others insisted that Jamin's victory was the result of luck. However, as Jamin went on to tour the U.S., beating our best trotters twice more, he convinced everyone that he was a superb racer—better than anything we had.
For last Saturday's race, Hairos II came to the United States with the highest credentials. As with Jamin, the European trotting experts found in Hairos those exciting qualities of speed, stamina and a willingness to fight hardest when the going looks the toughest. Hairos had earned victories abroad from France to Sweden and eastward to the edge of the Iron Curtain.
Nevertheless, American trotting fans still backed their representative, Silver Song, and Hairos left the starting gate at virtually the same odds as Jamin had in 1959. (Jamin paid $11.70 in the tote in 1959, and Hairos paid $11.90 this year.)
At 5:30 on the afternoon of this second International, Hairos' trainer-driver, 6-foot 3-inch, 260-pound Willem Geersen, hitched him to a sulky. The two moved slowly and virtually unnoticed as the rest of the field of six dozed or munched hay in their stalls. Geersen took Hairos to the Roosevelt training track and gave him a brisk mile-and-five-eighths workout in the 80° heat. Hairos returned to his stall lathered up but content and happy.
When Geersen was asked about this rather unusual tactic, he said, "I always give Hairos a good workout on the day of a race. It keeps him on his toes. Americans work their horses out the night of a race, but I prefer to give my horse a good work in the afternoon. I know that it must seem strange to the American harness people, but, after all, Hairos is not an American."
Of all the drivers in the International, Geersen seemed by far the most confident before the race. Two hours before the horses were introduced to the public, Presiding Judge John Cashman called the drivers together to explain (through an interpreter) the racing rules. As Cashman spoke, Geersen leaned on the paddock rail, a sports jacket covering his gray-and-red silks. His driving britches were immaculately white, and he delicately puffed away at a cigarette held in a holder. Judge Cashman explained how a foul was to be claimed in case trouble arose during the race. Geersen listened without interest. Cashman explained what would happen in the event of a false start, but Geersen merely fingered his white driving helmet with the flag of the Netherlands on it. Cashman explained that the winning driver would return his horse to the paddock after the trophy ceremonies and would then be taken to the press box for interviews. Now Willem Geersen perked up. "Who," he asked through an interpreter, "will take my horse and where is this press box?"
A prerace precaution
Geersen, who has only been training Hairos for 17 months, kept his horse hidden from paddock visitors by draping a large, homely green blanket over the front of Hairos' stall. The rest of the starters stood open to inspection. Geersen knew that the slightest movement outside a stall often gets a horse stirring about, and he was not taking any chances of upsetting Hairos.
When the field got away, Tornese went quickly to the front from his No. 5 post position, and Hairos, from No. 4, was placed in second position on the outside. Silver Song was third on the rail, exactly where his driver, Howard Camden, wanted him to be. For the entire mile and a quarter, Hairos and Geersen were on the outside, seemingly surrendering valuable ground. At the top of the stretch, many thought that Hairos would have to be tired, but Geersen knew how much horse he had left, and, free from any trouble in the middle of the track, the two came home by a half length. Crevalcore finished gamely, and Silver Song, who had trouble in the stretch, finished third.
"This," said Geersen, hoisting a glass of champagne later, "was Hairos' finest race. He is now the champion of the world."
Next Wednesday afternoon the attention of fans switches to Du Quoin, Ill., and the 35th Hambletonian, the most prestigious trotting event of the year. This time there is no standout performer such as we have had in the last three years when Diller Hanover, Emily's Pride and Hickory Smoke trotted off with the finest of all the 3-year-old races.
In fact, the last few races leading up to the Hambletonian have done little more than cloud the picture. With an open race in prospect, many owners, who might ordinarily skip Du Quoin, may elect to pay the $1,500 starting fee and hope for luck. If 20 start, the net purse will be $144,402, with more than $86,000 going to the winner.
Right from the very beginning of this year the 3-year-olds have been beating one another regularly, and only in the last few weeks have any of them started to show something resembling consistent form. Clint Hodgins, who is having the best year of his life, probably will be driving the favorite, the filly Elaine Rodney who won at Springfield last week in 2:00, fastest time any of the candidates have recorded this year. Billy Haughton will be handling Hickory Fire, a full brother to Hickory Smoke, and Joe O'Brien seems to have Blaze Hanover, the winter-book favorite, back in shape (SI, July 25). Del Miller, who has won all three of the six harness racing classics raced so far this season, will enter Duke of Decatur and Hoot Frost (and will have to choose which one he will drive himself). Duke of Decatur won the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown, the Yonkers Futurity, in early July over a muddy track at odds of 40 to 1. Uncle Sam, who will probably be the second choice at Du Quoin, won the Review Futurity last week in straight heats at Springfield, going in 2:01 1/5 in each of them. Darcie Hanover, Carlene Hanover, Volo Mon and Demon Ros all have a good chance to win. In such a race, post position will be very important, which it isn't normally on Du Quoin's wide mile track. The draw will not be held until three days before the race. Anyhow, post No. 1 or second tier, we still like Hodgins and Elaine.