In the field of 19 starters that moved slowly up behind the gate for last week's 35th and richest Hambletonian, 18 had won a race of one kind or another this season. The one that hadn't was a big, powerful chestnut colt named Blaze Hanover, trained and driven by Joe O'Brien of Shafter, Calif. Yet, to the crowd of more than 25,000 suffering in the 92° heat at Du Quoin, Ill., and probably to harness racing fans everywhere, Blaze Hanover was the sentimental favorite.
Just a few months ago trotting experts were generally agreed that Blaze would win this 3-year-old classic. He had been the highest-priced trotting yearling sold at auction in 1958 ($27,000) and had become the outstanding 2-year-old of his generation, with record earnings of $142,052. Early this spring, however, Blaze developed a severe quarter-crack in his right front hoof, and it seemed doubtful that he even would be a starter at Du Quoin. When he finally got to the races in late July, he not only lost in seven successive starts but broke stride in four of them. The competitive zip, stamina and heart-stirring courage that had brought him so many victories and loyal fans had all, apparently, deserted him.
This likelihood encouraged many owners and trainers who ordinarily would not have dared to race against a sound Blaze to crank up their 3-year-olds and aim for the Hambletonian. In a wide-open field, racing luck might well decide the winner.
Two trotters took over the role of favorite in the weeks immediately before the Hambletonian. The first was K. D. Owen's Uncle Sam, who won four straight races, and the second was the filly Elaine Rodney, who won six. The draw for Hambletonian post position went just fine for Elaine Rodney and Uncle Sam. Elaine drew post two and Sam drew post four. Eighteen post positions were quickly drawn, and the best position of all—No. 1—remained in the box. It went, therefore, to the horse whose driver had not drawn. That horse was Blaze Hanover. Joe O'Brien was so discouraged by his recent luck that he didn't even bother to attend the drawing.
Shortly after it was completed, O'Brien walked up to the desk clerk at the motel where he was staying at Du Quoin and this conversation followed:
Clerk (kiddingly): Well, you had pretty bad luck in the draw, didn't you?
O'Brien: Don't know.
Clerk: Don't kid me, Mr. O'Brien. A smart horseman like yourself knows everything.
O'Brien: No. I don't know.
Clerk (taking a mimeographed list from his pocket): Here, have a look for yourself.
That evening Joe O'Brien and most of the other drivers in the Hambletonian were honored guests at a garden party. Everyone congratulated Joe on his good fortune in the draw, and Joe said, "Thank you kindly." A perennial leader on the Grand Circuit—he has topped its winning-drivers list for five of the last six years—Joe had experienced a miserable season because of a virus which hit his stable early last spring. In fact, he hadn't driven 10 winners on the circuit this year and was not listed among the top 10 drivers for the first time since anyone could remember.
But Joe O'Brien did have something encouraging to say about Blaze Hanover. "He has had one good race this year. Well, not really a good race but a good half mile. Up at Sedalia [Missouri] I caught him going a half mile in :57 3/5 and that, I guess, is what is making me keep him in the race. I've spent most of the year training him slow miles." O'Brien smiled his tiny smile and said, "If I get any kind of luck I might be able to make a horse race out of this thing after all."
Late in leaving
In the first heat of the Hambletonian it didn't look as if Blaze was going to do a thing. Despite his favorable post position, he didn't leave the gate particularly well, and after a quarter of a mile he was ninth. After three quarters of a mile he was seventh and apparently not moving at all. In the last quarter O'Brien and Blaze finally began to cover ground along the rail, and at the top of the stretch a hole opened for them and they slid through. Elaine Rodney was also moving, and the two went under the wire together, with Quick Song just inches away. After eight long minutes of subdued buzzing in the stands, while the judges examined the photo finish, it was announced that Blaze had won by the shortest of noses. Elaine Rodney had beaten Quick Song by another nose. "Well," said Joe O'Brien back in the paddock, "it isn't over yet."
In the second heat Blaze hit the wheel of another trotter's sulky and went into a break in the stretch. "I had a chance," said Joe, "and I goofed it up."
The third heat went to the long shot, Hoot Frost, who had finished fifth in the first heat and 13th in the second. For the first time in 26 years, and only the third time in its history, the Hambletonian would be decided in a fourth heat, since the winner must finish first twice. Blaze, Quick Song and Hoot Frost were in a three-horse race-off.
Joe O'Brien stood quietly in the paddock, looking over his rivals. Then he looked at Blaze. "He's tired," O'Brien said, "but he's got to go again. I hope he's ready." As the horses left the gate, Hoot Frost broke stride, and O'Brien, the master of just such a situation, quickly took Blaze to the front. He slowed the pace down (:33 2/5 at the quarter, 1:08 1/5 at the half, 1:43 at the three quarters). Then he went all-out, rocking back and forth in the sulky with each of Blaze's strides in the style that is his trademark. He used the whip, something he seldom does, throughout the stretch, and he forced the tired but immensely courageous Blaze to go the fastest final quarter in Hambletonian history (:27 2/5) to win by a desperate nose.
Everyone stood and applauded Joe O'Brien, and when he was handed the huge Hambletonian trophy he asked for someone to help him hold it because he was "awful tired." He was given the silver bowl that goes to the winning driver and shook hands all around. He talked to the press until the grandstand had been cleared of spectators. Then, with his gold and white jacket unbuttoned, the silver bowl in his left hand, he walked slowly down the length of the long stretch toward the stable area. He looked to the left and the right to make sure that no one was watching him and then he jumped high in the air.
At Du Quoin also, the performance of two 3-year-old pacers was something to behold. In the Geers Stake, Bullet Hanover beat Dancer Hanover in straight heats, and even though these two were the only ones to face the starter they displayed qualities which elevate them far above the rest of the pacing colts.
Bullet, who must be considered the favorite for the Sept. 22 Little Brown Jug at Delaware, Ohio, won the first heat in 2:00[4/5] (with a last quarter in :27[1/5]) to beat Dancer by a nose. He had little trouble with Dancer in the second heat, however, when he ripped off a mile in 1:57[2/5]. Johnny Simpson, who trains, drives and is a part owner of Bullet, said after the second heat, "By the time the Jug comes along he'll be even sharper than he was today."
Countess Adios, the marvelous pacing filly who won this spring's Messenger, rolled to her 14th straight in the $25,000 mile-and-a-quarter Governor's Cup at Roosevelt Raceway Saturday evening. Del Miller, her driver, sent the Countess right to the front from the No. 8 post position and she stayed there throughout. Normally the Countess comes from behind, but this time she carried the target and Miller eased her to the finish line a winner by three quarters of a length.
It is too bad that Bullet and Countess will not meet in the Jug. Miller failed to nominate his filly. Next year, however, we should see some tremendous races between these two. Simpson and Miller, close friends and both superb trainers and racing tacticians, are certain that each has the better horse. Harness fans can hardly wait for their first meeting.