For harness racing's night people the lovely little town of Goshen, N.Y. is a refuge from the clutter and clamor of modern raceway life. Shirt-sleeved pilgrims gather there every year during Grand Circuit week for lazy afternoons of trotting as it used to be at Historic Track, 107 years old now, where kids can reach up and tweak the noses of horses stabled at trackside and the tote-ticket sellers aren't too busy to say, "Good luck."
Last week an unexpected bonus was added to Goshen's unfailing charm. A smallish brown colt named Duke Rodney trotted the fastest early-season mile ever raced by a 3-year-old on a half-mile track, and thereby made himself the favorite for the late-summer Hambletonian Stake. As Goshen's chief patron, E. Roland Harriman, put it with just the right rustic tang, Duke Rodney's race was a "humdinger." There was never a whipcrack from the Duke's slight, young driver, Eddie Wheeler, or a challenge from behind in the first heat of The Historic-Dickerson Cup, as he clip-clopped briskly past Goshen's green-roofed infield pagodas and under the wire in 2:01[3/5]. That was only one-fifth of a second off the world mark shared by Galophone and Hickory Smoke, a record set in the fall, when standardbred colts are considerably further along in their training and customarily show their best speed at that age. Moreover, it lowered Goshen's record for 3-year-olds by two full seconds.
Two excellent quarters
Leaving from the sixth post on the hard, stinging track, just inside a formidable rival named Matastar, Duke Rodney brushed for the lead at once and took it just past the quarter-mile mark. He defeated Matastar by some four lengths, trotting the last quarter in the excellent time of 29[3/5] seconds. Wheeler drove an easier second heat. He gave the colt his head only in the last quarter (29[4/5]), and the Duke won handily in 2:05[1/5]. Although Matastar, driven by Harry Pownall Sr., broke stride in the first turn, he made up enough ground (most of it on the outside) to finish second again, proving he is a strong Hambletonian contender.
Duke Rodney's first-heat time was especially surprising since he was lame as a 2-year-old and had been making breaks only the week before at Saratoga, where he was beaten by Ralph Baldwin's Orbiter. His showing at Goshen, therefore, is a tribute to Eddie Wheeler's patient training and conditioning as well as to the colt's innate speed. The slow-talking 29-year-old Wheeler came by his skill logically. In the apprentice phase of his 13 years as a horseman he worked for Trainer Jimmy Cruise, a master at patching up unsound horses. Last winter Wheeler doctored the Duke's sore feet and by April had him fit enough to set a still-current season's record for mile tracks of 2:02[4/5]. But when he wouldn't stay flat on gait at Saratoga, Hambletonian students turned their attention to Orbiter and other hopefuls—Del Miller's beautifully gaited filly, Meadow Farr; and his tough colt, Harlan Dean; Johnny Simpson's Bill Hanover and Caleb; and Orbiter's two stablemates, Spectator and Behave. Many of these are being brought along slowly now.
Usually expressionless, Wheeler managed a tight smile after his Goshen victories. He squeezed out a few words: "This horse is on the small side, but he girths big. He's got a lot of heart to him. There may be some better-gaited horses, but he's got speed all right."
Two spectators who had rooted for the Duke were more visibly joyful. One was his owner, Rochester Lumberman Patrick DiGennaro, who studied bloodlines while bedded after a spinal operation and backed his findings with the $7,000 he paid for the trotter at the 1959 Lexington yearling sales. "That was my limit," DiGennaro said last week. "If he'd gone to $7,100, I would have lost the horse."
The other spectator, Mrs. Sherman Jenney, mistress of Kentucky's Walnut Hall Stud, was positively glowing. Among the stallions standing at her farm are Rodney (owned by the Jenneys and Carolina Horseman David R. Johnston) and Kimberly Kid. Among her brood mares is Dutchess Hanover. Two days before The Historic-Dickerson, Mary Jenney, called Polly by her friends, had watched Kimberly Kid's daughter, Meadow Farr, outtrot her filly field at Goshen. The same day, she saw her own winsome 2-year-old filly, Sprite Rodney, sired by Rodney, overwhelm her field. Finally, there were the remarkable dashes by the Duke. His dam, as it happens, is Duke's Dutchess, a daughter of Dutchess Hanover.
Now all that remains to make this a wildly memorable summer for Polly Jenney is a Hambletonian victory by Duke Rodney.
This Saturday's International Trot at Roosevelt Raceway may well mark the third consecutive year that a foreign horse beats the best we have to offer. The two previous International winners, Jamin and Hairos II, were not taken too seriously by American experts before they raced here, and France's temperamental 7-year-old mare, Kracovie, is now getting the same treatment, possibly because of all the press agentry surrounding her friendship with a goat (see page 6). Kracovie, however, is far better suited to Roosevelt's half-mile track than either Jamin or Hairos II were. She takes the tight turns well and is familiar with the U.S.-style starting gate. European horses generally have difficulty here on both those counts, but Kracovie has raced on some of the smaller ovals in Italy, where our gates are used.
The other French entry is La Charmeuse, a 6-year-old mare that has beaten such good American exports as Hickory Fire and Quick Song on European tracks. However, she does not have Kracovie's speed or experience behind the gate, and may not be in the same class as our own two trotters in the race, Su Mac Lad and Merrie Duke. Just a few weeks ago Su Mac was probably the best trotter in the country—in seven straight dashes, he beat all comers. Then, clearly past his peak, he lost two races, one of them to Merrie Duke. Trainer Stanley Dancer may not be able to bring Su Mac back to top form in such a brief period. Merrie Duke, on the other hand, seems to be getting better with each race, having won two successive major trots here and in Chicago. He is also, at 4, the youngest horse in the International, and an improving youngster is always a good bet against older horses.
The last two horses in the field are Italy's Tornese and Canada's Tie Silk. Tornese finished second to Jamin in 1959. He has the stamina and the experience but for some reason has never performed at his best in this country. Tie Silk showed excellent promise late in his 3-year-old season and also the following year. At this stage, however, he does not appear up to this kind of competition.