It took a world record by a once-gimpy trotter to win the fastest Hambletonian Stake of all time last week, and if the 32,964 spectators in the country-fair atmosphere of Du Quoin, Ill. were intrigued by a hot jazz band, awed by a blonde aerialist and impressed by a sharp-shooting girl archer, they were simply overwhelmed by the unexpected performance of a splendid horse.
Never before had there been so many good 3-year-olds for a winner to beat in this most honored of all trotting races. And Agatha Christie at her most tantalizing could hardly have devised a script more likely to deceive observers trying to pick the horse that could kill off the rest.
The favorite's role for the Hambletonian shifted erratically from one 3-year-old to another as the top stake races were contested throughout the early summer. First Duke Rodney set a track record at Goshen for his age group. Then temperamental Matastar looked even better, only to have Duke Rodney regain the favorite's role with a world record 1[1/16]-mile dash in the Yonkers Futurity, the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown. Finally, and most remarkably, a deep-chested, beautifully gaited black named Caleb broke a 30-year record for 3-year-old colt trotters, floating to the wire at Springfield, Ill. in a mid-August event. The second horse in this race, two lengths behind the flying Caleb, was Harlan Dean, a lightly regarded long shot from the stable of Delvin Miller, the No. 1 U.S. driver-trainer. He finished in 1:59, his first effort below 2:03 all year.
Astute detective-handicappers should have spotted the Hambletonian winner then and there. Caleb was too pat a suspect, the finger pointed at him too firmly. ("The man didn't even touch Harlan Dean that day," said the horse's caretaker, Sam Rickett, later at Du Quoin. "He just let him trot.") As hindsight reveals, Harlan Dean was just rounding into top racing form. But hardly anyone noticed the Springfield clue. After all, Harlan Dean had been sore-legged for months beforehand and able to win only one event in eight starts. So Johnny Simpson's picture trotter, Caleb, remained the choice, with Matastar and Duke Rodney a bit behind.
When Del Miller got to Du Quoin he knew well that Harlan Dean had a better chance to win than a second horse from his string, the filly Meadow Farr. Miller had his choice of which to drive himself. The night before the race he told his second driver, small, good-humored Jimmy Arthur, "Jimmy, you've worked more with the horse. You take him. I know Meadow Farr better. I'll take her." That's Del Miller for you.
Race morning brought a smothering surge of Du Quoin's oppressive heat to Gene and Don Hayes's lovely fairground, where the ugliness of played-out strip mines has been transformed by lawns and blessed shade trees.
As proprietors of the Hambletonian since 1957, when political storms cut it adrift from Goshen, N.Y., the Hayeses have been a rare gift to harness racing. But this year they were uneasy. Their present three-year Hambletonian contract was to expire after the 1962 race. The Hambletonian Society was to meet after the big race to consider 1963 and beyond. The Hayeses' unease was due to a bid for the Hambletonian by Vernon Downs, an upstate New York track that promised a $360000 face lifting, including the extension of its¾-mile track to a full mile if a three-year contract were forthcoming.
Thus, in a sense, Du Quoin was on trial as the 13 Hambletonian starters—10 in the first tier and three behind—stepped smartly away in the first heat of the year's top race. By now, in early afternoon, it was gaspingly hot. In the packed stands spectators wearing as little as the law and Midwestern modesty allow waggled their programs furiously to stir the oven of air.
Then the heat was forgotten. It's always exciting to see a sizable trotting audience in some rural area having a splendid time without ever making a bet (betting is impossible at Du Quoin, where the totes are illegal). As attentive as if each had at least $2 on a high-bred nose, spectators groaned when Duke Rodney broke while ahead in the stretch, then cheered as Harlan Dean, with Jimmy Arthur whipping and clucking, swung eight horses wide down the outside of the track to defeat Matastar by a mere head. They shouted when the time was posted, a world record: 1:58.2, and roared again when the implausible Harlan Dean almost casually outtrotted Caleb by 2½ lengths to win the second and decisive heat in 1:59. The aggregate was a world record for two heats on a mile track, and the winner's purse was a plush 577,364.93. Caleb was second and Matastar third.
If Del Miller, who has been the trainer of two other Hambletonian winners (driving one himself), should come up with 20 more, he will never have one with as incongruous a background as Harlan Dean. In 1954 Miller trained a good trotter named Harlan. Jimmy Arthur placed second with him in one heat of that year's Hambletonian. Sensing the makings of a valuable sire in Harlan, Kentucky's Walnut Hall Stud sought to buy him from his Pittsburgh owner, but only on condition that Harlan's potency could be reasonably well-established. It wasn't, and Harlan was sent packing back to Pennsylvania. Max Hempt, a huge and hugely successful figure in harness racing, was less doubtful about Harlan's virility, and bought him as a sire for the modest sum of $25,000.
Meanwhile, at the Hanover Shoe Farms, Hanover, Pa., the most important trotting nursery in the world, a filly foal by the world champion Hanover trotter, Dean Hanover, was born sightless in one eye and with a defective leg ("She didn't stand good," a Hanover man explains.) Fearful that she might transmit infirmities to her offspring, Hanover sold her as a yearling to a Maryland horseman for $100. Her name was Lydean Hanover.
Hempt heard of this transaction and promptly bought her for himself, paying $350. He was enthralled with her bloodlines and willing to risk what amounted to a fairly modest gamble. Soon Lydean was totally blind, but Hempt bred her to Harlan. The result: Harlan Dean. Hempt sold him as a yearling to Del Miller and Pennsylvania's Roy Cleveland, a road contractor, for only $5,500 but began to like his looks so much that he bought back a one-third interest.
Harlan Dean was actually far from sound when he started racing. But even so he managed to win seven of 20 starts as a 2-year-old, earn $41,748 and emerge from the season as a prospect for the Hambletonian. Then he developed sore legs again early this year, and seemed to be a ho-hum horse.
Jimmy Arthur showed there was nothing ho-hum about him last week, however, nor was there anything else dull about the 36th Hambletonian. The Hayes boys were delighted by the race and relieved the next day when The Hambletonian Society board of directors extended Du Quoin's contract to hold the event for another year—through 1963.
But the happiest man of all was foxy Max Hempt, who had picked the winner all the way. "The blood's there," he exulted, waving a hand toward Harlan Dean as the new champion was being cooled out. "It will always pop out. And it popped right here."