Week in and week out Stanley Dancer works nights at New York's big, no-nonsense trotting tracks, where there is an awful lot of money in circulation but barely $2 worth of harness racing's traditional charm. Now and then, however, this artful driver escapes to the country fairgrounds, where the rural, old-fashioned ways of the sport are still preserved. Last week he turned up in Delaware, Ohio, out in the tall-corn and fat-hog country.
Driving in daylight before some 40,000 horsewise Ohioans, Dancer won the S70,000 Little Brown Jug in only his second try at the nation's top prize in pacing. Altogether, four one-mile heats were needed to decide the winner in the 19-horse field. The straw-hat crowd, packed into grandstand and bleachers and stacked up to eight deep around the rim of Delaware's sharply banked half-mile saucer, wouldn't have dreamed of going home before the final three-horse race-off, in which Dancer's small, blocky colt, Henry T. Adios, made the 16th Jug his own.
Although only 34, Dancer has been a night raceway superstar for a decade. He has won a stall full of money and driven many a champion, including the current wonder horse Su Mac Lad—the leading money-winning trotter of all time. But, as Dancer knows so well, the night raceways exist for the faceless betting crowds, and the horses are mostly aged performers going nowhere. Out on the Grand Circuit, the touring major league of harness racing, the horse, not the tote, is king. There the sport's drama lies in season-long skirmishes among the best young horses to prove which ones have the makings of champions.
This special quality was absent the other day when the first leg of pacing's Triple Crown, the $110,950 Cane Futurity, was held at New York's Yonkers Raceway. For one thing, the Cane was a single dash, not a series of testing heats. Moreover, the Jug favorite, Adios Don, wrenched a knee and had to be withdrawn from the big race.
With Adios Don out, the anticipated 12-horse Jug field swelled to 19. This forced the race into two divisions, with a third heat booked for the first five finishers in each divisional dash. If after these three dashes no horse had the two winning heats necessary to take the Jug, there would be a race-off among the three single-heat winners.
Instead of one favorite there were now three. Ohioans backed Ohio-owned Lang Hanover, one of eight Jug starters sired by the great Adios, whose sons had won the three previous races. Lang had already paced a mile in 1:57 4/5, faster than any other Jug horse.
A fast, brave filly
Sentimentalists favored a Kentucky-owned filly named Way Wave. No filly had yet won the Jug, but this bay daughter of Good Time had exceptional credentials: a 1:58 mile, a reputation for stamina and high praise from Grand Circuit master drivers like Joe O'Brien. "She's been winning all the time," said O'Brien, "and she's real brave."
Realists at Delaware, however, found it hard to dispose of Dancer's game little Adios colt, who is owned by Dr. Nicholas Derrico, a Westchester County, N.Y. surgeon. After all, Dancer had been telling everyone that Henry T. Adios would have won the Cane if he hadn't been frozen against the rail in the stretch. More recently Henry T. had taken the Jug Trial in Michigan.
Jug day brought sunny, balmy weather, with a breeze to flutter Delaware's Grand Circuit pennants and riffle the leaves of the gnarled old apple trees beyond the backstretch. Knowing Jug fans had roped or chained lawn chairs to the fence enclosing the track the night before to be certain of close-up viewing positions, and now they and the rest of the record-breaking crowd settled in for a long pleasurable day.
Flicking his whip restlessly in the paddock as the first division went through final warmups—he was in the second—Dancer could not conceal his deep confidence. A thin smile with just a trace of smugness in it was often on his lips, and it broadened a bit as Lang Hanover won the first heat by only half a length from the so-so pacer Adiosand in a so-so 2:01.
Henry T. Adios started as a "trailer" in the second heat, in ninth position, just behind the rail horse. Way Wave was beautifully placed up front in the No. 2 hole. Both horses raced off the pace in the early shuffling. Driver Ralph Baldwin urged Way Wave to the top in the second swing through the clubhouse turn, and Dancer tucked Henry T. in behind on the backstretch. Heading into the stretch, Dancer went wide and dueled excitingly with Baldwin, but lost by the length of the filly's neck. The time of 2:01[1/5] was misleading, it soon turned out.
Observing Dancer back in the paddock, you would have thought he had won the heat. The smile was still there. "I had a perfect trip—no excuses," he said. "But I almost got there. Next time we go I'll have a better post."
Dancer's own confidence was not widely shared. "If the filly draws the rail," declared one driver, "she's in."
Well, Way Wave did draw the rail for the third heat, with Lang Hanover beside her and Henry T. Adios next. But Way Wave tends to dawdle a bit at the starting gate. Henry T., on the other hand, is a fast-leaving colt, and Dancer has always been a fast-leaving driver. As the gate's wide wings folded, he whipped Henry T. up ahead of the field and pinched in on the rail. Lang Hanover and an outsider named Miss Blue Jay got past him, but nearing the half-mile mark, Dancer, sensing and half-seeing Way Wave moving out from the rail behind him, swung Henry T. out, too. Dancer took the lead in the turn and kept it to the wire, defeating Baldwin and Way Wave by nearly a length.
By now, everybody on the fairgrounds shared Dancer's conviction, for Henry T. had not only outpaced the filly in a tough dash but had traveled the mile in a fancy 1:58⅘ only one-fifth of a second off the world half-mile-track record for 3-year-olds.
Drawing the No. 3 post for th i race-off against Way Wave and Lang Hanover bothered Dancer not at all. Again, he rushed to the rail. Way Wave made an immensely gallant bid, beginning in the next-to-last turn, but Dancer shrewdly kept her stranded outside all the .way around to the homestretch. There, sadly, she broke gait under the accumulated pressures of the day, and Stanley had his Jug.