One of the oldest and finest harness-race meetings has been held every fall since 1875 at Lexington, in the very heartland of the Thoroughbred running horse. Flat-racing people turn up their noses at these Lexington Trots, as they are called, but the trotting folk couldn't care less. They can elevate a well-bred nose or two themselves. Indeed, trotting's Walnut Hall at Lexington is the largest and perhaps loveliest Bluegrass horse-breeding farm.
The grand old farm where the supersire Volomite stood has always been deeply involved in the Trots. At the meeting just completed there were two momentous events, and in each case the winner was a horse bred by Walnut Hall and brought to yearlinghood on its lush pasture.
Actually, there are two Walnut Halls nowadays. Founder L. V. Harkness' legacy was split in the late 1940s between his granddaughter, Mrs. H. W. Nichols Jr., and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sherman Jenney. Theirs is a rather frosty coexistence. Mrs. Nichols' Walnut Hall Farm has 1,900 acres and white fences; Mrs. Jenney's Walnut Hall Stud has 1,300 acres and black fences. Mrs. Nichols has her sires and broodmares; Mrs. Jenney has hers. The rivalry between them for trotting feats and prizes, though keen, is not cutthroat. Confronted by the common enemy—i.e., Pennsylvania breeders—they root for Kentucky horses, period.
The first remarkable achievement at the Trots occurred when an aptly named filly. Impish (bred at Walnut Hall Farm), obliterated all 2-year-old trotting records with speeds bordering on the fabulous. Then the smallish 3-year-old colt trotter Duke Rodney (bred at Walnut Hall Stud) captured Lexington's most honored race, the 69th Kentucky Futurity.
Those who saw Impish perform expected big things; she had already floated to a 2:03 3/5 world half-mile track record for 2-year-old fillies. But they were not prepared for what actually took place. Competing against a vintage crop of fillies, including those swift Kentucky-bred charmers Spry Rodney and Sprite Rodney, she trotted two sub-two-minute racing miles on the same day, the first in 1:58 3/5 and the second in 1:59 3/5. Since she started two lengths behind the field in the second tier of horses as the first heat got away, she really trotted the first mile in just a shade over 1:58. Never before had a 2-year-old of either sex broken the two-minute barrier in a race.
Impish is by the 1956 Hambletonian winner, The Intruder, out of the well-bred Nibble Hanover mare Ilo Hanover; there is speed popping in every bloodline. The Lexington dashes were only the ninth and 10th heats of her life, and so effortlessly did she move that Driver Frank Ervin never had to use his whip.
"If nothing happens to this mare," says Ervin," I think she has a chance to trot as fast as any horse that ever lived, and that includes Greyhound."
When his turn came, Duke Rodney had to work a bit harder. He had won the Yonkers Futurity, the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown, but lost any chance in the second, the Hambletonian, by making breaks. At Lexington he faced all the year's top 3-year-olds except the Hambletonian winner himself, Harlan Dean, who was not eligible.
Another stout Pennsylvania-bred was eligible, though, and the cause of no little alarm among Kentucky breeders. This was Caleb, a strapping black Hoot Mon colt owned by Mrs. Charlotte DeVan, who happens to be the daughter of the man Kentuckians love best to beat—L. B. Sheppard, master of Pennsylvania's great Hanover Shoe Farm. Driven by the veteran Johnny Simpson, Caleb had equaled the world 3-year-old mile record of 1:58 3/5 before Harlan Dean chipped a fifth of a second from it in the Hambletonian.
To the Kentuckians' dismay, Caleb not only beat Duke Rodney by a short head in the first Futurity heat but lowered the record still another notch, to 1:58 1/5.
Duke Rodney's revenge was soon forthcoming. He took a slow second heat in 2:02 as Caleb hung in the stretch and finished fifth. In the third and deciding heat Duke Rodney got to the wire a length and a half in front of the tiring Caleb, the time a perkier 1:59 3/5.
All Kentuckians present breathed a sigh of pleasure and relief.