In 24 hours last weekend—between 7 p.m. E.D.T. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday—400,000 Americans bet $26 million on 262 horse races at 28 tracks across the nation, or about $65 apiece. (These sums went through the legal pari-mutuel machines; some informed estimates put betting with illegal bookmakers at three to five times the legal figure.)
Horse racing—Thoroughbred and harness—is the nation's No. 1 professional spectator sport, and it is still growing (attendance and betting are up 3% and 6% in the New York area this year). Those 400,000 Americans had a weird and wonderful time trying to find those 262 winners.
The two biggest races of the weekend were the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore and The Messenger at New York's Roosevelt Raceway. Oddly, the No. 10 horse in each race—Greek Money at Pimlico and Thor Hanover at Roosevelt—won. Neither was the favorite in his race, Thor Hanover paying off at the huge price of $144 for a $2 bet. Thor's victory proved what harness horsemen have long suspected: his driver, John Simpson, is the wiliest gentleman to come out of South Carolina since Francis Marion, known to students of the American Revolution as the Swamp Fox. Beneath a mist-shrouded full moon, as 37,335 fans watched in noisy astonishment, Foxy John swooped out of his favorite lurking place—out of the blue, that is—to win this richest of harness races in the final strides. He collected not only the driver's standard 10% of the $84,715 winner's share but also some $19,000 on his own one-quarter interest in the horse.
So much of a dark horse was Thor Hanover and so moonstruck were the bettors by another colt, that they allowed Simpson to get away at a price of 71 to 1 while lavishing $170,652—the largest sum bet on any horse in Roosevelt's 23 years—on the previously undefeated Adora's Dream.
Simpson, a weathered man of 42, saw the result as a simple lesson in handicapping. "Never discount an Adios," he said afterward. And, in truth, the fabulous standardbred sire (SI, May 14) fared well. This was the seventh Messenger; Thor Hanover was the fifth winner sired by Adios. Another Adios colt, Lehigh Hanover, was third. Even poor Adora's Dream, beaten half a length by Simpson's horse, is out of an Adios mare.
The race provided another lesson: never, but never, count Simpson out when there is a rich pot to be plundered. And never was so wicked a thrust so well masked. In preparatory races Adora's Dream, a bay son of Knight Dream, had twice overwhelmed the Messenger field of top 3-year-old pacing colts. In both races Driver Morris MacDonald's strategy was the same. He hustled Adora's Dream into the lead and never gave it up. That he could breeze home in the first race after what should have been an exhausting first quarter (paced in 28[4/5] seconds) made him seem a wonder horse. He was in The Messenger because a Long Island horseman thought enough of his chances to put up $16,500 in supplementary nomination fees (the owner of the horse had not paid him up in the usual way). What of Thor Hanover? He was a lackluster seventh in the first prep, a dismal sixth in the next.
"He's not made of sugar, this sonofagun," said MacDonald of Adora's Dream. "He's brave. He's a racehorse. And he has manners. I don't say he's a superhorse, but if they beat him in The Messenger they'll have to outluck him."
As the largest crowd of Roosevelt's spring meeting assembled, Johnny Simpson, loafing in the drivers' locker room, had a look of patient resignation. A reporter halfheartedly reminded him that he had been known to point for prestige races, and Johnny, a winner of all the other big ones at one time or another, replied, "I'm afraid the point isn't very sharp tonight."
Simpson seemed concerned about Stanley Dancer, whose horse, Lehigh Hanover, was thought to be the top Adios colt in The Messenger. Dancer had drawn Post 6, just inside of Adora's Dream. "I'm afraid that horse will go past you so fast," Simpson told Dancer, "you'll catch cold in the draft."
"You don't scare me," said Dancer. "And anyway, Lehigh can't read the papers. He went a fine trip last week, parked out every step of the way, to get second money."
Simpson confided, however, that his mood was not one of utter despair. "I don't believe," he said, "that Thor has shown me what he can really do. It's not physical; it's all in his mind. He gets to the five-eighths pole all right and then he seems to stop trying from there to about the seven-eighths pole. I've been schooling him some—using the whip to wake him up—and I've put a closed bridle on him so he won't be able to gawk around at other horses. Maybe he won't be so dilatory tonight."
Oblivious to Simpson, who had the 10th and last post—starting in the second tier—the crowd had eyes only for Adora's Dream and Lehigh Hanover as they raced for the lead. Lehigh kept the favorite outside until near the half, which was paced in a sizzling 59[2/5]. When Adora's Dream cut in to the rail, the chalk players mentally cashed their bets.
Simpson was eighth around the first turn of Roosevelt's half-mile track and still eighth at the quarter. Moving out from the rail, he was seventh at the half, then fourth, but was blocked from the rail as Adora's Dream led Lehigh into the clubhouse turn the second time around. Near the final turn Simpson got a break, and took quick advantage of it. The third-place horse, Ranger Knight, moved out to challenge the leaders, and Simpson took Thor in, thereby saving much precious ground in the turn. Straightening out in the homestretch he was equally fortunate. He found a hole and spurted free, into the middle of the track, to make his own challenge. Down the stretch, head and head, flew Adora's Dream, on the rail, and Lehigh. And now the screeching crowd noticed Simpson. He was in among the chickens at last, and he gobbled them up in a grand, whip-flailing drive, the favorite saving second place from Lehigh by a scant head. Thor's time for the mile: 2:01[1/5].
"I knew at the head of the stretch," Simpson said later, "that I could take those other horses." Then, with a mild, contented smile, John Simpson put away his old-fashioned silver-rimmed driving specs and softly vanished into his lair.