Four weeks from now a field of 15 to 20 trotters will take to the hard mile track at Du Quoin, Ill. to compete in harness racing's most important event, The Hambletonian. The top drivers—the Simpsons, the Millers, the Ervins, the O'Briens—will be there with good horses, just as they always are. But for only the second time in 37 years, an elderly fellow called The Preacher is going to be in The Hambletonian too, and The Preacher has the horse to beat.
The Preacher is Sanders Russell, a man who says he is 62 but his 62 may be like Archie Moore's 43. For years Russell has been one of the most esteemed of all drivers and trainers, though not one of the sport's biggest winners. Last week he drove a beautifully behaved colt named A. C.'s Viking to victory in the $105,423 Yonkers Futurity, winning the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown. Only one horse, Scott Frost, and only one man, Joe O'Brien, have ever been able to complete this Triple Crown. Now The Preacher and the Viking have a chance of becoming the second.
It was the bettors lining the rails at the night harness carrousels who named Russell "The Preacher." They gave him the name because of the way he sits sternly upright in his sulky, occasionally taking off his driving helmet to reveal his silver hair, and constantly fidgeting with his steel-rimmed glasses. To the people closest to harness racing, however, he is known as Mr. Russell because he is kind and fatherly, because he has long been a spokesman for the drivers' causes in the constantly occurring arguments with racetrack managements, and finally because you don't address a 62-year-old gentleman by his nickname, even if it is The Preacher.
Ever since driving in his first race in 1915, Sanders Russell has wanted a champion trotter. He has had many bad ones, quite a few mediocre ones and even an occasional good one. But after winning the Futurity last week he considered carefully for a minute and then said, "This is the finest trotter that I have ever had. He did what I asked him when I asked him. There is nothing more you can ask of one."
The victory of A. C.'s Viking was the first major stake race success for Russell since 1947, when he drove Chestertown in the 540,000 Nassau Trot at Roosevelt Raceway, a two-mile event long since discontinued. "The Yonkers," he said, "is the biggest money race that I have ever been fortunate enough to win. All my life I have tried to treat every horse the same, but I confess I love this colt very much. He is a natural trotter, and I would be dishonest if I did not say that I prefer a good trotter to a good pacer. For any man who trains or drives harness horses there is one race that he wants to win—The Hambletonian. I have never had a horse as good as this one coming up to The Hambletonian. He has no fancy diet, he can't jump through hoops or smoke cigarettes. He is just a horse. But he sure can move."
Before taking A. C.'s Viking to the post in the Futurity, Russell had analyzed what might happen, and he was absolutely ready. "I figure," he had said, "that Joe O'Brien will probably try to get to the lead with Safe Mission. Gallant Hanover has the inside post position and Joe has No. 2. Gallant Hanover normally doesn't start too well and there is a good chance that Joe will get that lead. My horse can race good if he can get tucked in right behind the leader, but I have to come out of post position 6, and I would have to be awfully lucky to get into that second spot early in the race. I've got to try to outtrot Safe Mission and get the lead right away. With these tight turns at Yonkers, being in front is a distinct advantage."
On race night Russell walked calmly about the paddock area, dressed neatly in his brown silks with white stripes. Whenever anyone would say "Good luck, Mr. Russell," he would carefully remove his gray driving glove, shake the friendly hand firmly and say, "Thank you." Then he took A. C.'s Viking out on the track.
From the start, Russell's race strategy proved sound. Joe O'Brien did try to send Safe Mission to the front, but A. C.'s Viking got there first. Thereafter Safe Mission had nothing but trouble, and, when Rooney Hanover made a bad break in front of him, O'Brien could never recover.
As the field of nine reached the mile Sanders Russell had a length lead, and even though Sprite Rodney closed well in the final sixteenth she never menaced A. C.'s Viking. While the margin of victory for Russell and the Viking was only three-quarters of a length, they had traveled the last sixteenth in 7's, one of the faster final sixteenths in the history of the Yonkers Futurity.
After the race was over Russell was bombarded with best wishes from his better-known juniors. Joe O'Brien and Johnny Simpson came up to him and said, "Congratulations, Mr. Russell." It was all rather formal, quite fitting for a preacher.
Before the field gets to this year's Hambletonian, however, Sanders Russell may be given some uneasy moments by the very same people. Safe Mission, the leading money winner among 2-year-olds, with earnings of $72,211, but a disappointment since, is rounding into shape again. The colt has been bothered by brittle hoof walls; Joe O'Brien has to change the horse's shoes from bar plates to open-faced plates before every race. O'Brien is a genius with sore-footed horses—a Dr. Scholl of the equine world—and Safe Mission will almost surely be ready for The Hambletonian. Anyone who has followed O'Brien's training patterns with Hambletonian or Little Brown Jug candidates knows that his horses consistently go to the post as firm and as fine as plucked strings.
Nor will Safe Mission be the only problem for Russell and A. C.'s Viking. Impish, that mischievous filly (SI Oct. 23), is still around. Although she suffered a cut leg last week she should return to form, and there is no forgetting her 1:58[3/5] mile of last season. If she can come close to that this year, she may be unbeatable. "If you can find one fault with Impish," says Johnny Simpson, "you have to say it is that most of her races have been against fillies. When it comes to The Hambletonian it takes a terrific filly to win. Some people say that it is not as difficult for a filly to win among trotters as among Thoroughbreds, but I'll say this: a filly has to be quite a girl to win The Hambletonian."
Within the next few weeks other Hambletonian candidates will be getting set in major prep races around the country, and their names will become more and more prominent. But as of now, the man with the horse that is the readiest is the old Preacher.