Fireworks banged and flared along the backstretch in salute to the invisible man and his magical horse. They came jogging up the track to the paddock at New York's Roosevelt Raceway, as the largest harness racing audience but one in American annals—53,279 bemused souls—cheered them on. For most of the spectators, Driver Keith Waples and his sturdy brown trotter, Tie Silk, had assumed form and substance only a few moments earlier when they seized victory for Canada in our most glamorous race, the $50,000 Roosevelt International, from Driver Stanley Dancer and the favored native son, Su Mac Lad, by a neck.
Tie Silk wore a shimmering blanket of "spun gold," as the announcer put it, and Waples a huge grin. "Bravo!" cried a Latin type when Waples dismounted.
"Murr-ci," replied the bald, blue-eyed Canadian, diving linguistically into the spirit of the affair.
Fearful that he would vanish at the stroke of midnight, a reporter hurried to Waples, and was given a quizzical look. "This is the first time the press has ever talked to me in New York," he said smilingly. Waples is 38, the father of four, has been driving trotters in Canada and the U.S. since he was 12 (starting at Canadian county fairs), lives in Victoria Harbour, Ontario and claims he is "just average" as Canadian drivers go.
"I won two races last night at Woodbine, Ontario," he said, "and flew in to New York to drive Tie Silk. I'd forgotten my whip, so I borrowed one from an American driver—had to use it, too. That Tie Silk was full of trot. We lay fifth most of the distance. He wanted to get out from the rail a couple of times, but we were boxed in and couldn't get loose until we were coming up to the mile. Then we closed in behind Su Mac, and I felt we had it won at the head of the stretch." They did, but only by an all-out drive to the wire.
What Waples (pronounced like Naples) did not need to explain is that Tie Silk is so familiar to U.S. racing fans that on this crisp, starlit evening he was more sensed than seen and appreciated, like the steps of one's house. Tie Silk is approximately as Canadian as beaten biscuits and country ham. He was bred in the Kentucky Bluegrass and "made" as a colt by the superb Grand Circuit trainer, Ralph Baldwin (Canadian born himself). Touchy of mouth and capricious of manner, Tie Silk was nursed to second place in the 1959 Hambletonian Stake by Baldwin. After The Hambletonian he was sold north for $40,000 to the Miron brothers of Quebec, who have a large racing stable.
Tie Silk was always a good trotter but, because of his hypersensitive mouth, never of the first rank. He could not be rated; he raced on his own terms and judgment. But as the best Canadian-owned trotter he became the perennial Canadian International entry, finishing sixth to Hairos II in 1960 and third to Su Mac Lad last year. Last September he broke a bone in his left front ankle, but this soon healed. He was first given to Waples to train in February.
Although he had increased his lifetime earnings to a fat $265,370, with money finishes in sizable races, Tie Silk was considered no great threat to the American pair of Porterhouse and Su Mac Lad in the International. Except for long-shot players, who got a price of 10 to 1 on him, the Roosevelt crowd did not give him a thought. After all, the 4-year-old Porterhouse had set a world record of 2:32.3 for the International distance the week before, defeating in that race Su Mac himself. And Su Mac, an 8-year-old bay gelding, was considered "short" in that event, having just recovered from one of his many quarter-crack injuries. He was to be ready for a supreme effort in the International.
Speed and on-the-track experience rested with the Yankee trotters. For glamour one looked not to Tie Silk, certainly, but to the European horses: Italy's Newstar, winner of the premier Continental race, the Prix d'Amérique; France's Nicias Grandchamp; Belgium's Mon Poulot; Germany's Eidelstedter; to New Zealand's grande dame, the 11-year-old mare, Ordeal; to the mysterious Thomas Atkyns from Argentina, who ultimately arrived, after many adventures, too late to race.
Roosevelt's demon talent scouts have a knack for spotting foreign trotters of eccentric tastes and habits. First it was France's artichoke-eating Jamin, powerful winner of the inaugural International of 1959. Last year it was Kracovie, who pined until given a goat as stable companion. While this was not a vintage year for eccentricity, it had its moments. Eidelstedter was a frisky beast; he jauntily kicked five teeth afloat in the mouth of his groom on the air journey to the U.S. At the barn reserved for foreign horses he was fond of poking his head through the door and taking a nip at every arm within biting range. A creature of wide-ranging appetites, he licked honey from a can for dessert. All the invaders were said to be high-spirited. "They are very gay," reported one European newsman, employing the dictionary meaning of the word. "Eidelstedter has never been more vivid than he is right here," he added.
About the race, however, Eidelstedter's driver, Johannes Fromming, spoke for all foreign drivers when he said, "We fear the Amerikaner." Nobody was concerned about Waples and Tie Silk, and they were decidedly inconspicuous through a good part of the race. It was Su Mac, leaving from No. 3 post, who looked the most vivid as he brushed three horses wide to take the lead just past the first turn. Porterhouse had drawn the rail position and stayed there, trotting beautifully. Nicias Grandchamp hung on the rim between Su Mac and Porterhouse—and stayed there and stayed there. When he broke gait in the next-to-last turn, just after the¾-mile mark, he may have upset Porterhouse. ("That cost Porterhouse the race," said his driver, Earle Avery, later.) Tie Silk, after a comfortable, ground-saving journey, breezed up behind Su Mac approaching the mile and simply outtrotted him in the stretch. The early brush had cost Su Mac dearly.
Still, the finish was thrillingly close. You could have heard a mink stole drop in the track's glass-enclosed dining room and clubhouse areas, where a host of lacquered ladies and their white-tied escorts breathlessly waited for the numbers to be posted. There was a gasp and a roar when Tie Silk's was put up. And then there was Waples, invisible no longer, a man of flesh and blood and, now, considerable international fame, grinning his way to the winner's circle. He may still be grinning.
With the International past, trotting fans now turn to the most important race of all, next Wednesday's Hambletonian, at Du Quoin, Ill. Rarely have so many first-class colts and fillies clamored for backing. Rarely, indeed, have they been so unpredictable. News that Driver Sanders Russell has purchased 28 tickets for friends for Hambletonian Day was the clincher for some observers. They are sure Russell's Hoot Mon colt, A.C.'s Viking, winner of 10 of 11 races this year, is going to be the winner. Russell did not invite his guests out just to see the Du Quoin fair. But for other speculators there remain some nagging questions. Will Impish, off form recently, regain the incomparable turn of speed she displayed as a 2-year-old? Will Safe Mission accelerate his recent sharp improvement under Joe O'Brien's careful hand? Will those marvelous fillies, Sprite Rodney, Spry Rodney and Worth Seein, find the stamina to go with their undoubted speed? Will foxy John Simpson astonish us once more (as he did in The Messenger Stake this spring with a 71-1 upset victory) by scoring with his slowly developing Isaac?
Oh, well, let's say it is going to be A.C.'s Viking.