By overpowering 14 rivals in two straight heats of last week's $116,-000 Hambletonian Stake, a resolute old gentleman named Sanders Russell not only proved that his brawny colt, A.C.'s Viking, is the champion 3-year-old trotter of the land but also struck a blow against premature retirement. Fame reached out and embraced the previously obscure Mr. Russell at age 62, to the unalloyed delight of the country folk who comprised most of the 37,000 Hambletonian spectators at the Du Quoin (Ill.) State Fair.
Oh, there were anxious moments of doubt after the second heat (two mile-heat victories are required to win). At the finish it looked as if that celebrated driver, Johnny Simpson, a whippersnapper of 42 who year after year has his pick of some of our most fashionably bred colts, might have sneaked his ebony-black trotter Isaac in ahead of the Viking. The photo finish showed he had not, and a joyful cheer rolled out for Mr. Russell and his big bay horse.
Russell is always called Mr. Russell or Preacher, because of his dignified mien (SI, July 30), and he hails from the little Tennessee River valley town of Stevenson, Ala. He has no pulpit there but is a steward in the First Methodist Church. Now, with The Hambletonian won, he sat in his sulky in mid-track, surrounded by pretty, bare-legged local high school girls dressed in racing silks, and smiled a dignified ghost of a smile for the photographers. He looked very much as though he'd just seen a $50 bill drop in his collection plate back home and didn't want to chortle right out loud.
"When I asked him for it," he said of the Viking, his pale-blue eyes twinkling behind steel-rimmed Grandma Moses spectacles, "he had enough to get home. He usually does."
Mr. Russell had dislocated his right ankle in a racing accident five weeks before. There was a heavy bandage on the still-painful ankle (a cast had just been removed), and he wore a tennis shoe, which rested against a padded foot support while he drove. From the sulky he stepped into the crutches on which he had been hobbling ever since the accident. Courage? Fortitude? Mr. Russell has them, although he admitted he "didn't know he had an ankle" in the flush of combat.
Then another old gentleman joined Mr. Russell in Du Quoin's Victory Lane. He was Andrew C. Petersen, 69, the millionaire milkman from West Hartford, Conn., who owns the Viking and has also risen from obscurity. "Thank you, thank you," A. C. said to one and all. Then he sat in the shade of Du Quoin's quaint old double-roofed judges' pagoda and spoke of the wonders of America.
"I was one of 21 sons and daughters on a farm in Jutland in Denmark," he said, "and, naturally, I wanted to leave home. I did not want to go on milking cows and shoveling manure for $100 a year. I wanted to go to America and be a cowboy.
"When I was 19 I sailed across in steerage and landed with $50, which I had borrowed, in my pocket. I didn't know a word of English. I had an uncle in Hartford, so I went to Hartford and got a job in a leather shop—$8 a week for 60 hours' work. My uncle thought I was crazy to give up the security of that job to become a milkman."
Crazy like a fox, the immigrant boy drove here and there delivering milk, spotted farm land that would obviously have to be absorbed by an expanding Hartford, saved and borrowed, and bought land cheap and sold dear. Today he has eight dairy farms, buys milk from 100 additional farms and has sales running to $3 million a year.
It was not until 1945 that Petersen bought his first harness horse—the broodmare Volo Mae. She foaled Petersen's onetime world champion mare Volo A. C, who is the dam of—good guess—A.C.'s Viking. Steamship agents used to tell impressionable immigrants that milk and honey flowed in the streets of American cities. For Petersen it has been milk and money all the way.
Everything, it seems, conspired to make the texture of this year's Hambletonian rich, varied, pleasurable and apple-pie American. The weather was ideal—hot, as southern Illinois always is in August, but quite bearable in the sun and cool in the shade of lofty pin oak trees. A city dweller looked gratefully upon neat, red-trimmed white stables and varicolored racing tack strewn beneath stableside awnings; upon the horseshoer's clangorous, rustic tent; upon the pleasant bustle of livestock show rings and an old-fashioned carnival midway; and upon the droll antics of George Burns and Carol Channing, stars of an open-air show.
The race itself was a dandy, as everyone knew it would be when post positions were announced. Rarely had the best horses drawn so poorly. Five were to start in the second tier, behind a front row 10 sulkies wide, and each of the five trailers was a possible winner. The Viking drew the outside 15th spot; Impish, fastest trotter at 2 in harness history, was two places inside of him; and Spry Rodney, another brilliant filly, was next inside Impish. Spry was stuck behind a slow, forgettable beast named Dubble T.—a somewhat frivolous entry—and Spry's driver, Del Miller, fumed that he'd have to get a fiber-glass pole to vault over this probable roadblock.
Two other sharp fillies, Sprite Rodney and Worth Seein, drew posts 5 and 7. Between them was Joe O'Brien's swift but unsound colt Safe Mission. The miserable 10th post on the extreme outside of the first tier went to Isaac.
"I can't accurately say what's going to happen at the start," mused Mr. Russell, leaning on his crutches in the paddock. "Luckily we drew in behind one of the best leavers, Sprite Rodney, and that should help us. My horse worked a fine mile last week in 2:00 4/5. He just eats, rests and trots. He's a good athlete, and he lets me do the driving."
Because the veteran Frank Ervin trains both Impish and Sprite Rodney and undoubtedly thought Impish the better filly, there was speculation that he might have Eddie Wheeler, up behind Sprite, choke her back at the start to give Russell trouble right away. But no such hanky-panky occurred.
As the starting gate's wide white wings folded, Sprite was away flying, with the Viking right with her. Russell had his big Hoot Mon colt tucked neatly against the rail, up near the front, as the field swung into the first turn. He didn't have to pull out again until deep into the stretch at the eighth pole. Some thought he might never be able to get out. But, as Russell said later, the Viking "found a little place to get his nose through, and then here he come."
And how! Fifth when he began to move, the Viking swung three horses wide and murdered the others with great ground-devouring strides, winning the heat by 1¾ lengths in the extremely fast time of 1:59 3/5. Safe Mission finished second, ahead of Impish, who had been in front for most of the heat but was laboring at the wire. She had not raced for five weeks and probably was short, as horsemen say.
Russell did not risk being pinned to the rail in the second heat. After racing in fifth place to the half he pulled out, went two horses wide in the turn and again got from the Viking a stunning stretch drive. This time Simpson slipped through along the rail with Isaac, closed with astonishing power but ran out of track. It was the Viking in 2:00 flat, by the shortest of heads.
Meeting at Du Quoin the day after the race, The Hambletonian Society voted to postpone until October 21 a decision on where to hold the stake in 1964 and afterward. Gene and Don Hayes, who have staged it with style and beauty at their Du Quoin fair since 1957, will have the race again next year at least. They deserve to keep it for many more.