On a September day in 1937, an 11-year-old girl slipped into an undersized sulky at the "Red Clay Oval" track in Lexington, Ky. She wore a driver's jacket that had been cut down and basted, stitched and pinned. She tucked her blonde curls under a hat that was several sizes too large and moved her horse onto the starting stretch. Her objective was to break the teen-age harness-horse driving record of 2:05¾.
By the time the clay dust of Lexington's "Red Mile" had cleared, Alma Sheppard had driven Dean Hanover to a mile in 1:58½. No one—man, woman or teen-ager—had ever driven a 3-year-old sulky horse that fast. On the way Alma set records for a lady driver and for an amateur driver—records that still haven't been broken.
For a few weeks little Miss Alma rivaled Shirley Temple as America's Sweetheart. Trotting papers and magazines told the story over and over, progressing from superlative to euphemism to rhapsody. "She was fair of face," said John Hervey in The Harness Horse, "with a sweet, childish profile, a rose-leaf complexion, golden hair and her expression not unlike that of some of the cherubs one sees on a Della Robbia plaque." He added that the little lady's feat "strained the bounds of probability to such an extent that it trespassed upon one's credulity."
It still seems implausible. In Alma's native Pennsylvania today, many politicians think that a girl of 11 should have to wait 10 years before even entering the grounds of one of the Keystone State's plush new harness tracks. A bill to bar persons under 21 from the tracks passed the State House of Representatives recently and is now being considered by the Pennsylvania Senate.
Alma had always been around horses. She was born the same year (1926) that her father, Lawrence B. Sheppard, now chairman of the Pennsylvania State Harness Racing Commission, established the world-famous Hanover Shoe Farms in southern Pennsylvania.
"Horses and all types of animals were her dolls," Sheppard recalled recently. "She had a cocker spaniel named Noodles when she was a little girl and would dress him up in doll clothes, put him in a baby buggy and take him for a ride. The old stallion, Dillon Axworthy, had been retired on our farm when Alma was 7. He was about 25 years old and cantankerous. Alma would go into his stall, wrap his legs like he was going to the races and take him out to graze. He seemed to know that she was something special and he wouldn't hurt her.
"And there was something special about Alma. A horse would try for her—try hard."
When Alma was 4 she started driving harness horses, sitting on the lap of Tom Berry, the famous old driver. A year later she had her own sulky and hitched an old gray mare named Almo to it. Still, Alma might have remained just another rich horseman's daughter had it not been for a fractious 4-year-old mare named Nimble Hanover.
"Nimble was a real outlaw," says Sheppard. "She had been abused somewhere along the line and hated men. Two of the best trainers in the business couldn't do a thing with her. But Alma made friends with Nimble just like a man would with a dog."
On July 27, 1937—less than two months before she set her world's record—Alma climbed into a sulky behind Nimble for her first drive in public. The mare trotted a mile in 2:09¾. Alma became the youngest driver ever to put a horse on the select list of trotters that had bettered 2:10 for the mile.
She didn't stop for a bow at the end of the mile but continued to the stables, where she went to work rubbing Nimble down. When cameramen found her there, she said simply: "I didn't do anything. The horse did it." A week later she drove Nimble through a mile in 2:09½. About this time Sheppard set about rectifying one of his infrequent errors of judgment about horses. Two years earlier he had sent Dean Hanover to the Old Glory Sales in New York and saw him bought by H. Stacy Smith of Short Hills, N.J., for $410. Later Sheppard turned down a chance to buy him back for $6,000 because "no horse was worth that." In 1937 he bought him back for $20,000.
Dean Hanover was the last colt sired by Dillon Axworthy and he had proved to be the fastest—midway through his 3-year-old season he trotted a mile in 2:00¼. "There has never been another one like him and there never will be another one, no matter how long you go," says Sheppard.
Alma had just one practice session with Dean Hanover before the time trial at Lexington. On the day of the trial everything seemed to go wrong. A special driver's jacket and hat ordered for Alma failed to arrive. Henry Thomas, the Hanover Farms' trainer, took one of Sheppard's jackets and cut it down. He pinned one of Sheppard's hats on Alma and then helped her onto her specially built sulky—her legs were too short for a regular-sized one.
As she scored the horse, veteran trainers noted that she was a driver of unusual skill. She sent Dean through the first quarter in 29½ seconds as Thomas kept a Thoroughbred "prompter"—hooked to a sulky but permitted to run—just behind her.
The runner couldn't keep up as Alma and Dean hit the half in 58½ seconds. Many in the big and knowing crowd murmured that Dean would surely be burned out before he finished the mile. But he went the next quarter in 30 seconds and everyone sensed that something special was happening. As they swept down the long homestretch, the horse responded perfectly to Alma's urgings although she never used the whip. The crowd roared when the time was posted as 1:58½, breaking the old record for 3-year-old trotters by three-quarters of a second.
The roar was partly one of disapproval, however. Many people in the stands had clocked the time as low as 1:58. A petition was later circulated by the famous horseman and tobaccoman, W. N. Reynolds, to have the record lowered to that mark. But Alma's time went into the book as 1:58½—and there it remains today.
Alma shrugged the whole thing off, just as she had done before, with "I didn't do anything. The horse did it." But five other drivers—Henry Thomas, Tom Berry, Karl Recor, Dr. H. M. Parshall and Sheppard himself—drove Dean Hanover to world records of one type or another both before and after Alma's ride. And not one was able to better Alma's 1:58½. Alma, herself, never set any more records and retired from driving while still in her teens.