Folks in pleasant little Delaware, Ohio (pop. 13,282) had not been as keyed up over a race since a home-town boy named Rutherford B. Hayes upset Samuel J. Tilden in the electoral college by a single vote, back in 1876. Last week it was Overtrick against Meadow Skipper and Country Don in the Little Brown Jug, the 3-year-old pace that is the apple of Delaware's eye, and when Overtrick blitzed them in two world-record-breaking heats, the town was wrung out.
Hank Thomson, the country editor who puts on the show, took to his bed exhausted and under doctors' care. Long after dusk, Mrs. Leonard J. Buck, Over-trick's owner and the grandmother of nine, was still cooling out over a stinger, saying: "I can't stand this excitement." It just proves that the rich, despite what Scott Fitzgerald said, are not entirely different from you and me. Helen Buck and her husband, a mining magnate, dwell in the moneyed precincts of Far Hills, N.J., winter at a cozy 1,100-acre plantation in Georgia, plow as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year into Standardbred yearlings—and die at the races.
At least Mrs. Buck does. Leonard Buck, master of the Allwood Stables, hasn't really been shaken up since the days when he played lacrosse for Lehigh and Jim Thorpe was an opponent at Carlisle. He was not always a horseman. But a dozen years ago the Bucks visited a well-known trotting man, Octave Blake, president of harness racing's Grand Circuit, at Pinehurst, N.C. Blake did some missionary work. "We went to Pinehurst to get health," Buck says, "and we got horses."
Mrs. Buck felt butterflies within when her stable's grand trotters, Kimberly Kid and The Intruder (Hambletonian winner in 1956), performed, but, despite heavy expenditures, the Bucks did not have many horses to get excited about over the years.
When Overtrick, a bay of elegant conformation, dominated the 2-year-old stakes last year, the breeders were thankful, and Mrs. Buck was touching ground only on every second step. Mrs. Buck bred Overtrick herself, sending her mare Overbid to the stallion Solicitor. That refreshed her appetite for racing, since horse people have a special feeling about homebreds. Overtrick blazed into 1963 looking much the best of his class. Mrs. Buck was not calm. Then along came Meadow Skipper and Country Don, and what was left of Mrs. Buck's peace of mind disintegrated.
Country Don, to take the improbable one first, is owned by two young French-Canadian businessmen, Andre Mercure and Roger Garon, who have precisely one other racehorse. This is their first year as owners, and they picked up the Don, a son of Adios Boy, for only $30,000. "This," said Mercure on Jug morning, "is a very nice hobby."
Nice? C'est sensationnel. Country Don is trained and driven by a fellow Quebecois, Marcel Dostie, 34, who used to rub horses for the famous Joe O'Brien. He is a happy-go-lucky fellow but "a cool cat in a race." Twice this year Dostie had guided the Don to victories over Overtrick, and now there were whispers that Overtrick had been overraced and was dull.
The whispers multiplied when Norman S. Woolworth's Meadow Skipper, driven by 69-year-old Earle Avery, thumped Overtrick at New York's Yonkers Raceway in the $163,000 Cane Futurity, taking this first pace in the Triple Crown series in the track-record time of 1:58 4 /5. Said Woolworth, "I really thought Overtrick stood out this year. I figured Meadow Skipper could pick up enough seconds and thirds to earn maybe $50,000 for the season. But the Jug intrigues me. We drew the third post, with Country Don just inside us and Overtrick trailing in the second tier on the rail. I can't see any of the other eight horses winning. Country Don should leave well. With our horse it's a question. We have tried to teach him to leave adequately. Another thing, he scared the devil out of Earle, at first, by taking a lot of little extra steps when he was supposed to be pacing. If Meadow Skipper can survive in the first turn and not get hung out away from the rail too long, we have a chance. But if Country Don hangs us out there and the two of us burn ourselves out, then it will be Overtrick coming on."
When the racegoer's money spoke, however, it had a French accent. Spectators in record numbers—possibly the 39,847 claimed—stuffed themselves into the tiny grandstand, filled a bleacher section and rimmed Delaware's half-mile track six to eight deep in places, and for the first heat they made Country Don the 8-to-5 favorite. Next was Meadow Skipper at 9 to 5, then Overtrick at 2 to 1. Poor Mrs. Buck.
The Bucks' trainer-driver is the 43-year-old Georgian, Johnny Patterson. As a venturer of opinions Patterson is on the silent side of Cal Coolidge. He said he had an "open mind" as to strategy and reckoned that Overtrick was in "good shape." Everyone else was talking, though, and mostly about speed. Delaware is the country's fastest half-mile track because of its saucerlike shape, its wide turns and lively, sharply banked surface. The race meeting had already produced a remarkable 2:00 1/5 mile by Mrs. Charlotte Sheppard's 2-year-old trotter, Ayres, and other world records were falling like Ohio buckeyes in autumn. Horsemen expected the 1960 record of 1:58 3/5 for 3-year-old pacers to be reduced in the Jug, but they were not prepared for what actually happened.
It was the most stunning mass display of speed ever unleashed by Standardbreds. All 11 horses broke two minutes in the first heat; Overtrick was caught in the phenomenal time of 1:57 1/5.
Woolworth's analysis proved to be perfect. Country Don sprinted for the lead and, hustled hard by Dostie, reached the three-quarter pole in 1:26 4/5, an unheard-of pace. But that cooked the Don. Meadow Skipper was shuffled back at the start. He was able to get to the rail only briefly, Avery quickly jerking him back out again from behind the tiring Country Don. It was Patterson who turned out to be the cool cat. He breezed the first half on the rail never worse than fifth, but was outside thereafter. Three horses wide, he swung through the last turn, and with a wonderful finishing wallop beat Meadow Skipper by a length and a quarter, Country Don laboring home third.
It takes two winning heats to make a Jug. In the first, Overtrick earned the rail for the second, and of course Meadow Skipper and Country Don started next outside him. Speed? This time it was Overtrick by two lengths over Country Don in 1:57 3/5 as he led at every call, and now Meadow Skipper came third.
Afterward, it was hard to tell who had won and who had lost. Patterson, a Godfearing teetotaler of such alarmingly good character that he often has been taken for a lay preacher, cut into a petit four at Hank Thomson's party and allowed that "with decent racing luck" Overtrick seemed to be "equal to the others." Pshaw, Johnny, that horse is one of the greatest pacers this country has ever seen.
At the same affair, loser Norm Wool-worth talked lightheartedly of the New York Rangers' hockey prospects. A couple of miles away, the biggest winner of all, Mrs. Buck, sighed and sipped her stinger. She wanted to know whether people really thought Overtrick was an outstanding horse. Well, he should prove it even to Mrs. Buck and Johnny Patterson by winning the $150,000 Messenger Stakes at Roosevelt in November.