When John Simpson came to New York last week for the Yonkers Futurity, no one was sure just what kind of animal he was training for the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown. His bay colt, Ayres, had been variously called a rogue, a gay neurotic, an outlaw and a suitable subject for Sigmund Freud. Well, he may have been all those things once, but Ayres is now the favorite of sane, sensible horsemen for September's Hambletonian and October's Kentucky Futurity and a place in trotting history beside the two previous Triple Crown horses, Scott Frost and Speedy Scot. At Yonkers, Ayres brilliantly outsped the Futurity field, winning by three and a half lengths in 2:01⅗ track record time for 3-year-olds. His phenomenal final half in 57[4/5] seconds left one horseman wondering if something had gone wrong with the raceway's automatic timer.
Before that tremendous performance there were trotting men who wondered if Ayres, a son of Star's Pride owned by Mrs. Charlotte Sheppard, might revert to his old loco habits. There was a full moon over Yonkers last Thursday and if any transformation was to take place, it seemed a likely time.
One afternoon last year at Delaware, Ohio, Ayres set a world record of 2:00[1/5] in the first heat of a stake for 2-year-olds, and the same day, in the third heat, some kind of record for equine eccentricity. In the middle of the race he abruptly trotted off the track and back to his stall. "Ayres," Simpson insisted nonetheless, "is not a bad-mannered horse." He had an explanation for the Delaware affair. The colt was keyed up and tense. Simpson had seen signs of trouble building. Ayres, who has astonishing natural speed, had raced the previous week in deep mud at Washington Park and had become frantic laboring through the heavy muck. He could not move with his customary light, sure step. Even so, he finished third to Speedy Count, the eventual 2-year-old champion, who won in a snaillike 2:09[2/5].
"At Delaware," Simpson recalls, "the colt literally ran away in the first heat. He was tight and nervous. Between heats I changed his equipment—put a blind bridle on him, thinking it might quiet him—but it made things worse. In the next heat he pulled a boot, got bad-gaited and was beaten. Looking back, I know I should have scratched him from the race-off, but I was mad at him and he got mad at me and that's when he took off back to the barn."
Simpson realized the colt could not be forced. "If you ever whipped him," he says, "he would only fight back. He's got that quality of athletes like Ruth, Williams, Hornung and Hartack. His attitude seems to be, 'I'm Ayres. Who are you?' Most horses don't want to win, or at least don't care about winning. This horse does. He is cocky, sassy and always challenging you."
Fortunately, Simpson is a patient man. There is no horseman better at schooling headstrong, difficult colts than this South Carolinian with the stern, disciplinary manner toward wayward minors. He stands straight, says little and sizes up offenders through silver-rimmed spectacles, looking more like a schoolmaster than a master trainer.
Simpson took Ayres to Orlando, Fla. last winter and spent hundreds of hours driving the colt behind and between horses and working him hard behind the starting gate. "It was the consistent work, the repetition, that made him settle down," Simpson says.
Ayres came to Yonkers with four wins in five starts this year, having been defeated only by the free-for-all trotter Marco Hanover. In a return match he whipped Marco. The colt's speed was never doubted. It amazed horsemen. But they were not wholly convinced that Simpson's reform school had taken the sass out of him.
If Ayres kept his head and stayed on the track and on gait, they reasoned, only one horse had any chance of defeating him. That was Billy Haughton's rangy black trotter Speedy Count, by the young stallion Speedster, the sire of Castleton Farm's Horse of the Year for 1963, Speedy Scot. Speedy Count and Ayres had met six times and had split victories 3-3. Speedy Count was fast but thoroughly dependable and, like Ayres, the winner of four of his five 1964 starts. Ayres had beaten him by three-quarters of a length at The Meadows in June, but Speedy Count had popped a splint in the race and had come out of it sore. Popped splints are usually treated with a firing iron, after which the horse must be given a rest, but with a busy 3-year-old campaign ahead Billy Haughton had to find a faster remedy. One morning a small metal box was flown to Saratoga, where Speedy Count had been shipped. That afternoon a veterinarian opened the box, took two radioactive pellets from it and inserted them in the colt's legs. Three days later Speedy Count won the Battle of Saratoga Stakes "in hand," and 12 days after that, at Vernon Downs, he beat Dartmouth, Bold Viking and Big John—all Hambletonian contenders—in sensational time: two minutes flat.
Speedy Count was the bargain colt of the Hambletonian crop. Haughton had picked him up as a yearling for Florida real estate man Arthur Nardin for only $2,200, and the Count had made a fancy profit for Nardin, winning 25 races all told and $127,890.
The rubber match between the colts at Yonkers seemed to be a toss-up, although Ayres, in drawing the No. 4 post, gained a slight advantage. Speedy Count drew just outside him in post 5.
On the Monday before the Futurity, those who believe in the powers of black cats and broken mirrors shuddered as Haughton cheerfully agreed to pose for publicity shots holding what purported to be a sack of loot and gazing at the race trophy, which was brimming with stage money. The sack, which was labled $120,000, contained only crumpled morning newspapers.
On race night Simpson took Ayres out early to warm him up. The colt played about, pricked his ears, wiggled and jiggled and pretended he was going to kick Simpson. This is an Ayres ritual, and John has learned to put up with it. He says, "The colt is always bluffing. He takes his own time about getting round the track, and when he's going the wrong way he does a silly little dogtrot, carries his head to one side and as much as says to me, 'I dare you to do anything to me.' I don't. I just sit there."
After their own warmups, the Futurity drivers gathered at the paddock fence. They ribbed Stanley Dancer, the driver of Bold Viking, about his sudden interest in flying and his new twin-engine plane. There was some salesmanship and a few tall tales, but as race time approached tension grew and the drivers drifted off. Then the Futurity colts were led up the paddock slope to the track. The drivers slid into the sulkies and paraded past the grandstand. Dorothy Haughton, Billy's pretty blonde wife, looked wistfully at Ayres as he trotted off. "I had his brother, Terrell," she said, "but his legs just didn't work that way."
On their final score the horses passed the paddock gate—all, that is, but Ayres. Remembering Delaware, Simpson hadn't the slightest notion of letting him anywhere near such an invitation to play hooky. He stopped the colt at the end of the backstretch, turned him and let him dogtrot back to the gate.
At the start Simpson left like a quail bursting from cover. As the horses entered the backstretch, Ayres took the lead from Bold Viking, a quick starter who had an inside post. Speedy Count was trotting third. They went the first half in a slow 1:03[4/5] but, passing the grandstand, Haughton pulled his colt to the outside, drawing a roar from the crowd of 29,187, and as they went around the turn into the backstretch again Speedy Count was lapped on Ayres. They did that quarter in a brilliant 28[4/5] and blazed into the final turn neck and neck as Simpson implacably kept Haughton and Speedy Count parked out. The extra distance Speedy Count had covered took its toll. As they turned into the short Yonkers stretch, Ayres pulled away. Coming off the turn Speedy Count's hind leg buckled over, but he recovered and trotted back up on stride. He finished second, a length and a quarter ahead of Ralph Baldwin's Dartmouth and three and a quarter lengths in front of Bold Viking.
No one remembered if there was a time when 3-year-olds had gone such a half. Haughton came back shaking his head. "Ayres is too much the best," he said, perching on a rail. "The only chance I might have to beat him is if I ever get him parked out. You know, these horses would beat the free-for-allers right now."
Simpson returned, beaming. His horse had been cleared of charges. There would be no more talk about Ayres being a psycho. Simpson had sent him to the lead immediately, he explained, "because if you have a horse that can race in front, it's a good place to be on this track. I thought he'd be all right. I tested him out a bit in his last race, letting him get to the top, then easing him back."
An hour later Simpson sat back and relaxed in the clubhouse. A pen, a program and a Martini on the rocks were in front of him. He worked out how much Ayres had earned in the race—55% of $116,691, or $64,180. Then he said to the man sitting next to him, "You know, maybe I should have gone for a world record, but I was thinking of all that money."