It doesn't seem like much, 1.9 inches of rain—hardly enough to make the weeds grow in one of those empty New York reservoirs. But the 1.9 inches that fell on the fairgrounds at Du Quoin, Ill. last week were a million-dollar deluge. They cost Oilman K. D. Owen $1 million, and trotting its first million-dollar racehorse. A million-dollar driver missed the win he had dreamed of for 30 years, and Noble Victory lost a Hambletonian that not a man in a million thought he could lose.
Instead of the pleasant afternoon romp that was forecast for Owen's Noble Victory, the rain turned the 40th Hambletonian Stake into a seven-hour, four-heat marathon that ended in the Illinois moonlight. The winner by a neck or a nose—it was too dark to be sure—was Egyptian Candor, who managed in the last few strides to pass the tired filly Armbro Flight. And where was Noble Victory? Back at the barn, walking circles around a tree, trying to cool out.
He was not the only one in Du Quoin walking circles. There were three Lexington, Ky. breeders who had arrived in Du Quoin, checkbooks in hand. It was said they intended to buy Noble Victory immediately after he won The Hambletonian and that K. D. Owen had agreed to syndicate him for $1 million, which would have been $500,000 more than had ever been paid for a trotter. A son of the 1958 Hambletonian winner Emily's Pride, he was undefeated and had won 27 of 28 heats, losing one dash as a 2-year-old only because the borrowed sulky he was towing cramped his style.
Stanley Dancer, his famous trainer-driver who isn't above letting a little county fair into his speech if the scene happens to be a county fair, said of the bay colt, "He's a plumb natural trotter. I think he's the best colt there has ever been." Most harness horsemen agreed. They spoke of Noble Victory's effortless gait, his finesse, his perfect circular trotting stroke. One said, "His legs move like a barrel rolling down a hill, and that is the ideal." The trotting breed is relatively young and gait is not yet a truly natural thing, so trainers weight their horses' hooves with lead and rig up special harnesses to keep colts on stride. But Noble Victory wears a minimum of equipment. He is one of few harness horses that is not inbred to a gangly Indiana stallion named Axworthy—and this may account for his easy gait. The Axworthys tend to paddle when they trot and some waddle like a duck.
Well, last Wednesday afternoon Du Quoin was for ducks and not for Noble Victory. A day and a night before the race a river of rain poured down. By Wednesday morning the clay track looked like a stretch of the Mississippi. For 10 hours a crew dragged, scraped and bailed out the track, and when a wind whipped up and the sun came out, Don Hayes, president of the fair, decided to go ahead with the program. He was reluctant to postpone it. Thirty-five thousand fairgoers had paid and were already in their seats. So the Union County High School band of Anna, Ill. played the 21 numbers it knows over and over and after a three-hour and six-minute delay, the first race went off—crawled off would be a more apt description. The winner took 2:20 3/5 to go the mile.
A committee of drivers, among them Stanley Dancer, complained to Hayes. "You can't turn a sulky," one said. "The track is not fit to jog on," another declared. The prospect of such an off track was bothering most of the other Hambletonian drivers more than Dancer. He had won with Noble Victory in heavy mud at Saratoga and on a dull track at Springfield. Armbro Flight, the second favorite, appeared out of it. Like any sensible girl, she despises mud. Even worse, she had drawn the outside post position in the 11-horse field, and this was the wettest part of the racetrack.
Nobody cared if Egyptian Candor liked mud—not even his owner, Mrs. Stanley Dancer. For Rachel Dancer, this day was to be her husband's. He seemed certain, at last, to win The Hambletonian. Noble Victory had already beaten her horse 11 times—which may be why Egyptian Candor got so rattled that he had spent the summer hitting his elbows with his hooves and breaking stride. Only the Dancer children were loyal to the colt. They told Stanley, "We'd sure like to see you win, Dad, but we've got to root for Mom."
Mrs. Dancer and Stanley had asked soft-spoken Del Cameron to drive Egyptian Candor. Del is 45, a fine and experienced horseman who in the last few years has not been able to win a stake. It was Del who gave Stanley his first drive in The Hambletonian back in 1953.
Always a colt who "takes his own sloppy time about things," as Stanley Dancer puts it, Noble Victory would not warm up until he got some persistent prodding from Stanley's whip. He moved with the grace of a duck hunter being sucked into a marsh. The wet clay of Du Quoin was different from the wet sand he had won on before.
If anyone failed to notice, the first heat demonstrated in convincing fashion that this was not Noble Victory's day. He plowed to the front and led to the stretch. Then he tired, his pure gait fell apart and he floundered to the finish. He could only beat two horses. The winner was Short Stop, much to Driver Ned Bower's amazement. "The track is better than I thought," he said. Stanley Dancer did not agree.
Meanwhile (never mind the boss's worries), Del Cameron had sent to the barn for bell boots for Egyptian Candor. Rachel Dancer's colt had looked like he might win at the eighth pole, but he had suddenly begun pacing. Cameron knew that if he increased the weight on the colt's front legs it would keep him on the trot. Bell boots weigh six ounces. The six ounces helped, helped so much in fact that in the second heat Egyptian Candor led from start to finish. Cameron sat in the sulky like a block of ice as Nimble Boy and Armbro Flight stormed up beside him. He beat them home by a nose and a neck. "I came down the stretch," Del said later, "and I was wishing that wire would move closer. Any minute I felt my colt would shift over to a pace. I couldn't drive him. I was afraid to." Again Noble Victory broke stride from fatigue, but this time he managed to beat three horses.
Before the third heat Cameron had a blacksmith put two-ounce weights on Egyptian Candor's front feet, figuring if six ounces of bell boot had helped, a little lead would, too. This done, the colt began to trot even better. He was on or near the lead throughout the third mile. But the pace was quick, and it quickened still more in the stretch. Egyptian Candor had too little left when Armbro Flight challenged on the outside. The filly won by a nose.
The moon came up, the sun went down, but The Hambletonian was not yet over. To take harness racing's classic event, a horse must win two heats. There had been three heats and three winners. A race-off among the winners was now necessary. The paddock was dark and the three horses that were left stood in eerie silence. Short Stop had an aching stifle. Egyptian Candor had a wet rag between his ears to cool his brow and Armbro Flight had a chain to chew on to quiet her nerves. The filly whinnied, eager to be home. It was seven hours since the harness had been put on her the first time.
At 7:30 p.m. the horses were hustled back to the track for the fourth heat. Short Stop broke going away from the gate and did not figure after that. Armbro Flight took the lead and coasted into the backstretch a length in front of Egyptian Candor. The pace was slow until the two horses approached the far turn. "I knew she could outbrush me if I let her lead into the homestretch," Del Cameron said afterwards. He went after Armbro at the three-eighths pole. The colt and filly swept round the turn head to head, hub to hub. Cameron later recalled muttering to himself, "O.K., let's have a horse race." The lead switched back and forth, the drivers rocked in their sulkies and slashed with their whips. They crossed the finish like a team, by the light of the moon and camera flashes.
Rachel Dancer had won her Hambletonian. But there was a certain sadness, too. She knew that Stanley had wanted this Hambletonian himself. She knew he had refused to drive her colt in the fourth heat even though Del Cameron had offered him the horse. Rachel Dancer had not really wanted her colt to win. And neither had Del Cameron. He told the Dancers after the race, "This was one I did not want." It seems only Egyptian Candor did.