A lot of people who ordinarily are not much interested in watching harness races—and that sometimes includes grooms, drivers, trainers and others of the trotting establishment—are profoundly interested in watching the current series between Cardigan Bay and Bret Hanover. Last week, when these two met for the second time, at Roosevelt Raceway, the general public in the stands was enthralled, and the expert horsemen in the paddock area, who would not be stirred by anything remotely routine, were spellbound.
A big share of the public present had never seen a harness race before and came simply because Cardigan and Bret are the two fastest pacing horses in the world. In addition, they are such sharp contrasts that there is something elementary about their rivalry: you can understand it without knowing what the word pacing means. Cardigan is a 10-year-old gelding from New Zealand, all battered and patched up, a miraculous survivor of innumerable racing misadventures. Bret is a sleek, handsome, crowd-loving 4-year-old with a record equally impressive to neophyte and expert. When they met for the first time at Yonkers Raceway three weeks ago (SI, May 30), the crowd that filled the place to capacity was also notable for the number of newcomers. Last Saturday night at Roosevelt it was the same sort of crowd, with a minor difference. It was bigger. Probably never before have so many new fans joined the enthusiasts of the sport in such a brief time. And there will be many more newcomers for the third meeting at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Park on Saturday.
The lonely eminence of Cardigan Bay and Bret Hanover had become conspicuous before their first race, but part of the shock of that race was the revelation that Bret had so formidable a companion up there. Stanley Dancer, who bought Cardigan Bay in New Zealand and drove him to victory in that first meeting (only the fourth defeat in Bret's career), was asked how he would compare his horse with the great American pacers of the past. "I think Bret is the greatest horse we've ever produced in America," Dancer said, "and Cardigan Bay had to be good to beat him."
Race No. 2 was entitled the Revenge Pace, a mile race with a $50,000 purse, win betting only. Three added starters attracted no attention whatsoever. There were 37,423 paying spectators at Roosevelt on a mild summery night. Many of them were wearing I'M FOR BRET or I'M FOR CARDIGAN BAY badges that were distributed at the track gates. Big signs were carried around by cheering squads, like those displayed at Mets baseball games, SENIOR CITIZENS FOR CARDIGAN BAY! read one, and another said, BRET BY 5 LENGTHS—WOULD YOU BELIEVE 2? Then there were the cheerleaders, eight trim little women, two teams of four, wearing the colors of the rival stables. The two horses, however, appeared to be the least vengeful principals ever involved in a grudge fight. During the long afternoon before the race, nearly everybody even remotely connected with the contestants slept, and Bret and Cardigan dozed in their stalls on opposite sides of the same stable, exuding boredom. Cardigan appeared more homely than majestic. "I was disappointed the first time I saw him in New Zealand," Dancer said. "A $100,000 horse—you know, you expect something outstanding in appearance."
Bret was a shade less placid, but looked more like-a horse who had won 48 of his 52 races (finishing second the other four times) and $617,137. He has equaled the world record of 1:55 for the mile on a mile track, and holds the record of 1:57 on a half-mile track. That is undoubtedly why a poll of drivers in the paddock before the race showed that 18 of 28 thought Bret would win. Their majority opinion was somewhat weakened by the fact that they also thought he should have beaten Cardigan Bay the first time. Some were openly critical of Bret's driver, the 61-year-old Frank Ervin. They said he was outsmarted by 38-year-old Stanley Dancer.
Ervin is a friendly, quiet individual with 45 years of racing experience, an outdoorsman who loves to hunt on his Florida acres. But his closest friends admit he is acutely sensitive to criticism. When asked at Roosevelt if his appraisal of Bret Hanover's condition would determine his strategy, Ervin coughed politely and said, "He is in excellent condition, and he does whatever you ask him to. As for the strategy of a race, it is determined the instant the starting gate pulls away. I have my own plan for this race, but I'm not going to be egged into revealing what it is. It will be apparent when the race is run."
It was. When the race started, those drivers not competing lined the rail in the paddock area in silent concentration. Somebody said in a dry voice, "He's getting them away fast," as the starting gate shot ahead and the wings folded back. For the first time in Bret's career, Ervin used the whip to get his pacer away fast and on top. The pattern of the race was established. Presently another voice said of the first quarter, "Exactly 29." Ervin had Bret on the rail, with Stanley Dancer trying to get Cardigan around the other horses on the outside—almost the reverse of the situation in the first race. Bret held the lead. The horsemen along the rail were now shouting with the enthusiasm of the wearers of I'M FOR BRET badges. At the half, when Cardigan again moved up and Bret again pulled ahead, an exultant voice was shouting over and over, "Oh, no, you don't! Not tonight you don't!"
The finish was an anticlimax, with a 30-to-l shot, Rex Pick, coming in behind Bret to take second place from a frustrated Cardigan by three-quarters of a length. When the spotlight focused on Bret in the winner's circle the public-address system intoned, "Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the greatest pacer in the history of the world." No one around the paddock raised any objections.