John R. Gaines wants to win every prize in horse racing. Frank Ervin has already won just about everything he has sought. Last week Owner Gaines and Trainer Ervin got together in Du Quoin, Ill. and scored the biggest victory of their respective careers. They won The Hambletonian, most prestigious of all trotting races, with a game filly named Kerry Way.
For Gaines, the victory was a major milestone—the first of what he envisions as a series of classic triumphs for his horses. For Ervin, it was neither the first nor the richest of his many successes, but he worked hard for it and when it was over he was willing to call it, "my best win of all."
Kerry Way's victory was a tribute to the skill or daring or luck that has made Gaines an important figure in racing. He is the only man to win the biggest prize in trotting while concentrating on Thoroughbred racing. During the last four years Gaines has sold much of his harness-racing stock, at the same time building a small financial empire of syndicated Thoroughbred stallions and high-priced mares. His most remarkable feat was the $1 million syndication of a 2-year-old colt—Fathers Image—that had never won a stakes race.
Gaines's efforts with trotters have been more modest. "But that may only be temporary," he said last week. "I'm concentrating on Thoroughbreds now to get a strong start in the business. But my family has been in trotting for 75 years. Soon I may get back into it on a large scale. It can be done. I can follow the pattern of a John E. Madden." Madden's pattern is a racing legend. He bred five Kentucky Derby winners as well as the winners of many trotting classics. Comparison to Madden might seem almost sacrilegious to some horsemen, but to Gaines, who is 37 and figures he has time to catch up with any legend, it is just being realistic.
Kerry Way got to The Hambletonian by a circuitous route of Gaines deals. Gaines bought a mare named Beloved for $5,000, bred her to Star's Pride and got Kerry Way. He sold Kerry Way to Thomas Eaton, then took another look at her and bought her back at a sale after Eaton died. But the deal that helped Gaines most took place 10 years earlier, when he and his father, Clarence F. Gaines, put their trust in Frank Ervin.
In 46 years of training and driving, the 62-year-old Ervin helped develop Adios and Good Time and is solely responsible for the brilliant career of Bret Hanover, probably the best harness horse that has ever raced. He has also acquired a special reputation for handling fillies. In the trying days before this year's Hambletonian, Kerry Way tested that reputation to the utmost. After defeating all the best colts last year, Kerry Way ran into trouble this season. There was an ankle infection, then a toothache and finally a bruised knee. Ervin pulled the tooth a few days before the race and kept a water hose trained on the right knee until shortly before post time.
Kerry Way made it to the post, but many observers questioned her soundness. They gave her fairly equal consideration with three colts—Polaris, Carlisle and Governor Armbro. Gaines disagreed. "We'll send her right to the front," he said, "and I don't think they'll ever catch her. If she's all right, she'll win in straight heats."
Kerry Way did go right to the front, nobody ever caught her and she did win in straight heats to become the first filly to capture the race since 1958. But it wasn't quite as easy as it seemed. Kerry Way, it turned out, was not "all right." She needed a daring move by Ervin and some very good luck to win.
There was little doubt about the first heat as Kerry Way took the lead at the start, fought off several challengers, and beat Polaris by three-quarters of a length. The time of 1:58[4/5] set a Hambletonian record for fillies and also made Ervin the first harness driver ever to record 100 two-minute miles.
As Kerry Way jogged back to the paddock, however, Ervin forgot all about his new record. There was a spot of blood on the inside of the filly's right knee. "She brushed it in the race," Frank said. "If she does it again she might break. I'll have to try something."
Ervin and Dr. Tom Dunkin, his veterinarian, stood for a long time in front of Kerry Way's stall, talking quietly. Ervin finally decided to use protective knee boots for the second heat. "And I disagreed," Dunkin said later. "The filly had never worn knee boots in her life. Often when a trotter feels the boots the first time, he'll go off stride and into a pace. I didn't think it was worth taking that risk."
Dunkin was right by any standard but Ervin's. The trainer had everything to lose. If Kerry Way raced badly without the boots, no one would fault Ervin for staying with the equipment that won the first heat. But if she failed with the boots, he would have all the responsibility. "I must admit," Gaines said later, "that my father and I were pretty shocked when we saw her come out with knee boots. It took a lot of confidence for Frank to try them."
Ervin himself wasn't thinking about responsibility or confidence. He was worrying only about his horse. "I was scared to use the boots," he said, "but I was more scared to leave them off." So the boots stayed on, Kerry Way trotted well and Ervin was a winner—with a strong assist from an adventurous Swede named Olaf Widell.
Widell drove Shatter Way, the first European trotter ever to come here for The Hambletonian. The colt was surprisingly fast, but the driver was just surprising. At the start of the first heat, he knocked Rocket Rodney off stride, then veered out into Governor Armbro. "Everywhere I tried to go," said Joe O'Brien, driver of Governor Armbro, "that Swedish horse would be inside me."
George Sholty, who drove Polaris, had a similar problem in the second heat. On the final turn Billy Haughton's Carlisle and Shatter Way were battling for the lead, with Kerry Way and Polaris behind them. Ervin steered Kerry Way into the clear; Sholty couldn't follow him in time. Widell's horse dropped back just enough to trap Sholty and Polaris along the rail, and by the time Sholty got free, Ervin had the heat won. Polaris closed with a rush to get within a neck of the winner, but Kerry Way trotted the second mile in 1:59⅗ giving her a combined record time for a straight-heat victory.
"A lot of people were saying this was a weak field," Ervin said. "But if I set a record, and had to go all out to do it, there must have been something pretty good behind me. It was a good race."
Later John and Clarence Gaines sipped pink champagne at a victory party, while Frank Ervin sat on a red-and-green camp chair outside Kerry Way's stall, holding court with the citizens of rural Illinois.
"This is the big one to win," said Ervin. "Others give away more money, but they're not the same. I won a $160,000 race at one of those New York raceways last year. They gave me a trophy and then kicked me right off the track so they could bring out a bunch of $7,500 claimers for the next race. Out here you can relax and enjoy the feeling of winning a great race. You can feel, you know, right at home."