There were only a few people in the little restaurant in Du Quoin, Ill., and the rich, deep, faintly humorous voice of K. D. Owen seemed to fill the room. Owen, a geologist, horse owner and fine storyteller from Houston, talked about trotting horses and made wry comments, but his mood was unusually cautious. A day later and just a few furlongs away, on the hard and fast mile track at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds, a colt named Speedy Streak was to start in the most important of all trotting races, The Hambletonian. Owen is half owner of Speedy Streak as a partner of Clarence and John Gaines, and the colt was one of the choices. "That doesn't mean much," Owen said. "He's a good horse, but I've had others that looked much better favorites here, and we all know what happened to them."
What happened was that they lost, badly. In 1960 many believed that Owen's Uncle Sam would sweep the race in two straight heats. He finished eighth in the first and 17th in the second as Blaze Hanover went on to win. Five years later K. D. was back in Du Quoin with the prohibitive choice, Noble Victory. He felt so confident that he flew in a group of friends from Texas and brought several carloads of people from his old cattle farm in Indiana. Noble Victory had lost only one heat in his life before The Hambletonian. K. D. and his legions watched him lose three heats in one afternoon and place out of the money. "This year I didn't bring any friends with me," Owen said. "I did ask one old boy on my farm if he wanted to come. He looked up at me real slowly and said, 'If you don't mind, Mr. Owen, I reckon I'm a little tired of watching you get beat.' "
So K. D. arrived alone, spent two days bracing himself for the worst—and then watched Speedy Streak trot to a straight-heat victory. When the race was over, nearly all involved agreed that no one deserved it more than Owen, who has put so much into the sport. "I can hardly believe I finally won this race," K. D. said. "I was prepared for almost anything to go wrong."
The odd contingencies of every Hambletonian are reflected by the whole Du Quoin scene. To most trotting fans Du Quoin is another world. The track lies at the east end of a bustling, noisy fairgrounds, and sometimes the horses seem lost amid the Ferris wheels and sideshows. The clear rhythmic sound of hooves in a morning workout is occasionally drowned out by a freak show barker ("Brand new this year—strange creatures from Vee-et-nayem"), and the fresh, strong smell of horses and liniment mingles with the odors from barbecue pits and popcorn machines. Between races on some days, vaudeville acts entertain the grandstand customers. This year one act featured chimpanzees; a trained seal used to be a regular attraction, but he had to be dropped when an undefeated 2-year-old filly apparently fell in love with him. When she approached the spot on the track closest to where the seal sat in the infield, she would stop. Her driver tried to cure her and failed. Then he decided to salvage something for his trouble. Bookmakers were still doing business at Du Quoin then, and the driver placed a good bet on the horse he thought was next best to his. His own filly went off at 1 to 5, stopped cold when she reached the seal and let the other horse, off at 20 to 1, trot past her to an easy victory.
Now there are neither seals nor bookmakers at Du Quoin and, to many, the absence of betting may be the strangest thing of all about The Hambletonian. People come just to watch horses race. They treat the well-bred animals with a reverence that may come from the simple fact that the horse is a familiar companion in their daily lives. This corny, old-fashioned, country-fair setting is, after all, the origin of harness racing, and as long as the sport keeps returning to Du Quoin for its biggest event, all the twin doubles and perfectas in the world will not be able to reduce it to a mere numbers game. The Hambletonian purse last week was $122,650; it could have been $500 and most of the horses would still have raced. Elbridge Gerry, co-owner of Yonkers Futurity winner Pomp, said, "The Yonkers Futurity is for the money. This one is for the pride."
John Gaines and K. D. Owen began thinking of this race almost two years ago at the Lexington yearling sales when, with Gaines bidding and Owen urging him on, they paid Castleton Farm a record price of $113,000 for Speedy Streak. "I thought of stopping but K. D. kept nodding to keep going," recalled Gaines. "We wound up paying a bit more than we had planned."
For a long time it appeared that they had paid quite a bit more than the colt was worth. Plagued by a heel infection and cracked hooves, Speedy Streak won only two races last season, as Trainer Frank Ervin tried numerous treatments to strengthen his feet and keep them from bleeding every time he trotted fast. He didn't really show Hambletonian form until the Review Futurity two weeks before the race, when he won a heat in 1:59 4/5 to become the first member of this modest 3-year-old crop to break two minutes. By that time, unfortunately, Ervin was hospitalized with one of a series of illnesses that kept him out of action much of this season. But Frank had done his usual superb job with the colt, and left him in the capable hands of 26-year-old Assistant Trainer Art Hult and Driver Del Cameron.
When Cameron was engaged to drive the colt, Gaines thought of turning him over to Del to train also until Ervin recovered. But Cameron dismissed that idea very quickly. He does not play by that set of rules. Del has never taken away a horse or a job from anyone, and he would not consider taking Speedy Streak from Ervin and Hult. Cameron also has earned a reputation among his colleagues as a brilliant horseman and driver. "He not only has ability but class," Stanley Dancer said last week, "and that combination is pretty hard to find." While Stanley drove Noble Victory in 1965, he entrusted a lesser colt named Egyptian Candor to Cameron. Del won. This year Cameron got another chance as a catch driver and won again, with two of the most efficient drives anyone could demand.
This Hambletonian will not be listed among the great competitions in harness racing history. Speedy Streak won the first heat by four lengths after following Keystone Pride and Billy Haughton along the outside and then drawing away. He took the second the same way, with a late charge that beat Hult and the Ervin-trained Speed Model by a length, with Keystone Pride third. The only slight danger occurred in the stretch during the first heat, when Speedy Streak became rough-gaited and Cameron was forced to steady him. But overall, the victory was convincing, undramatic—and slow. In a week when a number of horses broke two minutes at Du Quoin, The Hambletonian winner managed to hit 2:00 in the first heat and 2:01 in the second. Ironically, Dancer, who was disappointed when his favored Dazzling Speed raced poorly and came back with a temperature, had a better colt back in the barn. His 2-year-old Nevele Pride won in a world record 1:58 4/5 a day earlier; Stanley will have to wait another year for his first Hambletonian.
But Speedy Streak at least proved conclusively that he is the best of his generation on a mile track in late August, which is what The Hambletonian is presumably designed to prove. He also earned more credit for the remarkable 63-year-old Ervin, who rarely has missed a Hambletonian Week, and for Cameron, who joins Ben White and Henry Thomas as the only men to have driven three or more winners of the race. Young Hult, who was left out of the winner's ceremonies, got third in the overall placings with Speed Model, and had reason to be pleased. Alone back at his barn, he breathed deeply and let all the day's pressure leave him. "We started two and got first and third money," he said, trying hard to sound as casual as Ervin would have been. "Guess we can't complain, huh?"
K. D. Owen wasn't even trying to sound calm. "I figured out how to win this," he joked. "I finally realized I couldn't do it with my own luck. So I joined the Gaineses."
Clarence and John Gaines have certainly found the luck or formula or whatever it takes to win Hambletonians. They won last year with Kerry Way, are only the third owners ever to win two in a row and have done it without a huge breeding farm or racing stable. The Gaineses race only a few horses each year. "Yes," said John Gaines, "we've accomplished this with a very selective, careful, lucky operation."