The yearlings are sleek and handsome as they are led under the bright lights of the sales ring, and the men who are selling and buying them talk only of the ones that will become good racehorses. On the nearby farms, stallions graze and exercise in spacious paddocks. Against the bright background of a Kentucky fall, their regal appearance recalls their own superiority and defies you to think that they might sire anything but superior foals. Everything about the beautiful horse country of Lexington reminds you of the winners. Horses that fail, Thoroughbred or Standardbred, are not usually brought back here, and the people who breed and sell horses do not go out of their way to mention them to you. The hope on which horseracing is built is at its strongest in Lexington. Last week the harness-racing people took over the town to watch some good horses try for new records on the fast "Red Mile" track, to see the biggest winner of the week, the 3-year-old trotter that could take the Kentucky Futurity, and to start the cycle of hoping all over again by buying some 400 yearlings.
Because the clay track is unusually hard and because trainers are running out of time in which to try for season's records, fast times are always emphasized—often overemphasized—at Lexington. This year there was one record that was richly deserved. Nevele Pride, regarded by many horsemen as the best 2-year-old trotter of all time, won a mile race in 1:58 2/5, lowering the world 2-year-old mark of 1:58 3/5 that he had shared with Impish. Many other horses set records for this season, or merely lowered their own best times, and there were 13 two-minute miles in one day. Two of those came in time trials by Meadow Paige and Honest Story; both paced in 1:55 2/5, just missing a world record. This was fine, except that both are just nice colts who have proved to be well below the quality of the two best 3-year-olds, Romulus Hanover and Best of All. Time trials are traditional in harness racing, but they are also artificial attempts at records: it is a little hard to get excited about horses that cannot prove themselves in competition. The real excitement of the week was in the racing, climaxed by the victory of George Alexander's Speed Model in the Futurity, third leg of the Triple Crown for 3-year-old trotters.
Frank Ervin has won richer races and trained better horses than this fast but temperamental filly, but it is doubtful that he ever enjoyed a triumph more than this one. The 63-year-old trainer has spent a frustrating year, checking in and out of hospitals with several ailments and wondering if he would ever be able to continue his remarkable career. He was on his back in a Boston hospital when his colt Speedy Streak won The Hambletonian with Del Cameron driving; by the time Frank was ready for action, Speedy Streak was not—his chronic bleeding heels had sidelined him again. So Ervin's hopes for winning one big one before the year ended lay with Speed Model, and she has not been a filly anyone would want to depend on.
"She seems to be behaving herself now," Frank said before the race. "But you can never tell about her. At Saratoga early this summer she set a track record. The next week at Goshen she turned around and slid and kicked and refused to trot at all. Then, just when she seemed sour, she came right back and lowered the track record up at Hamburg, N.Y. You just never know when she'll try to kick you out of the sulky." Ervin himself had not ventured into that sulky all year, leaving his 26-year-old assistant Art Hult to drive Speed Model. Hult is talented and hard-working, and nobody ever had a better teacher. "Sure we've discussed driving a lot since he's been with me," said Ervin. "I think I taught him something. Hope so, anyway."
October 15, 1967
With good behavior and a good drive, Speed Model figured to handle the modest group of horses that remained after the long campaign among the 3-year-olds. In fact, her main rival turned out to be a late-developing newcomer to the group, a large gelding named Rocket Speed. Pay Dirt, who may be fastest of all but was coming off a three-month layoff because of lameness, took the lead at the start of the first heat.
"I haven't been able to train him very hard," Earle Avery had said. "I'm afraid he'll be short." He was. As Pay Dirt stopped at the head of the stretch, Warren Cameron rushed Rocket Speed to the front. Hult moved Speed Model very quickly from far back, but had to change course when Halifax Hanover went off stride ahead of him. The filly recovered and was gaining fast at the wire, but her brief mishap had cost her the heat. Rocket Speed won by a neck.
Cameron had no illusions. "The filly was unlucky. She'll be much tougher to beat in the second heat. I only hope my colt will have more left in the third heat." Hult was understandably upset—he had made no mistakes, but he still lost a race with the best horse. "I just want a little good luck," he said. "This filly is due for it." She hardly needed it as she trotted to a decisive one-length victory over Rocket Speed in the next heat.
But by then even Ervin was betraying signs of apprehension. "Here we are in another knockdown affair," he moaned, "when it should be over with in two heats." He did not mention it, but he remembered well that the last time Speed Model had kicked her sulky and broken stride was at Indianapolis, when she was forced to race a third heat. As Hult drove the filly onto the track for the final heat., Frank-took a place near the far end of the grandstand. "Whoa, girlie, whoa," he whispered as Speed Model came up to the gate. Then she was back in third position on the rail. "Perfect, Arthur," Ervin sighed. Things were still perfect approaching the three-quarters, when Cameron swept up outside Speed Model with Rocket Speed. "Oh, God," said Ervin. "Get going now, Arthur. Oh, God...oh, now it's all right." Hult had moved almost as if listening to his boss. The years of apprenticeship were paying off. He pulled outside Rocket Speed in the stretch, took the lead easily and finished a length in front of Halifax Hanover as Ervin broke into a cheer. "A perfect drive," said Frank.
"Great training," added Frederick Van Lennep, who bred the winner at his Castleton Farm in Lexington. "I wish every horse I sold could be handled by Frank Ervin. He just seems to win these things regularly."
But, of course, they all can't go to Ervin, and they all don't come from Castleton. The day before the Futurity, some of the best 3-year-old fillies and a lot of fans learned that winners do not need rich credentials. The stake for trotting fillies was won by Garma Alert, who lacked almost everything Speed Model had—except gameness and class. Speed Model is by the top sire Speedster out of the world champion Yankee Lass; Garma Alert is by little-known Hoot Frost out of a $600 mare. Garma was bred, owned and trained by Gary Grisenthwaite of Dundas, Ont., who, at 34, has been in racing for three years and is assisted only by his wife Irma. Garma won a grueling four-heat trot the previous Saturday and came back to win the two-heat stake Thursday and draw the loudest ovation of the week.
Grisenthwaite was thrilled but realistic. "It's great to win in your first try at the big time," he said. "But she went six heats in five days and won only $3,530. That's an awful lot to ask of her."
"That's what we do in these parts," said a groom named George Powell. "Lotta heats and no money. This ain't Canada."
"In Canada," said Grisenthwaite, "we have to use her to pull our sleigh to market." He and Irma laughed hard, fully enjoying the fact that for one day they had moved in right alongside the Van Lenneps and Ervins with a big win at Lexington. "And the money isn't all that important," he said. "We haven't got the richest horse, but I think we have the gamest."