This was a typically hot August day at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds, and the air was thick with Illinois dust and the sounds and smells of a carnival. Standing there in the cool shade of his shedrow, Harold Dancer Sr. took in the perspiring scene and reckoned that yes, this was as stuffy a Hambletonian day as he had ever seen. And then, as Harold lifted a Coke bottle to his lips, his millionaire little brother, Stanley, laughed and began to tease.
"I knew it," said Stanley, "rum and Coke. Ha, I knew it would get to him." Harold, who—at 57—is 15 years older than Stanley, smiled sheepishly. Then Stanley turned and looked down the shedrow where the third Dancer brother, Vernon, was working on a horse.
"Hey, Vernon," he called, "look here. A little rum and Coke. Boy, it's getting to him."
Nobody would have blamed Harold if he had wanted a little nerve stiffener before the 44th renewal of The Hambletonian, the most important event in harness racing and—with a gross purse of $124,910 this year—one of the richest. The oldest of the driving and training Dancer brothers of New Jersey, Harold also may be the least known, having only nine horses in training compared with, roughly, Stanley's 100 and Vernon's 50. Moreover, Harold is one of the few horsemen left who specialize in young trotters, and it was considered a tribute to his talent that of the nine horses who survived to make this year's Hambletonian, two of them (The Prophet and Viewpoint) were trained by Harold Dancer. So for a man like this, more than for many others. The Hambletonian is the beginning and the end and everything in between, too.
September 7, 1969
"Stanley operates a big stable and wants to stay at the top," Harold said, "but I've never had any desire to be at the top. The only desire I've ever had is to win The Hambletonian, but I guess that's what everyone wants. It's tough. It takes a lot of horse and a lot of luck."
The word around the barns before last week's race was that Harold had a lot of horse in The Prophet, a sometimes temperamental, swiftly improving colt who supposedly had the best finishing kick since that ill-starred runner, Silky Sullivan. The trouble was, among the nine-horse field there were also three other tough veteran horsemen going after their first Hambletonian victory, and all of them had colts who were regarded at least as highly as The Prophet.
The overwhelming sentimental favorite among the drivers, of course, was Earle Avery, the 75-year-old grandfather who was taking Gun Runner to the post for Norman Woolworth's Clearview Stables. Early in July Gun Runner had been considered one of the leading contenders, but then he came down with a debilitating respiratory ailment. The same problem had knocked two contenders—Hiland Hill and Nardin's Gay-blade—out of the race entirely, and Gun Runner still was about 100 pounds underweight when Avery brought him to the paddock before the race. "He looks so bad that I'm embarrassed for him," said Avery.
In the stall next to Gun Runner little Fred Bradbury, 49, was also looking grim while hooking up his perplexing colt Dayan, who races in the name of Adonis Stable, a two-horse operation from Hempstead, Long Island. At times Dayan had been brilliant, but there also had been enough disappointing performances that the owners reportedly had been quibbling about Bradbury, even to the point of considering a new driver for the Hambo. Most of this was steadfastly denied by the owners, and Bradbury himself tried to shrug off any suggestions of pressure. "I feel fine," he said. "I should have butterflies, I guess, but I don't."
The odds-on favorite—at least he would have been odds-on if betting were allowed on The Hambletonian—was Lindy's Pride, winner of the first event in trotting's Triple Crown, the Yonkers Futurity. Sometimes Lindy's Pride could be a little mischievous—once when he was leading a race at Yonkers he suddenly trotted off the track and down the paddock chute. But his trainer and driver, Howard Beissinger, said confidently that "the results speak for themselves; I think he's the best horse in the race."
The easiest way to get Beissinger to forget the pressure of a big race is to start talking about the folks who race Lindy's Pride in the name of Lindy Farms, Inc., of Lindenhurst, Long Island—the seven brothers and cousins named Lomangino and Antonacci (SI, July 28) who got into racing only as a respite from the problems of their garbage-collecting business. Beissinger enjoys recalling the time he drove one of their pacers, Tarport Lib, to a work record of 1:56[2/5] at Lexington, Ky.
"After the race I rushed to a telephone to tell them," Beissinger said. "All they wanted to know was how much did she pay? Can you imagine that? A world's record and they're worrying about what the mutuel prices were!"
Lindy's owners have learned to appreciate the other rewards of racing since then, and last Wednesday afternoor three of them, plus an excited coterie of relatives and friends, were among the sun-drenched fans who were in the stand at Du Quoin for The Hambletonian. Two more of the owners, Frank Lomangino and Guy Antonacci, would have been there, too, but they had more pressing business in Italy: an audience with the Pope to discuss a religious revival project with which they are involved. "I wouldn't be surprised if they asked the Pope to say a little prayer for this colt," said Frank Antonacci.
An hour before post time for the first heat (The Hambletonian winner is the first trotter to win two heats of a mile each), a blood sample was taken from each colt, thus making the 1969 Hambletonian the first major race in the country to have prerace testing, eliminating any chance for a drugging scandal such as followed the 1968 Kentucky Derby. The blood tests were delivered immediately to a mobile laboratory and processed before the colts went on the track. If anything suspicious had turned up, the judges would have informed the owner and trainer and requested withdrawal of the horse. After the race the routine urine and saliva tests also were taken.
As the first heat got under way, Dayan shot from his No. 2 post position into the lead with Gun Runner in hot pursuit. Lindy's Pride, who had the pole, dropped comfortably into third with The Prophet holding fifth at the quarter pole. Time for the first quarter was 28.3 seconds, a killing pace on a hot day, and later Bradbury would say of Dayan, "Having to battle Gun Runner during that fast first quarter didn't help us any. He wanted to go and so did Gun Runner. We blazed that first part awfully fast."
On the backstretch, just before the half-mile mark, both horses were tiring, so Beissinger made what he described later as "a smart move." He took the lead with Lindy's Pride. By the three-quarter mark, in the far turn, Gun Runner had dropped back to fifth and was out of the race. "I gained ground on Dayan on that last turn, too," said Beissinger, "so I knew he wouldn't be there." But as the colts turned and trotted for the wire, here came a new challenger, Harold Dancer and The Prophet, with that notorious finishing kick.
"I heard The Prophet coming," said Beissinger, "but I wasn't worried. I touched my horse on the tail with the whip—wasn't any need to whip him because he was winning comfortable, within himself."
The margin at the wire was a length and a quarter. Significantly, the clocking was 1:57⅗ the second fastest heat-winning time in Hambo history.
While Beissinger was accepting congratulations, Avery had his aging head bowed in conference with Gun Runner's owner. "He's a sick horse," Avery said, sadly, "a damn sick one and he's not getting over it." They decided to scratch Gun Runner from the second heat.
As the eight survivors moved up to the starting gate to begin their second mile, Dancer, now in the No. 2 post, noticed that Lindy's Pride, still on the rail, was slow getting up to the gate. Instantly Dancer changed his race strategy. Instead of waiting to come off the pace, he decided to move out The Prophet quickly, go to the rail ahead of Lindy's Pride and "then make him come around me this time." So off they trotted into the billowing dust around the first turn. But as Dancer made his move, Dayan suddenly flashed in front of him and The Prophet went skipping off stride back into the sixth position.
Having gained the lead, Dayan was trotting for all he was worth. Meanwhile Beissinger dropped Lindy's Pride into second place and sat there patiently until the top of the stretch. Then Beissinger maneuvered his colt outside and passed Dayan midway through the stretch. The margin was 2½ lengths in the impressive time of 1:58[2/5]. Lindy's Pride had won The Hambletonian in straight heats, but back in the paddock the action was not over yet. Dancer, who had recovered and moved The Prophet up to fourth, was mad.
"Freddie Bradbury cut me down with Dayan," Dancer said, his eyes flashing beneath his dark bushy brows. "I was hollering at him so much that I'm hoarse now, but he just sat there like he was in a trance or something. That's the second time he's done that to me and I'll tell you this: I'm an old man, but there won't be a third time. I felt like my colt might have been the best in that heat, but now we'll never know."
"My horse was bearing in so bad that I couldn't hold him off," was Bradbury's answer. But the judges set back Dayan from second to fourth place, moving Ned Bower's Smokey Morn up to second and The Prophet to third. In the overall summary The Prophet got second money with Smokey Morn third, Dayan fourth and Joe O'Brien's Armbro Jet fifth.
Unaware of the contretemps, Howard Beissinger was savoring his biggest moment in more than 20 years in the sport. "I can relax now," he said, accepting the blue winner's jacket. "I'll be a little easier to get along with." And soon Frank Antonacci was talking to Frank Lomagino in Rome.
"He won, he won!" yelled Frank A.
"So what else is new?" said Frank. "I knew it. He just had to win."