He is so nervous that he literally jumps at his own shadow—or anybody else's, for that matter. His feelings can be hurt so easily that the least little flick of the whip causes him to go all to pieces. His manners are so bad that he sticks out his tongue at everybody, everywhere, all the time. He is a flake and a kook, but then, as Johnny Cash's song has it, "life ain't easy for a boy named Sue"—so how can it be much better for a colt named Laverne, for heaven's sake?
The full name is Laverne Hanover and for all his hangups, he may wind up as one of the best pacers in harness racing. He is so good, in fact, that his trainer-driver, Billy Haughton, does almost everything humanly possible to humor him. But even a man of Haughton's patience has his limits and last week, before racing Laverne in the $109,731 Little Brown Jug at Delaware, Ohio, Haughton was drinking Bloody Marys and wondering just what the colt was going to do to him next.
"I tell you," said Haughton, who has long run one of the biggest and most successful stables in the U.S., "he's got me a little spooked. You can't tell when he's going to pull one of those crazy stunts again."
Haughton got his first glimpse of Laverne's strange twists of mind in the $182,000 Messenger Stake last May at New York's Roosevelt Raceway. He skipped coming around the final turn, recovered and then just refused to pace farther as Stanley Dancer guided Bye Bye Sam past him for the victory. There was some talk after the Messenger that Laverne had indulged his penchant for trying to leap over shadows that appeared in his path, but Haughton contended that Laverne had been cured of that distressing habit as a 2-year-old.
September 28, 1969
Then there was the matter of The Adios, another important race held at The Meadows in Pennsylvania. Again Laverne appeared to have the first heat locked up in the stretch, but Haughton made the mistake of tapping him with the whip. Laverne went berserk and finished last. The next two heats Haughton didn't touch him and Laverne won both easily. "I haven't hit him since then," Haughton said, ruefully.
Nevertheless, when Laverne had a mind to, he had paced some pretty fantastic miles over the summer, and the talk around Delaware last week centered mostly on his prospects in the Jug on Thursday—that, and the weather.
As often happens, the Delaware County Fairgrounds was one big mud puddle the day before the Jug, and there was apprehension that the race might have to be delayed a day or so if the rain didn't stop quickly. It was bad enough to force postponement of Wednesday's races, an inconvenience that everyone did not take as cheerfully as one fat fellow staying at the Campbell House motel, headquarters for Jug fans. Early that morning he waddled into the motel parking lot, still clad in his paisley print pajamas.
"Well," he said, looking at the dark sky, "it always rains in Delaware."
Then he walked to his car, pulled out a six-pack of beer and, with a smile and a nod, waddled back into his room, apparently for the duration.
Fortunately, by early Thursday morning the rain had stopped completely and a warm sun was drying out the cozy little racetrack at the fairgrounds. By mid-afternoon the track would be hard and fast, and this meant that Laverne Hanover would have good working conditions when he went to the post. So Haughton was happy—but he should have remembered that life ain't easy for a boy named Laverne, no matter how pleasant it might appear.
The races began early, at 11 a.m., so that the previous day's card could be raced before the events of Jug Day started—a long day's total of 21 heats. The people began coming at 6, about daybreak, to stake out choice vantage points, and they kept coming until 44,721—a record—had filled the grandstand, stood five and six deep around the track and very nearly squeezed the horses right out of their stalls. They came on foot, in cars, on the backs of trucks, and they came in all shapes, sizes and ages. There were bellbottoms and beads mingling with blue-denim coveralls and straw hats. There was hot beer and cold chicken, served from the tailgates of station wagons. There was Charlie Hill's beer truck, a genuine 1917 Sterling, and there was the twangy music of banjos and steel guitars over the P.A. system between races.
"I'll say this for the Jug," said the event's organizer and No. 1 booster, Henry Clay (Hank) Thomson, as he surveyed the masses, "we may not be as fancy as some places—but we sure do have more fun."
Meanwhile, back at the barns, Laverne Hanover had Billy Haughton muttering to himself again. Sometime during the night Laverne had kicked himself in his stall, so that now there were two big knots on his left hind leg.
"I like to died," Haughton said later. "They were great big knots, too, not any little bitty things. It scared the hell out of me because I've seen so many of them bust themselves up in the stall like that. I thought I was going to have to scratch him for sure."
Haughton was not certain whether Laverne would be able to race until 1:30 that afternoon, when he took him out for his first warmup mile. He looked normal enough—big and sleek and sticking his pink tongue way out the right side of his mouth, as he always does—but Haughton could not be sure until he started jogging the colt. "When he stepped off sound, boy, that was a real relief," Haughton said later. "It was like a great big cloud lifting off the top of my head."
To win the Jug, a horse must take two one-mile heats. This year, there were so many horses entered (16) that the first heat had to be raced in two divisions of eight horses each, with the first four finishers in each division advancing to the second heat. If one of the first-heat winners also won the second, the Jug was over and everybody could get back to chicken and beer. Otherwise, there would have to be a raceoff among the heat winners.
Well, Laverne Hanover won the Jug in straight heats, as nearly everyone in Delaware figured he would, but not before poor Billy Haughton almost had a heart attack right there in his sulky. After a 13-to-1 shot named Lightning Wave won the first division—a popular victory because his owners were from down the road in Middletown, Ohio—the crowd pushed up against the fence to watch Laverne duel with an old nemesis, Kat Byrd, in the second division.
Everything was going along smoothly until right before the three-quarter pole, when Haughton and Laverne shifted into high gear and began zipping past horses. As they were picking up steam, a colt named Baker Lobell, driven by Curly Smart, suddenly veered out and into them. They hooked wheels, very nearly locking together as in that chariot racing scene in Ben-Hur. For a few seconds it was a grim business.
"My horse's leg wasn't missing Curly's wheel that much," said Haughton later, holding his hands about six inches apart. "He came near to derailing me...almost eliminated me. I don't think Curly knew I was coming that fast. Damn, it was tight."
That was the last time Haughton and Laverne had any trouble that afternoon. They went on to win the first heat in 2:00 4/5, very good considering the track was still slightly heavy. And then the second heat was a laugher, with Laverne winning in 2:00 2/5. Lightning Wave got second money in the overall finish, with the other half of Haughton's entry, Nardin's Grand Slam, third and Kat Byrd fourth.
So, with Laverne sticking out his tongue—at the judges, the fans and the other horses—Haughton drove into victory lane for the second straight year, and for a record fourth time in his career. He was joined there by Laverne's owner, Thomas Murphy of New York City, the heir to a long tradition of winning horses. His late father once trained Thoroughbreds for Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, and among them was Twenty Grand, winner of the 1931 Kentucky Derby. Murphy had given Haughton $20,000 to buy Laverne in 1967 and now has $413,786 back on his investment, with a lot of big purses ahead.
And that ain't bad for a boy named Laverne.