The original plan was to save the big colt until July, then send him to the races and point him directly toward trot-ting's top prize—The Hambletonian in Du Quoin, Ill. on Sept. 2. Besides all the money and prestige involved, The Hambletonian also is the only major stakes race that the colt's millionaire trainer-driver, Billy Haughton, has failed to win in his otherwise distinguished career. But New York's Roosevelt Raceway moved its $111,514 Dexter Cup from early fall to last Saturday night—so how could a guy allow a marvelous trotter like Gil Hanover to stay in the barn?
"Cripes, here comes a $100,000 race in June and you just have to get him ready," said Haughton one morning last week. "Of course, there's always the chance that I might regret it after the race, too."
Up until the Dexter Cup, Haughton had few regrets so far as Gil Hanover was concerned. One of Billy's premier patrons, John Froehlich, a wealthy potato farmer from Brookville, Long Island, had been so impressed with Gil as a yearling that he authorized Haughton to go to $95,000 for him at the 1968 Harrisburg Sales. A bay son of Hambletonian winner Hickory Smoke, out of a Hoot Mon mare (Hoot Mon also won the Hambo), Gil became the most expensive yearling ever handled by Haughton in almost three decades around the track, and the colt soon seemed to be worth every penny. In seven starts as a 2-year-old, he lost only once—by a head to an older horse.
But late last June, just when everyone in harness racing was beginning to talk about Haughton's impressive trotter, a small fracture was detected in Gil's right front knee, so Haughton took him out of training. This spring, fully recovered and looking stronger than ever, Gil easily won his first two races, and last Wednesday morning Haughton was smiling after drilling Gil around Roosevelt's training track. It was the colt's last major tuneup before the Dexter Cup mile.
"He sure acts like a potential Hambletonian horse," said Haughton, absently flicking his long whip in the warm morning air. "But the thing is, we have never found out how much he can really go."
The way the Dexter Cup was shaping up, Gil Hanover seemed to be in for a sterner test than Haughton may have anticipated. Billy is not the only horseman with a promising 3-year-old trotter and a penchant for $100,000 purses. His close friend in the training-driving business, Stanley Dancer, had not one but two nice colts racing under his familiar blue-and-gold colors. The star of Stanley's large stable was supposed to be Nevele Rascal, who won $93,289 last season for the same folks who owned the great Nevele Pride, but Rascal recently had been upset by another Dancer trotter, Gallant Prince, a developing prospect whose most notable characteristic was his unusual grayish-red (roan) color. Stanley's older brother, Vernon, would be there, too, with Victory Star, last year's 2-year-old champion, and the rest of the field was loaded with dark horses and unknowns.
More than the competition, however, Haughton was worried about his colt's post position, No. 11, on the outside of the second tier of starters. That automatically put Gil a length and a half behind right at the start. Moreover, a look at the form chart showed that the trotters leaving in front and to the inside of Gil all had a knack for either breaking stride or getting away slowly. Early on, Gil could be trapped hopelessly in the heavy traffic.
"Well," said Froehlich to Haughton just after the draw,
"they have you where they want you. It's just too bad. I don't think we can win it now."
His disappointment was understandable. A man who has lived and worked on Long Island all his life, Froehlich, 64, loves to watch his horses race at Roosevelt, which is another reason why Haughton decided to get Gil ready for the Dexter Cup. In fact, Froehlich used to grow some of his potatoes on land almost adjacent to the track. He sold that property—now the site of shopping centers and office buildings—for a profit that was anything but potatoes. Long independently wealthy, Froehlich still is an active farmer, the sort of man who spends as much as $95,000 for a horse he likes but is apt to attend workouts wearing an old leather cap, a green shirt with the J.C. Penney tag still plainly visible, baggy trousers and heavy work shoes. Last week at least one reporter took him for one of Haughton's stable hands.
But on Saturday night, accompanied by a party of 20 fellow farmers and assorted friends, Froehlich showed up at Roosevelt looking spiffy enough for anybody's winner's circle. His confidence was buoyed by the fact that the crowd of 34,000 had made Gil Hanover the 6-to-5 favorite, and some of the more enthusiastic railbirds were even talking about the chances of somebody breaking Nevele Pride's stakes record of 2:02[2/5]. After all, hadn't the trainers been saying that the new rubberized Roosevelt surface enabled their horses to go faster earlier in the season?
As he swung himself into Gil's sulky and prepared to drive onto the track, Haughton did not foresee a record. "At least, I hope not," he said, "because I don't think my colt is up to going that fast yet—and I hope these others aren't either."
At the start, Haughton moved Gil Hanover right behind the No. 4 horse, Gallant Prince, who got away fast with Stanley Dancer in the sulky. Coming out of the first of four turns on the half-mile track, Gil quickly moved from sixth to fifth when Gallant Prince went skipping off stride and out of contention. Haughton had accomplished Goal No. 1: to stay out of the early traffic.
At the quarter pole Gil was right behind Vernon Dancer and Victory Star, who were going hard for the lead, and at the half-mile mark, as the field came by the crowded stands for the first time, Haughton maneuvered Gil into the lead.
Up in his box, for perhaps the 15th time since the start, Froehlich said, "Yep, he's O.K." But over in the paddock the drivers and grooms were shaking their heads in amazement as the time of 1:00[1/5] for the first half flashed on the infield scoreboard. "Look at that," one of them said. "Holy cow, don't they know they have a mile to go?"
On the backstretch Gil still had the lead, when suddenly one of the unknowns—an 18-to-1 shot named Marlu Pride, driven by Herve Filion—maneuvered around and past him. Although Haughton said later, "My horse was dead at the three-quarter pole," Gil Hanover still was second as the field turned down the stretch for home. But then Gil jumped off stride and horse after horse swept past while Haughton fought unsuccessfully to get him back on gait. "I don't know what happened," Billy said later. "I guess he just wasn't up to that kind of race yet."
Gil staggered across the finish line ninth, six seconds and many lengths behind Filion and the surprising Marlu Pride, who was clocked in 2:01[2/5]—a second better than the stakes record. Nevele Rascal was 6½ lengths back in second, Victory Star tired badly and finished fifth while Gallant Prince was able to recover to sixth. Marlu's owner, August J. Portonova of Purchase, N.Y., made a delayed appearance in the winner's circle to pick up the Dexter plaque, possibly because he was upset: he had not nominated his colt for The Hambletonian and now it was too late to enter, because the rules do not allow supplementary nominations.
As Haughton guided a wheezing Gil Hanover back to the paddock, his critics were shaking their heads and saying that Billy should never have asked so much of the colt so soon if he was really serious about wanting to end his Hambo losing streak at 12. Why didn't he save Gil until July, as originally planned? That's what Johnny Simpson, the winner of two Hambos, was doing with his promising Timothy T. And old Frank Ervin still had Old Glory on the farm in Lexington. Even Haughton was second-guessing himself as he rehashed the Dexter Cup in the paddock. "Now that it's all over, I wish I hadn't started him, I sure do," he said. "That post position did it, that was the whole thing."
"I thought Gil had a real big race," said fellow driver Del Insko. "He had a very good reason to get tired, with that post and that kind of pace. I've never seen so many hang in there like that, especially in June."
Insko's words seemed to make Haughton feel better, and then he managed a tight smile when his top assistant trainer, Apples Thomas, came up to tell him that Gil was plenty tired, but uninjured. Although he will send Gil to Canada for a race this Friday, Haughton said he would then let him rest until early July.
"No, there's nothing wrong with the horse," said Haughton. "I guess he was just tired. It's still a long way from now until The Hambletonian in September. We'll see."