"The traditional meeting of good times, good company and good racing was celebrated at Goshen, N.Y. last week, in the gentle Catskill foothills where trotting was more or less born and reared. Once the home of the sport's most important race, the Hambletonian, Goshen is still regarded as the first significant stop of the summer, the place where the premier stables display their well-bred young stock in the classic two-out-of-three mile-heat events. Here, too, with nearly all the top horsemen in attendance, bull sessions over clambakes are long and lively, and one standard question is: who is going to win this season's Hambletonian?
For the past two years, with a supercolt like Nevele Pride (1968) and a very good one like Lindy's Pride (1969), the outcome of the Hambletonian was almost a foregone conclusion, even as early as Goshen week. But if anybody has a standout colt in 1970, it is the best-kept secret since Pearl Harbor. Instead, the barns are bulging with contenders and pretenders—which is fine, of course, with Bill Hayes, whose family has run the Hambletonian since it was moved to Du Quoin, Ill. in 1957. At a clambake near Goshen one night last week, Haves said, "I think everybody enjoys it more when there are a lot of good horses, like we have this year. I wouldn't even mind seeing the race go three heats for a change, because that's where a true champion shows his form."
On Wednesday afternoon Hayes was among a perspiring, sun-reddened crowd of 2,500 that overflowed the old wooden grandstand at Goshen's Historic Track to watch the week's Hambletonian prep—the Dickerson Cup. The winner, in straight heats, was Nevele Rascal, a steady colt who is being brought along nicely by the same team that raced Nevele Pride—Stanley Dancer and the Nevele Acres Stable of Ellenville, N.Y. The last heat was a photo finish between Rascal and another fine trotter, Castleton Farm's Fancy Dartmouth.
"I didn't think he got it, to tell you the truth," said the stable's owner, Julius Slutsky, who drove over from his resort in the nearby Catskills. "One more step and he wouldn't have," said Dancer. "This colt plugs, but he doesn't have that top speed yet."
Rascal is one of three colts that Dancer is pointing toward the Hambo on Sept. 2. Another of them, Gallant Prince, is taking a brief rest at Dancer's farm in New Egypt, N.J., but the third, Clayt Hanover, started in the $24,000 Hanover-Hempt Stakes Friday night at Pocono Downs near Wilkes-Bane, Pa. The field at Pocono was loaded with Hambletonian candidates not quite ready for the two heats required at Goshen. Billy Haughton had Gil Hanover, and Johnny Simpson was finally giving Timothy T. his first start of the season. Timothy, a terror at 2, broke stride and was an also-ran as Gil won; Jouster was a surprising second.
Despite the interest in the Hambletonian, a good deal of chatter at Goshen's cocktail parties and cookouts concerned the most remarkable crop of 2-year-olds anyone could remember. On the trotting side, a dozen stables seem to feel they have the winner of next year's Hambletonian. Haughton has some of the better ones in his barn, including A.C.'s Orion, a bay colt who last Tuesday won Goshen's feature event for juvenile trotters, the E. H. Harriman Challenge Cup. He won in straight heats, in the good times of 2:06[1/5] and 2:07⅘ and his prospects are hardly dimmed by the fact that his sire is Star's Pride, daddy of seven Hambletonian winners.
Also rich in 2-year-olds this year is Delvin Miller, the jovial master of Meadowlands Farm and the Grand Circuit's uncontested alltime champion eater of clams. On Monday at Goshen, Miller drove Keystone Selene, a filly, to victory in two heats of the Acorn stake, tying the record of 2:06[3/5] in the first heat, then coming back to beat it with 2:06 in the final. On Tuesday night at Pocono, Miller drove his impressive Quick Pride to a 5½-length victory in one division of the Hanover-Hempt 2-year-old stake. In the other division, a colt few had even heard of—Noble Gesture—easily trotted away from another good field in 2:04⅗ one of the fastest times of the year for this class.
On the pacing side, one good reason for the excellent performances is that this is the year Bret Hanover's first crop of sons and daughters get to the races. Bret is generally regarded as the greatest pacer of all time. After his last mile in 1966, a world record 1:53 3/5 over Lexington's red-clay track, his owner, the late Richard Downing, sold a half-interest in Bret to Castleton Farm for about $2 million. Then Bret went to stud, was booked to 65 mares in his first season, and horsemen all sat back and waited to see if Bret would be as successful a sire as he was on the racetrack. Owning a Bret Hanover colt became extremely fashionable—and now it is proving to be equally profitable.
Nowhere were the Brets more in evidence than at Goshen on Monday, in the heats of the Goshen Cup for 2-year-old pacers. In the first, Count Bret finished second. In the second heat, Brets finished 1-2-3-5-7, and then Count Bret won the final after Flying Bret broke stride in the last turn. Two other Brets were second and fourth.
All these Brets had everybody feeling slightly giddy—even such an experienced hand as Frank Ervin, 65, who trained and drove Bret Hanover himself. "It looks like he's going to be a tremendous sire in his very first year," said Ervin. "I think that several of his foals have picked up his characteristics, including his size and his gait. And they should stay sound, too, because Bret never had any trouble at all."
Ervin didn't race any Bret Hanover colts at Goshen, but he did pull on his familiar red-and-green silks and bring Out a nice trotter named Speedy Spin for the Dickerson Cup. Long ago in his 50-year career Frank decided to concentrate on the classics, and he has won the Hambletonian twice and the Little Brown Jug three times. Now, although more or less retired, Ervin still has to be reckoned with when the big races come along. Speedy Spin managed only a couple of third-place finishes, but Ervin seemed pleased as he sat in the paddock, sipping milk.
"I didn't want to beat his guts out," he said. "I just can't see that, not with the Hambletonian coming up. I mainly wanted to get him ready."
It is worth remembering Speedy Spin, but Ervin has another trotting colt, Old Glory, who has not even started yet and may be the best of all. But more likely, as they were saying in Goshen last week, this year's Hambo will be a wild, wide-open battle until late in the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 2, when Bill Hayes finally will hand somebody the most treasured trophy in the old sport.