They descended out of the boxes at Arlington Park racetrack, an excited and talkative little throng of folks, all flushed. They pressed through the fans at the rail in noisy yet rather efficient fashion—not unlike schoolchildren in a fire drill—to crowd inside the winner's circle. They were visibly proud and pretty puffed up, yet a little stiff and bashful, too, unaccustomed as some of them were to glory. But they kept arriving in the winner's circle until it was more or less overflowing with them—perhaps two dozen in all, cousins and in-laws and children and grandchildren and old school chums and a family doctor and certain other shirttail relations. This was the family of Mann—John L. Mann of Dallas—here assembled to pose radiantly for pictures, to receive congratulations and certain other more material rewards for the remarkable performance of their one-horse racing stable. "We may have only one," said John Mann, "but isn't he just the one!" Indeed he was, for last week the Mann family's pride—a strong and handsome 2-year-old bay named Staunch Avenger, who was bought at a budget price—went to the starting gate for the fourth time in his life and came home a winner for the fourth time.
The occasion was the 15th running of the $53,400 Arch Ward stakes at gaudy old Arlington outside Chicago, where Staunch Avenger has been the talk of the track this season. In his first start there eight weeks ago the colt won by a widening 12 lengths, breaking the track record. After his second start, which he won by four lengths, the Mann family's trainer, a laconic little Texan with the nicely distilled name of Gin Collins, decided the colt was ready for the $135,000 Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Staunch Avenger won that by four lengths, pulling away from a classy field of 13, which included six young stakes winners. The Manns quite obviously owned one of the best 2-year-olds in the country.
Thus in the Arch Ward their colt was the resounding favorite, going off at 3 to 10. The field was considered quite hopelessly mediocre compared to the lot Staunch Avenger had conquered in the Sapling. Nevertheless, it required a fine ride by Jockey Dave Whited and an impressive display of homestretch heart for Staunch Avenger to win—by a photo-finish neck—over Hook It Up, a good horse who had already won two stakes himself this year. With the win Staunch Avenger added $30,900 to his earlier earnings, giving him a rather staggering accumulation of $117,647 in winnings over those scant four starts.
The colt's sudden success has startled the Manns. "We thought this kind of thing might happen to other people," says Annette Mann, 47, mother of four, grandmother of five and the owner of record of Staunch Avenger. "But my wildest dreams never contained such a horse as ol' Staunch has come to be." Indeed, as John Mann, son of a Texas cotton farmer and now head of an aircraft-parts company in Dallas, puts it: "You know it's a real rarity when little people like us get themselves a good horse, because mostly this sport's controlled by big money. We liked cheap horses, and we never thought to rise above that mark."
The Manns approached the sport of kings with quite genuine common desires. Eight years ago they journeyed from Dallas to Hot Springs, Ark. to watch their first horse race. "We found it highly entertaining," says Mr. Mann. "But we also felt it would be even more fun to see if we had a horse of our own to cheer, so a year later we went down to Frisco, Texas, where some friends had horses and we bought our first, Trinity River, for $2,500." Since then the Manns have dabbled in horse racing in an almost wholly recreational way. Until now they have never owned a horse that could return much better than $1,000 purses, and sometimes they found themselves so awash in family affection for their animals that more than once John Mann quietly put up money to keep his horses from being claimed because a distraught daughter did not want one of her beloved "pets" sold to strangers.
The joy of thoroughbred ownership was at least emotionally (if not financially) fulfilling, and the Manns continued to buy and sell a few horses here and there. In the fall of 1969 they gave Gin Collins a "blank check" (not really—for they did not wish to exceed $15,000) to go to the Keeneland, Ky. sales to buy a yearling. Now Gin Collins' reputation as a trainer perhaps does not rank with men like Allen Jerkens or Elliott Burch, but he has had a number of good horses in his keep, including Battleground and Swift Ruler. In quest of one for the Manns he hoped to buy something with Bold Ruler bloodlines, and thus when a colt came up for sale whose sire was Staunchness, a son of Bold Ruler, Gin Collins put in his bid. Now, as fate would have it, this horse was fresh from pasture, and he was a bit raggedy looking and lean compared with the other sleek and well-fattened horses brought to auction. "Since he wasn't fattened up," said Collins, "he didn't seem to appeal to other buyers so much." He cost only $7,700.
The Manns are not superstitious people. (The only ritual any of them follows for luck before each of Staunch Avenger's races is that son John, 25, always wears a pair of gold undershorts.) Yet they do find themselves hard put to ignore at least the hint of predestined fortune in their relationship with Staunch Avenger. "You see, he's got this pinkish marking on his nose," says John Mann, and there is a small tremor of wonder in his voice. "And if you look at it upside down it's shaped an awful lot like the state of Texas. Well, we're from Texas, and so is Gin and so is Dave Whited, our jockey. I don't know if that means we have a lot going for us or not, but I'd take it as favorable rather than unfavorable, wouldn't you?"
Perhaps the colt is marked for greatness. Time will tell. "He's the fastest I've ever ridden," said Whited, "and I've been on some fast horses. Yet he's not speed crazy—he doesn't mind laying off the pace. And you never saw a horse so easygoing—he's like a big old cow when he's not running. He drags his feet around and lolls along. He wears out his shoes three times as fast as your average horse. He's got the personality to be one of the best, because he's not washy and he's not wild."
Gin Collins, a patient and profoundly cautious man, has been extremely conservative in bringing Staunch Avenger along. Instead of entering him in early Arkansas races last spring, he waited until summer for the debut.
Collins is noncommittal about Staunch Avenger's future—both near and far-off. There is talk about bringing him to the East again for the futurities at Belmont and Pimlico this fall. And, of course, there is some talk, early though it is, about Staunch Avenger as a 3-year-old competing in the Triple Crown races. "You just cannot own a horse like this without thinking about the Kentucky Derby," says Mrs. Mann. "I mean, that is what it's all meant to be for, isn't it?"
If Staunch Avenger continues to maintain a pace even close to his sensational beginning, it would be impossible to imagine the 1971 Derby without his presence. Yet Gin Collins says, "I don't happen to believe the Kentucky Derby is necessarily the most important race in the world. It might be too long a race too early in the year. It might take too much out of the horse to get ready for it. I just don't know for sure that we'd have to enter the Derby."
Nevertheless, after seeing that large and handsome tribe of Manns gathered in triumph around Staunch last week, it would seem far too dark a human tragedy to deny them at least the chance to pose for still another mass family portrait, among the roses at Churchill Downs.