Listen now, nostalgia fans, because the world of sport has a goody for you. It's as much fun as watching Ruby Keeler hoof in No, No, Nanette and a lot more exciting than listening to your Rudy Vallee record collection. You won't need nearly as many Kleenex as you did for Love Story and yes, you women can wear last winter's midis and high-button shoes and feel right at home. Know what we're talking about, nostalgia fans? It's the Grand Circuit of harness racing, the oldest continuing road show in American sport.
This is the Grand Circuit's 100th anniversary season, and it could not have come at a more fitting time, nostalgia being the In thing it is. In sport, not even Avery Brundage is more dedicated to the preservation of tradition than the Grand Circuit. Long before there was organized baseball or football, Americans were turning out by the thousands at big-city courses and rural fairgrounds to watch the trotters race. Indeed, harness racing claims, with justification, to be America's first national pastime. And the Grand Circuit was the first successful attempt to organize horsemen and tracks in an orderly progression of race meetings.
The Grand Circuit is the big league of harness racing because week after week and town after town it offers the sport's best in drivers, horses and stakes races. This year the "Roarin' Grand," as it is sometimes called, includes 22 member tracks in 11 states and two Canadian provinces, and it will pony up some $4 million in purses by season's end. Obviously, the Grand Circuit is a grand business—yet it remains a remarkably rural phenomenon. For example, the top prize in trotting, The Hambletonian, is held during Grand Circuit week at tiny Du Quoin, Ill., while pacing's premier race, the Little Brown Jug, is staged during the Circuit's stop at Delaware, Ohio, which is no metropolis either. Only in harness racing are a sport's major events so far removed from the money and masses of the cities.
To attend such a meeting is to move backward in time. So little has changed that the Circuit is one of the few aspects of modern civilization that would be immediately recognizable to a 19th century man. Indeed, the Circuit is one sport in which some of the stars are all but 19th century men themselves, men like Frank Ervin, 66, and Sanders Russell, 71. Even the newer big names, the Stanley Dancers, Billy Haughtons and Joe O'Briens, are men in their 40s and 50s. On the Grand Circuit, experience seems an essential element of success; youth is found in the horses.
Last year it was considered remarkable that John Simpson Jr., an apple-cheeked, red-haired lad of 27, could drive a colt named Timothy T. to victory in The Hambletonian. He was the youngest man ever to win that prize, but his victory hardly signaled the beginning of a youth movement on the Grand Circuit. Old-timers pointed out that it was his father, John Sr., 51, who had trained the colt, bringing him to a peak for the big race at precisely the right moment.
It is more difficult to characterize the fans who follow the Grand Circuit, but like the horsemen, they are mainly unpoor and unyoung. They are among the most knowledgeable spectators in sport. Many come to the races with their own stopwatches, which often are heirlooms. They personally clock each year's new crop of hotshots, then lean on the rail or rear back in their wooden grandstand seats and compare the current stars with such legendary horses as Dan Patch and Greyhound.
Each track gets more or less the same horses and drivers, yet each offers a unique experience. Consider four of the red-letter meetings on any year's Grand Circuit calendar. First, in July, the Circuit comes to the half-mile Historic Track in Goshen, a village about 60 miles from New York City on the way to the Catskills. Goshen is known as the Cradle of the Trotter because the sire Hambletonian, progenitor of all modern standardbreds, stood near Goshen in the mid-19th century. Today, even more than then, the hills around town are dappled with standardbred breeding farms. The Hambletonian was held at Goshen's Good Time Park from 1930 to 1956 and now, although Goshen no longer has the Hambo, the top horsemen still bring their stables there out of respect for the town and its history.
But if Goshen is a clip-clop mile into yesteryear, Du Quoin, Ill. is a now experience, Grand Circuit style, for it has been the home of The Hambletonian for only 14 years. On Hambo day it is always hot, humid and dusty at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds; jackets are removed and ties loosened long before noon. At the track two familiar forms of racing sustenance and stimulation are missing: alcoholic beverages and pari-mutuel wagering. Yet such rigors have become a part of Du Quoin's charm, as have one of the finest fairs in the Midwest and excellent stage entertainment.
For fun, however, it is hard to beat Delaware, Ohio, the home of pacing's Little Brown Jug. This is the let-it-all-hang-out stop on the Circuit. The day before the Jug, fans bring folding chairs and padlock them to the chain link fence surrounding the track to ensure a front-row seat for the race. On Jug Day they begin coming at dawn and keep coming. Long before noon they have squeezed into every corner of the small wooden grandstand and bellied up eight or 10 deep all around the track. They stand on the tops of trucks, cars and hay-wagons. There are tailgate parties in the apple orchard beyond the backstretch. The people gamble—no Hambletonian-type embarrassment about putting the money on the line here—and drink and cheer throughout the most prestigious race in pacing.
The attitude is more reverent at The Red Mile in Lexington, Ky. For one thing, The Red Mile, so-called because of the track's red clay surface, is the home of the Kentucky Futurity, the third race in trotting's Triple Crown for 3-year-olds and the oldest stakes in harness racing, having been inaugurated in 1893. The Red Mile is also known as the "world's fastest racetrack," a claim with merit. Bret Hanover's 1:53[3/5] there in 1966 is the fastest pacing mile in the sport's history, and Greyhound's 1938 time of 1:55¼ was the fastest trot until Nevele Pride broke the record in 1969 with a 1:54[4/5] at Indianapolis. In late September horsemen flock to Lexington to go after records. Among The Red Mile's attractions is the Tattersalls yearling sale, which runs concurrently with the Grand Circuit meeting, and the proximity to the bluegrass breeding farms, which rival the thoroughbred establishments in elegance, if not in numbers.
The history of the Grand Circuit goes back to the period just after the Civil War. Trotting was flourishing on the East Coast, but inland tracks were beset with problems. Transportation difficulties forced owners to keep their trotters near metropolitan tracks. In an effort to lure top owners and horses, two inland tracks—Cleveland and Buffalo—decided to increase purses. It was at the Cleveland meeting in 1871 that one Colonel Bill Edwards of the Cleveland Driving Park Association planted the seeds of the idea that grew to be the Grand Circuit.
On June 20 of that year Edwards invited three friends to dinner. They were John Tod, president of the Cleveland club; E. A. Buck, vice-president of Buffalo Park; and L. J. Powers, chairman of the executive committee of the Springfield, Mass. club. It was here, according to one journal, that "...the question of giving a consecutive series of meetings for large purses was first discussed...the subject was introduced at dinner and, as Mr. Powers remembers, Colonel Edwards started it."
The idea was accepted in theory but in practice was postponed because it was felt that at least one more track was needed. Then at a meeting the next year at Buck's house in Buffalo, plans were made to start the association in 1873 and a fourth member was added, the Utica, N.Y. club headed by C. W. Hutchinson. The alliance was called the Quadrilateral Trotting Combination, a name eventually changed to Grand Circuit.
The Quadrilateral Trotting Combination held its first meeting from July 29 to Aug. 1, 1873 in Cleveland. Thereafter the racing moved to Buffalo (Aug. 5-8), Utica (Aug. 12-14) and Springfield (Aug. 19-22). Purses for the four meetings totaled $169,300, a handsome sum in those days.
Harness racing soon became the first spectator sport to win a large American following. Well-known trotters often drew crowds of 50,000 or more, and the races for record times received nationwide attention. The names of the best horses were known in every household. Lithographers such as Currier & Ives were quick to capitalize on their popularity. They did portraits of the celebrated horses and attended races to record the color and pageantry of the Grand Circuit. Down through the years has come a typical story from those fine days: the champion mare Goldsmith Maid was racing in Detroit, and in the stands a man turned and noticed a woman standing next to him. She was waving her handkerchief and paying no attention to a baby lying at her feet.
"Madam," he said, pointing down. "Your child."
"I expect to have several babies," replied the lady, "but I never expect to see another Goldsmith Maid."
Of all the horses ever raced on the Grand Circuit, none was worshipped more than the pacer Dan Patch. He raced from 1900 through 1909, and even today his records are considered something special. When Dan Patch made his debut on the Grand Circuit in 1900 the 2:00 mile still was a formidable barrier; by his career's end he had paced 75 miles averaging 1:59½, including an unofficial world record of 1:55. Although he lost two heats in his lifetime, he never lost a race. His enterprising owner was Marion Willis Savage, head of the International Stock Food Company in Minneapolis, who had bought him in 1902 for the staggering sum of $60,000. Savage claimed to be a true lover of horses, but he also was a shrewd businessman and saw nothing wrong with using the name of America's favorite horse to make a commercial buck. Men smoked Dan Patch cigars and chewed Dan Patch tobacco, children had Dan Patch sleds and hobbyhorses. There were Dan Patch washing machines (guaranteed to turn out a wash in two minutes), scarves, pillows and sweaters. There was even a dance called the "Dan Patch Two-Step." After Dan Patch was retired to a farm near Minneapolis, thousands of admirers came to see him. On July 11, 1916 he died at the age of 20. Willis Savage died the following day.
For a number of reasons the period between 1910 and 1940 was a life-and-death struggle for the Grand Circuit. The trouble began with the automobile and other new outlets for recreation and culminated in the Depression. Even so, there were some forward paces. In 1922 the horse van was introduced, which simplified the problems of long-distance shipping around the Circuit. In 1926 The Hambletonian was founded. Its $73,451.32 inaugural purse made it the first big stakes race in the sport. And in 1929 night racing had its beginnings at a track in Toledo, Ohio, and there, on July 8, Sep Palin drove Winnipeg to the first 2:00 mile under the lights.
Twelve years later the Grand Circuit took another notable step by awarding dates to Roosevelt Raceway, a new track at Westbury, Long Island that had been founded the previous year on the grounds of an auto racing oval. The development of Roosevelt upset harness racing purists. They felt that many aspects of Roosevelt—its night racing, the absence of heats, the emphasis on pari-mutuel wagering and the use of a mobile starting gate—were detrimental to the best interests of the sport. But Roosevelt was the operation that transformed harness racing from a rural pastime to a big-money, big-city business. The success of the Roosevelt experiment began a revival in harness racing that was felt at every level of the sport, including the Grand Circuit.
Now there is not a dime's worth of nostalgia to be found at Roosevelt, Yonkers, Liberty Bell or the other big-city tracks. The astonishing thing about the Grand Circuit is that it has kept its Du Quoins and Delawares—in coexistence with the Roosevelts and Yonkers—and that its classic events are held at its rural tracks by daylight and with time-honored heats, not single dashes. Nor has the Grand Circuit lacked modern stars. Consider two: the trotter Nevele Pride (1967-69) and the pacer Bret Hanover (1964-66), fastest in history at their gaits. In Bret the Grand Circuit had its most charismatic figure since Dan Patch. Owned by Richard Downing of Chicago, Bret dominated pacing in each of his three competitive seasons, winning 62 of 68 starts and $922,616. Only New Zealand's Cardigan Bay and France's Roquépine have won more money—and each raced at least six years.
Bret and Frank Ervin, his white-haired trainer and driver, won the sport thousands of new friends. They were an appealing pair, the old teamster in his green and red silks behind the powerful bay, and they were the toast of the Grand Circuit. Bret seemed to love crowds and attention. After a race Ervin would parade him before the grandstand and Bret would respond by nodding his head vigorously as he pranced along, as if to say, "Yes, I am the greatest." Said Ervin lovingly, "He's nothing but a big bum."
On Oct. 5, 1966 Bret paced his record 1:53[3/5] in a time trial. "I'm glad he did it," said Ervin, "and I'm also glad it's over."
Perhaps no one understands the spirit of the Grand Circuit, past and present, better than Delvin Miller, 57, long one of the sport's leading horsemen and the first to serve two terms as president of the Circuit. As a boy Miller went to the races with his grandfather Albert, who had raced on the Circuit ever since it was formed. He remembers his grandfather talking about the huge $1,500 purse he once won at Buffalo. "He went 2:23 in a high-wheeled sulky," says Delvin. "That was pretty good then." Miller drove his first race on the Grand Circuit in 1933. He slept in stalls with the horses or under shed rows and tents, had $500 in his pocket one week and a nickel the next. "It wasn't easy for a kid coming up," Miller says. "Most of those old guys weren't too nice to you if you won. Some of them would run you off the track if they could."
In the early '40s Miller and Doc Parshall, one of the Circuit's famous drivers of the day, saw a pacer named Adios. Parshall advised Miller to "borrow all the money you can and buy him." In 1948 Miller did, for $21,000, and Adios ultimately became harness racing's top modern sire.
Since hitting it big with Adios, Miller has been the complete horseman: driver, trainer, owner, track executive, unofficial publicist and goodwill ambassador. He has stumped the country to win friends and recognition for harness racing in general and the Grand Circuit in particular. It is fitting that he is president of the Grand during the centennial season.
When Miller gets nostalgic himself, he reminisces about the Grand Circuit characters he knew—and knows. "Nobody had a real name, not one you would know, anyway," he says. "Just nicknames." Such as the Celluloid Kid, a groom who wore a fresh high celluloid collar every day. Or Stewkettle Jack, who carried a kettle and made soup for the stable help. Or Saxophone Tommy, who tootled ragtime tunes in the barn on rainy days.
Most of the old characters are gone, but one who remains is Cigar Joe Britton, born in the '90s. Cigar Joe remembers getting off a train with his horse and hitching him to a jog cart (tying the sulky on behind) for the drive to the racetrack. That was circa 1913. "You didn't have a trunk to put things in and you just carried your blankets with you," he says. "Then when you got there, you ran a long clothesline around the stall and hung up your blankets and harness. Slept there, too."
Cigar Joe is appalled at what he sees on the backstretch now. "They wouldn't hire kids as grooms in the old days," he says. "You had to be a man. Nowadays they hire anybody." He pointed a stubby finger. "Even them longhairs."
Whenever Miller and Joe cross paths on the Grand Circuit, there is an exchange of cigars and comments about the old days. They remember their first meeting at some country flat racing in the late '30s in Suffolk, Va. Says Cigar Joe, "There was a colored fair on one side of the bridge and a white fair on the other. But after the whites got through racing, some of them would loan us horses to race at our fair. We didn't have a jockey, so we got this white guy to ride for us. He won six or seven races, all but one." The white guy was Delvin Miller, a character to groove on in this historic year of the Grand Circuit.