After surviving two broken backs and as many heart attacks, John Hayes wasn't about to come unglued over losing last Friday night's $107,000 Cane Futurity at Yonkers Raceway. Not that the tough little Canadian trainer was all that happy. No one can go into the first part of pacing's Triple Crown with the 4-5 favorite and come out second-best to a 10-1 shot and not feel some remorse. "All that prestige," someone said to him sympathetically. "All that money," said Hayes, who is a practical man. "You just saw how to blow $43,000 in a little over two minutes." In the sphere of Kentucky Derbies, the trophy is the thing. In harness racing, the majority prefers its silver melted down into coins.
This time the bulk of the coins, a tad more than $64,000 worth, went to the owner and handlers of Hilarious Way, a Bret Hanover colt who came rushing through the driving rain to overhaul Hayes' Strike Out near the wire to win by three-quarters of a length. And just a neck back of Strike Out was Keystone Pebble, a 60-1 shot who skittered happily over the slop. But if Strike Out was beaten by Hilarious Way, he was done in by Racy Prince, a lightweight who furiously chased last year's 2-year-old champion for the first half mile, forcing a pace faster than Hayes wanted his ace to be going. They went to the half in .59⅘ quick considering the conditions.
"That Prince had no business up there," said Hayes as he watched a rerun of the race on a television set in the paddock. "But you can't fault Strike Out; he had to meet any challenge. Racy Prince hung on the outside and forced the pace while the rest of them were siting back resting. Our horse was the best in the race and he belonged out in front. If he had backed off and let those other horses go around him, I'd have shipped him back to Canada."
If Hilarious Way was resting, it was in high gear. Driven brilliantly by young John Simpson Jr., the Gainesway Farm colt came out of the 10th position in the second tier of the 12-horse classic, worked his way to sixth on the outside of Keystone Pebble by the half and began to move past the pack. By the three-quarter pole he was second but three wide on the outside going into the stretch turn. He moved away from the mob, caught Strike Out 40 yards from the finish and won in 2:02[2/5].
May 28, 1972
"He just gets better and better," chortled Owner Clarence Gaines, one of the sport's minority who reaches for the trophy before the check. His wealth comes from the Gaines dog-food company, which should make a horse think twice about giving less than his all. "He's still a little green. I thought he needed two or three more races, but he was there tonight, wasn't he?"
Last August, after winning three of eight starts, Hilarious Way injured a knee in the Fox Stake at Indianapolis and was turned out for the season. This spring he had started three races, winning once—at Yonkers. "He has come along even better than I expected," said Simpson, a boyish-looking 28-year-old who took over the training and driving of the Hanover Shoe Farms stable in 1970 when his famous father was sidelined by an eye operation. That same year, he became the youngest driver ever to win the Hambletonian, with Timothy T.
"It's wonderful, isn't it," said John Simpson Sr., smiling at his soggy son.
"Sure is," said young John, who sandwiched his triumph in the Cane between victories in the fourth and sixth races. "Things like this don't happen very often." He grinned as he fingered his bloodshot left eye, which had caught a flying clod of mud.
For John Hayes there was no mud in the eye, just the thought that perhaps Friday wasn't his day. For openers there had been a telephone call at 1 a.m. in Chicago. The caller was a New York Post writer who wanted to know what instructions Hayes would give Keith Waples, his driver.
"Instructions," Hayes snorted later. "If I had to give him instructions he wouldn't belong in the bloody race." But patiently he told the writer, "Well, I'm going to tell Keith that every time he comes to a turn to keep going left."
Arriving in New York later that morning, he stopped by an airport rental office to pick up a car. He announced his residence as Oshawa, Ontario. The girl at the counter reacted warily.
"Where's this, ah, Oshawa?" she demanded.
"You ever hear of Bobby Orr?" asked Hayes.
"You ever hear of Texas?"
"Yeah," said the girl, brightening.
"Well," Hayes said, "my backyard is bigger than Texas."
"Oh," said the girl.
Shortly before five that afternoon, between sips of coffee at a restaurant near Yonkers, Hayes wondered aloud at people's persistent curiosity about his health. During World War II, while training with the Royal Canadian Air Force, he ground-looped an Anson II trainer into a concrete runway and broke his back. He spent most of the next two years in hospitals.
He was a farmer, but there wasn't much work for a farmer with a bad back. He went into harness racing and quickly discovered there is more money in horses than in cows. Years later, at a place called Mohawk Raceway, he was flipped out of a sulky, flew 50 feet through the air and landed on his back, which again was broken. "But I knew I was going to be all right," he said. "As I lay there after coming down, I was able to wiggle my toes."
The heart attacks came last summer, both while Hayes was driving Strike Out. After the second one he gave up driving. "I didn't do it for myself," he said. "I just didn't feel it was fair to the other drivers or to the people betting on my horses." And so when the doctors insisted he quit, he said O.K. But when they ordered him to stay away from racetracks, he laughed.
"I told them to spend a dime every day and buy the Toronto Globe and Mail, and if they didn't see my name in the obituary column they'd know they were wrong." His eyes twinkled behind dark rimmed glasses. With his right hand he smoothed down a slight Gallic mustache. "I told them the only way I was gonna die at home would be by accident. I certainly don't want to die, but I don't want to give up living, either. I just wish people would stop talking about it. They act as though I should prepay my funeral expenses."
Watching the race from a glassed-in section of the paddock, Hayes moved only his head, and that but barely, as the horses twice circled the half-mile track. At the end he said without emotion, "Hilarious Way wins it." Then he added, "It sure is a lot tougher watching than driving. But either way, when you're second, you're second."