It was to have been...yes, a horse race, last week's 27th Little Brown Jug, but it didn't turn out that way. It didn't because a 3-year-old colt with what his owners call "pigeon toes" failed to live up to his name, which is Strike Out, and lived up to his breeding instead. He won the Jug in two straight heats, easily, covering the second in 1:56⅗ a world record for 3-year-olds on a half-mile track. He kept it in the family, too; the former record holder was Bret Hanover, Strike Out's father. But it was that kind of day at the Jug, pacing's classic race and the second leg of its triple crown. Coincidence prevailed, with dashes of irony, drama and heartbreak thrown in. For example, the second horse in Strike Out's record heat was Fast Clip, whose driver, Bruce Nickells, had spent two months last winter training Strike Out. And there was Jay Time, the pre-race favorite, from nearby Columbus, Ohio, who had finished in a dead heat with Strike Out at the Adios last Aug. 12.
Strike Out drew the rail position for the first heat but Jay Time was in the No. 2 slot, and the potential for drama was not lost on the largest crowd (43,578) ever to watch the Jug. Jay Time went out fast. He had a slight lead on Strike Out at the quarter, in 27 seconds—a record, the track announcer said—but he was on the outside, Strike Out would not let him pass to gain the rail, and harness races are rarely won by horses forced to take the long way home at speeds like this. Suddenly Jay Time began to fade, and fade so badly that he finished last, 37 lengths behind the winner. His owner, Carl Baas, had that morning told friends, "I've never been this close to glory." Now his driver, Gene Riegle, scratched Jay Time from any remaining heats, explaining his horse had developed a high fever and that he had had a virus only five days earlier. "He was really wobbling at the end," he said, "but even at the quarter I saw he wasn't right."
That evening some of Strike Out's people pondered Jay Time's performance, and John Hayes, the winner's acerbic trainer and co-owner, said, "All horses have high temperatures after a tough race in hot weather. I think that 27-second quarter is what finished him off. He had nothing left, and they just didn't want him to be humiliated again."
If Jay Time was fevered, Strike Out was simply hot. Except for a moment during Jay Time's early bid, Strike Out had his nose in front all day. As Hayes said: "He played a game of catch-me-if-you-can and no one even came close. There was no other horse to help him either; he didn't have a rabbit; he did it all by himself."
In the first heat, won in 1:58⅕ Strike Out finished three-quarters of a length in front of Good Bye Columbus. In the record-breaking second, he was a breezy 1¼ lengths ahead of Fast Clip.
Understandably, Hayes ended the day full of superlatives, both for Strike Out and his driver, a 48-year-old Canadian, Keith Waples. Hayes kept saying, "This guy is Herve Filion's idol," which may account for Waples' heavy case of modesty. The Jug was the biggest win of his career, but after the race, with reporters following him everywhere, Waples said things like, "I was pleased with the results of the second heat," and, switching to Strike Out, "He's the best young pacer who's ever been around."
At which point Hayes would take over. "Do you know Keith Waples is the Eddie Arcaro of harness racing? He can think on the move, and only athletes like Jimmy Brown or Bobby Orr can do that. Keith never has to look around; he knows what's coming up behind him, and with all due respect to other drivers, hour for hour, track for track, night after-night, there isn't a man alive who can drive a horse better than Keith Waples."
In his exuberance, Hayes might also have planted a kiss on the clay-sand surface of the Delaware County Fairground track. Superintendent Curly Smart and his men do not maintain the track, they caress it. If an official tiptoes across it, a man with a rake follows in his footsteps. In 1965 it rained all night before the Jug, stopping just before post time. Smart poked a knife into his patient, found a solid base, directed an emergency grading job, and Bret Hanover went out and set a record for his future son to break.
Delaware is said to be the fastest half-mile track anywhere. It is closer to round than most tracks, which means, as the drivers put it, "Horses don't have to shift gears here." The track is very steeply banked, a feature that helps create records on one side of the chain link fence which borders it, and leaves on the other side an eight-foot grassy bank that is almost a cliff. The bank is part of the unique rural atmosphere of the Jug. All week the people of Delaware could be seen clawing their way up to the fence, dragging aluminum chairs that they fastened in place. These were reserved seats, Little Brown Jug style. At many locations, to make trips for beer something less than Alpine outings, a length of rope would be dangled down the bank to aid the climbers. Where the bank leveled off, the chairs were lined back five deep. On Jug day farmers came with flatbed trucks full of hay bales, which were rented at $5 apiece to be used as seats right there in the trucks.
"It's all slicker than a few years ago," said one Jug veteran last week, rather wistfully, gesturing toward dozens of camper trucks, some as big as Greyhound buses. Yet at 6 a.m. Jug morning, as in past years, the tail gates of station wagons were drawn, and the aroma of bacon and eggs drifted through the paddocks. The Delaware County Fair, adjoining the track, was unchanged. Jams and jellies were judged, and the screams from children on the Ferris wheel were as they had always been. On Delaware's Sandusky Street the hundred-year-old neoclassic houses were so clean that they could have been built the day before. Schools were closed again on the big day. "Because of the Jug," even the kinder-gartners said.
There was a fine traditional-type cocktail party in Delaware's new Holiday Inn when the racing was all over. Waples was there and so was Hayes and Strike Out's other co-owners, Robert and Conrad Shapiro, gown manufacturers from Montreal. They "got into horses," as Bob puts it, in 1960, and nothing bad has come of it. In 1970 they saw Strike Out at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Sale. The horse preceding him, a trotter, had been sold for $65,000, and Bob now thinks that is why the big buyers overlooked Strike Out, who went for only $15,000. Anyway, the trotter was never heard from again, which is considerably less than can be said for Strike Out, whose earnings now stand at $416,825.
These days the Shapiros have a little ritual they conduct at Strike Out's stall. They gaze at him admiringly, and Bob says, "Don't forget, though, he is a little pigeon-toed in front," and then, as if to reassure himself, he adds, "but Northern Dancer was pigeon-toed too."
"That's pretty classy company," someone says.
"I guess it is," he replies, "for Northern Dancer, that is."