Norman's Woe is a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts where, according to Longfellow, the schooner Hesperus went down in 1842. Melvin's Woe, named more or less after the island, is—or at least was thought to be—something of a wreck of a standardbred. Norman's Woe was last in the news during World War II when a German sympathizer was caught lighting candles in a tower there to signal offshore U-boats. Melvin's Woe has been fairly inconspicuous, too, and considering his condition, it was not anticipated that this situation would change at the Little Brown Jug last week.
The Jug, which is the biggest event in pacing, is contested each year on the county fairgrounds track at Delaware, Ohio. By 1973 standards Delaware is an implausible location for a classic horse race but, given the fair's heroic role in horsey nostalgia, it is the perfect site for an implausible animal.
One such was Melvin's Woe. He was lame before his first heat. He stood in ice-water boots between dashes. He was lame after the day's racing. But, with his trainer-driver Joe O'Brien jiggling and joggling like mad in the sulky, old O'Brien style, Melvin's Woe was the winner of the Little Brown Jug.
No one knew better than O'Brien and the horse's veterinarian, Dr. Ken Buckley, just how real Melvin's woes were. O'Brien, a quiet horseman who is known for his ability to get the best out of a horse, arrived in Delaware three days before the Jug. Melvin's Woe had shipped in from Detroit, where he had won a race, but his right foreleg was hurting and he had suffered a bruised eye while rolling around in his stall at the Detroit track. The colt also had reinjured a tendon he had hurt in Indianapolis two months earlier. Buckley began a series of treatments with witch hazel and ice packs. Half of each day Melvin stood in a pair of orange rubber whirlpool boots filled with swirling ice water. "I'm really concerned," Buckley told O'Brien. "We only have a few days to cure something that should take 10."
September 30, 1973
O'Brien was also concerned about his other horse in the Jug, Armbro Nesbit, just then recovering from a quarter crack. "All year long you try to get horses ready for the big race, and then here you are in this shape," he grumbled. When O'Brien worked Melvin's Woe the day before the Jug the colt was so lame he could barely get around the half-mile oval at a slow jog. "Well," said O'Brien, "I'm afraid that's it. I don't even think he'll be able to start. If he does, he'll have to get a lot better between now and tomorrow." At least Armbro Nesbit seemed to be mending nicely.
Dr. Buckley, Assistant Trainer Tom Caraway and Groom Dick Dailey worked over Melvin's Woe through the afternoon while O'Brien raced other horses on Delaware's Grand Circuit program. Melvin stood patiently in his stall. "He seems to know we're trying to help him," Caraway said.
With a long worrisome night still ahead, O'Brien went off to a sale of yearlings in nearby Sunbury, and Buckley packed his bag to fly home to Mentor, Ohio, 150 miles away. He was piloting a Cessna 182 belonging to Ohioan Thurman Downing, the owner of Melvin's Woe (Downing's late father Richard had been the owner of Bret Hanover, sire of Melvin's Woe). Halfway there Buckley decided he wanted another look at the horse, so he turned around and flew back to Delaware.
He had stopped giving internal medication the previous day (if the horse could go, Buckley did not want any drugs showing up in the prerace tests), and he had left a poultice on the leg. When Buckley got back, Melvin was fussing in the stall. The poultice had caused the leg to get hot and swollen. Another round of ice packs and witch hazel brought the swelling down. Buckley got back in the Cessna, and this time flew all the way home. He tried to sleep but couldn't, so he got up, got back in the plane once again and returned to his patient. The leg was better, and Buckley sat down to the controls of the Cessna for the last time that night. It was one a.m. and a cold wind was beginning to blow across the grounds.
When the crowd began to come into the fairgrounds the next morning a drizzle was falling. Back in town, Buckley put on his windbreaker and a red golf cap and went to look for an iceman. O'Brien massaged Melvin's sore leg until Buckley returned with ice. "That guy charged me $2.75 for one crummy bag," the veterinarian said, "but I didn't even have time to get mad at him."
O'Brien and his group were not the only ones with troubles. Lucien Fontaine, who was to drive Valiant Bret, was stranded in Syracuse because Allegheny Airlines had canceled his flight. He finally got a charter. Johnny Chapman, the driver of J. R. Skipper, was complaining about his ears. He had a bad cold and on a flight out from New York his hearing had gone. Canadian Keith Waples shook his head as he watched his horse, Rob Ron Ritzar, fidget in his stall.
"You never know what he's going to do," Waples said. "He doesn't like the gate and he's liable to come out running. It wouldn't be the first time he's done it." Dick Buxton, an Ohioan with no fewer than three horses in the Jug, explained that his Faraway Bay had to have oxygen about 20 minutes before every race because of the smoke inhalation he had suffered last winter in a barn fire. "He might still be having trouble because of that fire," Buxton said. "He just hasn't done well so far this season."
So many horses (17) had been entered in the $120,000 race that it was split into two elimination divisions, with the first four finishers in each to come back for another mile. If neither previous winner took that one, a final three-horse race-off would be required. Melvin's Woe was limping when O'Brien took him out on the track for his first warmup. He gimped around at a jog. "He was about like this when we raced in Detroit," said Joe, not without hope. He and Owner Downing decided to "try one heat anyway." Melvin went two slow warmups and waited in the paddock in ice-water bandages.
By race time the track was fast, "as fast as it's ever been," said Curly Smart, the man who oversees its preparation. "Why, we put more water on it with the truck than that little bit of rain did."
What Melvin's Woe looked as he limped out was the opposite of the track—slow. "He'll never make it," said a man by the paddock fence. "Listen," said another, "I was here in '58 when O'Brien won with Shadow Wave, and that horse couldn't walk, either." He could pace, though, and as things turned out so could Melvin's Woe. The first heat was almost a breeze as Melvin and O'Brien swooped around Billy Haughton's Keystone Smartie in the last turn and accelerated into the stretch. At the wire Melvin's Woe was 234 lengths ahead of Valiant Bret.
When the colt returned from the winner's circle, Buckley ran into the paddock with the ice-water boots and O'Brien conferred with Downing and his wife, who had come down from the grandstand. "He just might make it for a second heat," O'Brien said. "The time in the boots should help him. Let's wait and see."
Buxton and his long shot Faraway Bay won the second division, defeating, among others, Ricci Reenie Time, last year's juvenile champion and winner of two straight heats of the rich Adios Pace in Pennsylvania last month. In a searing stretch drive Faraway Bay came up the middle of the track from fifth place to cross the finish line a length in front of Otaro Hanover, driven by Herve Filion. O'Brien and his other colt, Armbro Nesbit, were another length farther back in third.
There was a long wait until the final heat. By the time it came, Melvin's Woe had been able to stand in his boots for almost two hours. But as the eight colts came out on the track, he was limping again, and as they left the gate it was all O'Brien could do to keep him on the pace. Melvin's Woe quickly tucked into third and shuffled around the first turn, nearly falling. Glen Garnsey, who was catch driving Armbro Nesbit for O'Brien, was in front on the rail at the head of the stretch and it looked as if a race-off might well be necessary, for as Melvin's Woe rounded into the stretch he was boxed in on the rail, seemingly with nowhere to go. But then, with only a few yards remaining, Armbro Nesbit bore out. He had done the same thing in losing the Cane Pace in New York in July. Through the unexpected opening spurted Melvin to beat Armbro Nesbit by a neck.
Back at the O'Brien barn after the victory ceremony, Doc Buckley stood grinning—with tears running down his cheeks. O'Brien was massaging his colt's bad leg and saying he guessed Melvin's Woe had raced enough for the year. And Thurman Downing was listening politely as his wife was telling a bystander, "Well, we used to own part of this little island called Norman's Woe, and we have a friend in Kentucky named Melvin, and...."