The two horses raced in twisting tandem down the stretch, rocking with the motion peculiar to trotters, their muscles rippling and highlighted by the lowering sun. Side by side they went over the final 100 yards, nostrils flared as their hoofs pulled divots from the soft track. The drivers hunched forward in their sulkies—hard, gritty men, one a famous veteran accustomed to the rich touch of silk, the other a rank interloper reaching out from here to there. Their whips cracked over the roar of the crowd as they looked for one more strong thrust, one more inch, the fraction of victory.
Such were the final improbable seconds last Saturday afternoon of the 50th Hambletonian, a race worth $232,192 and immeasurable prestige in harness racing. The two horses, Bonefish, the favorite, and Yankee Bambino, the outsider, were racing for the fourth time that day, the survivors—together with Noble Rogue, another outsider out of contention now—of three earlier heats on the mile track. Only four times before had four heats been needed to settle a Hambletonian. And, as a fillip, the greatest show in trotting was being seen for the first time live on national television.
The Hambo is held at the fairgrounds on the outskirts of Du Quoin, Ill., a town sentimentalists picture as being peopled by laconic folk in dusty overalls, sprawled on porches, picking their teeth with straw. In truth, no grass grows on Main Street, although the surrounding countryside is heavy with the smell of hay, the rasp of crickets and billboards advertising fertilizer and feed grain.
Most Hambo visitors stay in nearby Carbondale, a college town you reach by flying from St. Louis on a commuter airline that employs short stewardesses because tall ones cannot stand up straight in the small planes. In Carbondale it is impossible to make a telephone call from your motel room. One prerace topic of conversation around the paddock was that the motel at which last year's winning driver, Billy Haughton, was staying was so delighted with his presence that it put his name up on the marquee. Veteran Driver Del Miller maintained that Haughton was there because the motel was painted in Haughton's stable colors of green and white. "Billy's not cheap," said Miller.
This was the first year for pari-mutuel betting at the Hambletonian, and the local newspaper ran a series of articles explaining the nuances of the daily double and how the computers figure win, place and show money. For the most part, though, the locals stayed away from the ticket windows, much in the cautious manner of those who boycotted expressways when they first opened, wanting first to see if they were safe. On Thursday a man astounded a mutuel clerk by making a $4,000 show bet in the second race. Track officials were disconcerted. The man wore a flashy yellow suit (cause for suspicion), smoked a cigar and had an accent (cause for alarm). "He's from Brooklyn, I betcha," said one. Ted Bailey, a businessman from Lancaster, Ohio, patiently explained to track security people that he frequently bet heavily on the big favorite. He had been following Nero, the season's best 3-year-old pacer, he said, putting down $20,000 on him to show each time he raced, and so far he had not lost.
So rich is the Hambletonian in sentiment and prestige that occasionally a horse is entered (at $2,410 a pop) that might be more comfortable pulling a vegetable cart. And though the field for this year's race was judged well above average, there were a couple of long shots. One was Noble Rogue, who had a history of ailments, including sore feet. Another was Yankee Bambino, who was bred by old Yankee star Charlie Keller and named for Babe Ruth. There were really long shots, too, such as Jubilee Triton, a 50-1 pick, with only seven wins in two years of racing against light competition. He was owned by Dr. William Griffin, a surgeon from Kickapoo, Ill., a town of 198 people. Dr. Griffin was steadfast in his belief that Jubilee Triton had a chance. "If we're in the top five at the head of the stretch," he said, "they better watch out because he's got a motor in him."
There was precedent for an upset, but generally only the favorites have any chance in the Hambo because of its formidable format. The winner has to win two heats. If after three heats no horse has won twice, the three winners go into a race-off.
Bonefish was the prerace favorite, and Stanley Dancer insisted that the horse could be his best ever, though there were some who believed that stablemate Surefire Hanover was a more consistent horse and better suited to the rigors of the Hambo.
In the first heat, Bonefish left from the ninth post, was pushed hard to take the lead at the quarter pole but then went limp at the head of the stretch, and Yankee Bambino charged from behind to win in 1:59 and pay $75.40. Bonefish finished a pulled-back ninth, and Dancer was dejected.
Yankee Bambino was driven by Walter Ross, who mostly practices his craft on New England tracks. This was his first try at the Hambletonian, and compared to the slick, spit-and-polish image of the other drivers, he was almost shabby in faded racing silks, scuffed boots and a worn-and-weathered helmet. "I got all that nice stuff in my suitcase," said Ross, "but I got to thinking at the barn this morning, and thought I'd dress as I would for any other race and put on the old working clothes for luck." Ross bought Yankee Bambino for $8,700 as a yearling for Philip and Mary Roux of Laconia, N.H., the operators of a resort hotel. Mary Roux, a polio victim, was sitting on the rail at Du Quoin in a wheelchair, and her hands shook with excitement as she spoke with reporters.
In heat two, Bonefish came from far back to finish second to the tenderfooted Noble Rogue in 1:59[2/5]. Dancer's horse might have won the heat, but he lost almost two lengths when he swerved on the backstretch to avoid a careening Meadow Bright, who went momentarily out of control after a stirrup broke. Yankee Bambino was fourth, only a length back.
Four horses scratched in the third heat. Even if one of them were to win, their trainers were not sure they would want them to return for the fourth heat. "It might hurt a horse so that he'd never be any good the rest of his career," said Billy Haughton, who took Glasgow out of the heat. Starting from a good post position for the first time, Bonefish breezed in the third heat, winning comfortably in 2:00[3/5]. A tired Noble Rogue broke early when the starting car inexplicably slowed, an event that caused Del Miller's Songflori to almost bang his nose on the gate. Yankee Bambino finished third. "I'm pooped," said Ross. "My colt's never been two heats before, much less four."
But Bonefish, Yankee Bambino and Noble Rogue had to come up to the gate for the fourth time in four hours. Noble Rogue took the lead at the start. Bonefish patiently dropped in behind him, and Yankee Bambino followed, Ross waiting for the move he knew Dancer would make. With a quarter of a mile to go, Bonefish eased out and Yankee Bambino came right after him. They both passed the weary Noble Rogue and battled down the stretch, sulky to sulky. Bambino made a marvelous try but couldn't quite get there. At the end, Bonefish's nose was in front.
Later Stanley Dancer said that yes, he still thought his horse was a great one, that he was proud of his comeback and happy with a third Hambletonian title. Walter Ross drove Yankee Bambino back down the track, alone and now forgotten.