Ordinarily, you do not think of The Hambletonian in terms of life and death. The preeminent U.S. trotting race has a country-fair setting in Du Quoin, Ill. and half a century of generally genteel racing behind it. But there are no guarantees, and last week's Hambletonian will be remembered because two fine animals had close brushes with death.
At one point, after the finish of the second heat, the colt widely expected to be this year's best 3-year-old trotter and already syndicated for $1.5 million, could be seen standing forlornly in the middle of the track. A bone in Nevele Thunder's left leg had been shattered and at first it was thought that he would have to be destroyed; two hours of veterinary work saved him. Then later when the racing was all over, but with Thunder's narrow escape still on the minds of many, the chilling word spread through a post-race party on the fairgrounds that the winner of The Hambletonian, Steve Lobell, had collapsed in his stall. And another frightening scene followed: vets rushed to the stricken animal, set up floodlights, applied cold cloths, rubbed him with alcohol, injected him with fluids and vitamins to reduce his temperature—and saved him, too. Afterward the vets said it was a case of shock brought on by exhaustion.
These two episodes underlined growing sentiment that The Hambletonian format be changed. First, the field for the 51st running of the race had consisted of 18 horses—too bulky, many felt. Certainly the heavy traffic had led, indirectly at least, to Thunder's mishap. Second, a horse must win two heats, and there can be as many as four heats—the winners of the first three settling matters in the fourth. That was the case Saturday in 90° heat. Too much. Indeed, before the final heat, Billy Haughton, Steve Lobell's driver and trainer, had tried to convince Dick Herman, one of Lobell's owners, to scratch the horse from the competition. "I am really afraid he might race his guts out," Haughton told him. Herman agreed with Haughton that four heats was "inhumane," but he also had to think about the nearly $32,000 third-place money Lobell would win just by showing up for the race. Reluctantly, he told Haughton to try.
Hambletonian Day dawned cloudy in Du Quoin, and even as people were rising and beginning to assess the weather, Billy Haughton and his son Peter were handling their first problem of the day: Which of them would drive Steve Lobell and which would drive Quick Pay? The horses, both trained by the Haughtons, were considered about equal, and so a coin was flipped by Billy's wife Dottie. Said Haughton, "Heads I'll take Quick Pay, tails Steve Lobell." It was tails; Dottie later put the fateful quarter in a cigarette machine in a grocery store. So much for sentiment.
There was no clear favorite in the 18-horse field—which was why, of course, the field was so large. Actually, no one could even agree on the best six or eight starters. What everyone did know, however, was that the purse of $263,524 was the largest ever offered for a single trotting event and that the winner's share of nearly $132,000 would fit in most any bank account just fine. Each of the six major races this year leading up to The Hambletonian had been won by a different horse.
Most favorable prerace attention centered on Pershing, whose California-based owner, Joe Mendelson, names his horses after military heroes and Notre Dame luminaries. "I consider myself a cross between Knute Rockne and Douglas MacArthur," he says. Mendelson also said that Pershing had been prepared specifically for this race only; the question was whether Pershing knew it.
The fastest 3-year-old time of the year, 1:57⅗ had been registered by Tropical Storm, and that turned some betting heads. Aladdin Hill was a beautiful animal, a specimen of what God intended the perfect horse to look like, except that a little speed may have been left out. Lola's Express had backing, partly because any male named Lola probably had to be tough and also because, as veteran driver-trainer-owner Delvin Miller said of him, "He's like Julius Boros. He doesn't get all nerved up." As for his own horse, Soothsayer, Miller was gloomy. "I have two chances," he said, "slim and none."
The early leader in the first heat was Peridot Pride. This was a horse trained until a couple of weeks ago by Haughton, who thought so little of him that he sold him for $75,000—the equivalent on The Grand Circuit of two box tops and 50¢. All the way around it was Peridot Pride. Into the stretch it was Peridot Pride. And the winner was Zoot Suit. Zoot Suit? Well, he was the unfavored member of the two Dancer entries, Thunder naturally being the star. Zoot Suit had a rep for being unable to beat good horses. Driver Vernon Dancer, Stanley's brother, was something beyond ecstatic, saying, "I just set him agoin'." Pershing, obviously getting ready for the kill, was a smooth third. Thunder got tangled up with Miller's Soothsayer and came home last. Steve Lobell kicked a shoe, went off stride, finished 14th and left Haughton grumbling about everything.
Less than an hour later, the mob of 18 did it all again. Steve Lobell took command at the top of the stretch and breezed home. He was first by 3½ lengths and was timed in 1:56⅖ equaling the world record set by Stanley Dancer with Super Bowl in the 1972 Hambletonian. Second was the only filly in the field, Armbro Regina. Driver Joe O'Brien, asked her chances before it all started, just shook his head. But at least Regina was showing marked improvement; in the first heat she had finished 17th. Third was Peter Haughton with Quick Pay. Pershing was fourth.
Back up on the track, Stanley Dancer was standing beside Thunder. The horse's left front leg obviously was broken, but he was still standing. What few knew was that in any event this was to be Thunder's last race before retirement to stud. "He has been a champion," said Dancer of the horse that was the best 2-year-old trotter in the country last year. "He has earned a rest." While awaiting the initial word from the vets, Stanley sat on Thunder's yellow water bucket with his head in his hands. He had been trying to avoid a slow horse that had gone off stride in front of them. "I heard it crack," said Dancer. "It sounded like a gun." It was hours later that he learned Thunder's life was not in danger; the horse had sustained a severe fracture of a small leg bone between the ankle and foot, a common injury, especially when horses tire.
With Nevele Thunder out of it and a couple of other horses having withdrawn, a smaller field contested the third heat. Quick Pay, strong all day, led nearly up to the place where they pay the winners, but in a whoosh here came Joe O'Brien and Armbro Regina, equaling the all-age filly and mare world record of 1:56[3/5]. Surprising Zoot Suit was second by a head and Quick Pay was third. Steve Lobell was fourth, Pershing fifth.
Now it was the three winners for the final heat—Zoot Suit, who hates apples and carrots; Steve Lobell, with soft feet; and Armbro Regina, with great fatigue. Setting off on their fourth mile journey in less than four hours, Zoot was tucked in behind Armbro Regina. As for Lobell, Haughton recalls, "I just thought I'd go nice and easy for third money." But as the sun was sinking behind the cornfields, he went to the front with a rush and won by half a length. Armbro Regina was second, but along the way clearly had drifted in front of Zoot Suit. So Zoot was given second place and second money of $65,881, while O'Brien's filly was reduced to third and $31,622. O'Brien had no complaints. The time was 2:02⅗ and O'Brien said, "I wish I had two acres of air-conditioned pasture to put all these horses in."
Attendance was an estimated 14,000 and wagering on the four Hambletonian heats was a bet-and-giggle $115,512. People around Du Quoin like the races, but they save their money for the cotton candy and the saltwater taffy.
Later, celebrating the victory before his collapse, Steve Lobell quaffed a vodka and tonic and nosed a piece of cake. Having won the Yonkers Trot in July, he has a chance at trotting's Triple Crown—assuming he returns to form sufficiently for Haughton to enter him in the Kentucky Futurity next month in Lexington.
But Haughton, who insists The Hambletonian doesn't mean all that much to him (he won it in 1974 with Christopher T, which he didn't think was really good enough to be entered), says, "I like winning both ends of a daily double just as much." He could be excused for feeling smug about having talked Herman out of accepting a $200,000 offer for Steve Lobell just the week before. The price on the horse, ranked at the start of the season only the 22nd-best trotter in the country, may have just doubled.
Although Herman ordered up a case of champagne, he was still disturbed by what had almost happened. "It's inhumane," he said of the four-heat format. "We're digging holes in Mars and they're racing in the 19th century."