When Delvin Miller arrived at the Syracuse, N.Y. airport last Saturday, awaiting him was the first of many omens that his day was seemingly ill-starred. He was told that the only rental car available was a small economy model. Miller, who is 64, has won more than $8 million since he started harness racing for pay in 1941. He also is the proprietor of a horse farm and the founder of The Meadows racetrack in Meadow Lands, Pa. He is not the small economy type. Nor does he hitchhike. So Miller drove the little car the 35 miles to Vernon Downs so he could drive Speed In Action in the classy $100,000 Gold Cup, the first race this season that included all the best 3-year-old trotters.
He arrived to omen No. 2: his racing silks had not been brought to the track as promised. Miller without his familiar gold-and-brown colors is like Santa Claus without his red-and-white suit. Which is what Miller looked like in borrowed red-and-white silks—a right jolly old elf. But it got worse. He was verbally abused by a security man who felt Miller didn't belong in the dressing room.
Then there was Speed In Action and his questionable knees. Even Miller says, "He's just a nice colt." That's faint praise. So could Speed win against this field? Using his borrowed whip to doodle in the dust on his borrowed boots, Miller said, "Probably not."
So much for ill-starred days. Miller and SIA went out and finished second in a qualifying heat and first in the final to establish the colt as most worthy of strong Hambletonian consideration.
Looking down at his ill-colored and ill-fitting garb in the winner's circle, Miller allowed, "I've never looked worse or felt better." He had just won a purse of $27,500 and he was permitting himself to think that, just maybe, he will sit behind his second Hambletonian winner.
It wasn't that Speed In Action, trained by Sonny Graham, was a plow horse dressed up in fancy racing colors. Only 10 days earlier the colt had won a race in Montreal in a world-record (for a ‚Öù-mile track) 1:58.2. Further, with three firsts and four seconds in seven starts this year—plus 12 victories in 25 outings as a 2-year-old—Speed obviously had credentials. Still, a few backstretch experts clucked about the colt's loss to an unknown five days after his world record and reckoned as how five starts in one month might be just too much racing.
Speed In Action had indeed provided cause for concern. Last October, after a splendid season in which he never finished out of the money and his purses of $127,307 made him the leading 2-year-old money winner among trotters, bone chips were discovered in both knees. The colt underwent surgery that made him more than a month late for training in Florida last winter. Miller scoffs at talk of knee problems and says, "They're both as sound as a dollar." The dollar being what it is, that, too, may be faint praise.
With 16 colts entered, the field for the Gold Cup was divided into two eight-horse divisions; the first five finishers in each division qualified for the final. Speed In Action drew the first group, with his principal opposition coming from Cold Comfort, considered the second-best trotter in the Haughton stable behind Green Speed, but steady and impressive all year, and Texas, rapidly improving under the care and driving of Bill Herman. So rapidly, in fact, that Texas had blown the doors off Cold Comfort a few days earlier in Canada. "Now we've got to find out if he has enough ability to win the big races," Herman said. Perhaps they did. Peter Haughton took Comfort to the top by the half-mile pole and kept him there while Speed In Action closed with a rush and was second by a neck, a fraction ahead of Texas.
In the other division, racing know-it-alls said it would be a two-colt race between Green Speed and ABC Freight. For a change they were right. All season Green Speed has shown what the opposition considers alarming speed. He also has shown what everyone considers an alarming habit of breaking stride. But this time he held it to finish three quarters of a length ahead of ABC Freight, trained and driven by Clint Galbraith.
For the final, heat winners Green Speed and Cold Comfort were coupled as an entry, a requirement when horses are from the same stable. The odds dropped to 2 to 3, which meant most of the 7,895 fans knew one or the other would win. Second choice was Texas and third choice was a toss-up between ABC Freight and Speed In Action.
ABC showed his good heat performance had been no fluke by taking the lead and holding it against stiff challenges. Green Speed raced second and Cold Comfort third. Suddenly Green Speed broke stride and tripped. That, in turn, slowed Cold Comfort, who was following. Miller seized the opportunity to squirt through on the rail. Comfort seemed to have used up his available trot for the evening and Miller was astounded. ("I'd been thinking how content I'd be with second," he said.) Now all that remained was to hunt down Freight, and 30 yards from the end Speed In Action collared him and rolled to a neck victory. The time was a track record 1:57.2, only a second off world-record time. Andy Grant of New York City, the main owner of Speed, was asked when he felt the contest was won. "Right there." said Grant, pointing, "when the colt passed that sign that says FINISH." It was that close. Texas finished third, Cold Comfort was fourth and Green Speed wound up fifth.
So the Gold Cup, the richest race in the 25-year history of Vernon Downs, served as a solid preview of the Hambletonian. It demonstrated anew that while Green Speed may be fastest, he has not conquered his tendency to break stride. Cold Comfort continued steady but evidenced a lack of speed under pressure. Texas showed he still is a comer. (ABC Freight is ineligible for the Hambo because sustaining payments were inadvertently missed.)
And Speed In Action? Miller may be right—that it's time to admit that this colt is ready to play hardball with the big hitters. As a reward, Speed is being turned out on Miller's farm for a couple of weeks so he can romp and act like a real horse. For his part, Miller hung up his borrowed silks, got into his little car and went off to a local pub to rent a few drinks and talk about how omens don't mean a thing.