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Back to old Kentucky
Monday, November 02, 2009 - By John Hervey

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In Hoof Beats looks back, we dig into the archive to bring you stories that have made Hoof Beats harness racing’s most popular magazine since 1933. Here author John Hervey writes about the excitement of "Homecoming Week" and the 1934 Kentucky Futurity in Lexington in the November 1934 edition. Digitization courtesy of Don Daniels of www.mi-harness.com.

After a hiatus of three years, how good it seemed to once more board the sleeper and know that, as one drifted off to dreamland perhaps one was headed for the "Trots"—"Kentucky's Great Trots", as the late Ed A. Tipton, the man who put the "great" in them, entitled them so many years ago! My first pilgrimage of that kind dates back to 1899, when first "the Blue Grass" dawned upon my enchanted eyes. Since then, and up to three years ago, I had missed only two seasons in my annual attendance. In 1899 and again in 1927, I was, perforce, an absentee. Otherwise I was invariably "on the spot" up to and including 1931. But in neither 1932 nor 1933 was I among the pilgrim clans. In '32, as some sort of a consolation, there was little doing, owing to continuous bad weather, the program, except for the different divisions of the Kentucky Futurity, being almost wholly abandoned. Last season saw some very brilliant sport, but in both years the meetings, owing to the burning of the old grandstand at the K. T. H. B. A. track, were held at the Lexington running course in an environment strange and unfamiliar to harness horsemen.

 

 USTA Photos

View of the big crowd which witnessed the parade of the equine celebrities on Visitors' Day at Walnut Hall Farm.
This fall they were "back home" back on the "old stamping ground," glorified by the new grandstand, an expanded program, a gala meeting and the goose whanging high. I could not stay the meeting out, but every day I attended it seemed indeed like "good times come again." Capacity crowds, superb racing, everybody in high spirits and enjoying themselves to the limit! The only dropped stitch was the weather, for it rained intermittently, making it impossible to race the Transylvania on "big Thursday," as scheduled, while Saturday, with the $10,000 free for all pace as the feature expected to bring out a banner crowd, not a wheel could be turned.

I am not writing a race report, however, as that function will be fulfilled by the much more competent pen of Tom Gahagan, who, blindfolded and with both hands tied behind him, could be depended upon to give a correct and complete account of everything. And, by the way, when I saw him performing the functions of the Clerk of the Course, and recalled that the long-familiar figure of my dear old friend, Everett L. Smith ("Percy"), would never again be seen in the position that he had occupied for so many years, I realized that even on the most joyous occasions there is always something to recall us to sober thoughts. You have perhaps read the story of the potentate of old, who ruled over many kingdoms with absolute sway and, where he sat upon his throne, was approached only by even the greatest princes upon their knees. Yet behind his throne there stood always a tall figure robed in somber garments, who, at intervals stepped noiselessly forward, stooped and whispered into the monarch's ear: "Remember that thou too art mortal!"

We are all mortal and when our time comes to answer the call there can be no delaying. The passing of each old friend and companion brings the thought unbidden something that we cannot ignore and that, at times, will shadow the happiest moments. But only for a moment. Because such is "the common fate of all" and life that was all unrelieved brightness would in the end be no more bearable than that which nature in her wisdom has ordained for us.

"Homecoming Week" at Lexington, however, really began with Sunday, preceding the opening of the "Trots," which is now regularly set apart as "Walnut Hall Farm Day", when Doctor and Mrs. Edwards keep open house for all lovers of good horses at the world's greatest horse breeding establishment. This time that occasion was made doubly impressive by the dedicatory exercises and formal opening of the equine burying ground and the unveiling of the life size bronze statue of Guy Axworthy, with which the day was inaugurated. The writer may appropriately leave comment upon it to other contributors to HOOF BEATS, most notably Mr. Shuff, but he may be indulged in saying that it was a truly memorable and unique occasion. When an assemblage of some 1,500 persons gathers at such a time and place, including not only Kentuckians themselves, with the Governor of the state among them, but persons from no less than twenty two different commonwealths in our nation (motor cars from that many were parked in the space set apart for them), while several foreign countries were also represented, we may well feel that the foundation of sentiment—of real love—for good and great horses is still strong in the United States and that, properly fostered and directed, will long remain so.

So far as the writer is aware, the statue of Guy Axworthy is the first life-size one ever erected in America to a trotting stallion.

 
Statue of Guy Axworthy which was unveiled on Visitors' Day at Walnut Hall Farm.
There is one other in Kentucky, the well known one, also in bronze, of the great Thoroughbred progenitor, Fair Play, at Elmendorf, erected about four years ago by Mr. J. E. Widener. There are various equestrian statues in various places, which were erected in honor of various famous men, in which it is claimed that the horses portrayed are portraits of actual animals, sometimes of celebrity, but in all cases the horse is there secondary to the man.

Thus, of their kind, the statues of Guy Axworthy and of Fair Play are unique in this country, if not the world—for I have yet to read of any such monuments in Europe which mark the burial places of great race horses or progenitors. In Eldridge Park, Elmira, N. Y., there is a life sized bronze statue of the great old time trotting queen, American Girl 2:161/2, who fell dead there in a race in 1875. And, as is well known, there is a statuette of Nancy Hanks in the equine burial ground at Hamburg Place, near Lexington, erected there by the late John E. Madden.

The statue of Fair Play, at Elmendorf, stands upon the brow of a crest up which a road winds and is very finely placed. It marks the spot where the ashes not only of the great stallion himself, but those of his consort, Mahubah (from which he begot Man O' War) are also interred. The spot chosen for the statue to Guy Axworthy is a few yards distant from the entrance to the Walnut Hall equine cemetery, where his remains are buried with a corresponding place reserved at their left for those of Peter Volo when his time shall come.

The Fair Play statue has been much criticised by Thoroughbred turfmen who knew the horse. They do not consider it good as a portrait, though imposing and artistic in itself. The statue of Guy Axworthy must necessarily undergo the same ordeal. The sculptor, Mr. Build, who is an artist of much talent and fine training, was handicapped in his work because of the fact that he had to work from photographs and the description given him by word of mouth, as he had never seen Guy Axworthy during the stallion's life. Considering this, he has acquitted himself very ably. The figure has more individuality—gives one more the impression of a life like representation—than the Fair Play statue, which is the work of a well known woman sculptor. It is especially pleasing as one approaches it "head on" and a bit from the left, when it is beautiful indeed and has much of the expression that marked Guy Axworthy in his later years. The quality of bronze used for the casting was of the finest and adds to the artistic effect, but when in the course of a few years it has, through "weathering," acquired that "patina," or "aerugo," which time only can give the metal, it will be far more beautiful than now.

It was surrounded by a throng of ladies and gentlemen from the moment of the unveiling until the close of the day, who gazed upon it with an evident appreciation not only of what it is, but what it means. Throughout the exercises a wreath of laurel, symbolical of the stallion's world wide fame, reposed against the granite pedestal, and after their little grandson had unveiled the statue itself, Doctor and Mrs. Edwards rose from their seats and stepped forward together to lay at the feet of Guy Axworthy a great sheaf of roses. All was unostentatious, simple, and quiet, yet dignified and graceful.

*   *  *  *

It had been the general expectation that, on the Tuesday following, the major—three year old trotting division of the Kentucky Futurity would be won by Lord Jim, the son of Guy Axworthy (begotten in the extreme old age of that famous sire) that had already won the Hambletonian Stake, the Ohio Governor's Cup and other outstanding events. The "consensus of opinion" among the best informed horsemen ran all in that direction. It was allowed that he would find a competitor worthy of his steel in Vitamine, whose race at Syracuse, with one heat in 2.01¾, was of sparkling brilliance. It was also believed that Princess Peg, winner of a heat in the Hambletonian and who narrowly missed victory that day, would be carrying the battle. Nevertheless, his triumph was freely forecast.

My first Kentucky Futurity, that of 1898, was a truly historic one, as the winner was no less a colt than Peter the Great, destined later to prove an epochal progenitor. He trotted over a very heavy track and his best time was 2.121/2, with nothing near him. The performance was sensational, for previously no winner of the classic event had ever trotted faster than 2.13½ over a fast track. How far we have gone since then the records show. In 1930 Hanover's Bertha won the Futurity in 2.00 flat; while in 1931 Protector, in the deciding heat, established a race record for trotting stallions, regardless of age, of 1.591/4.

Neither of those record breaking performances, however, gave me the thrills that I experienced in watching the tremendous contest waged to decide the victor for 1934. Nor do I believe that anybody, anywhere, ever before saw four such exciting heats, of which the first three were trotted in such sensational time. The tide of battle swayed to and fro. When in the opening round Lord Jim came through with a locomotive-like rush, that to the old timers recalled the irresistible finishes of Cresceus when he was king of the turf, and thrust his head and neck in front of those of Vitamine at the wire in 2.003/4, it seemed a plain indication that we need look no farther for the winner. In that heat Will Caton had made a lot of use of Vitamine, taking him out in front early, making the pace all the way and succumbing only in the very last stride to Lord Jim's closing rush.

I was informed that this course had been pursued because Vitamine was a "front runner" and would not race so well if kept back; but the next heat belied that idea. For that time Caton elected to lay back with his colt and not join battle until the end of the mile. As they turned for home, it looked as if the issue lay between Lord Jim and Princess Peg, and the natural expectation was that the big, stout colt would wear the filly down and finish off the race, out of band. But that terrific first heat had taken more out of him than was at the time apparent. Midway of the stretch, to the dismay of his backers, it was seen that Parshall was at work on him desperately, that Princess Peg was holding him, and was going to beat him. The entire grandstand was on its feet and the excitement swept over it in waves of ebullition. I have never seen a more brilliant drive, one more perfectly timed or exquisitely calculated than that of Caton behind Vitamine. The son of Peter Volo and Olliewood M., by Bingen, is not a big colt, nor a particularly stout one, especially as compared with one like Lord Jim, but he is a piece of faultless trotting machinery and has the heart of a lion. When set down for his final effort, for which Caton swung him out to the outside of the other two, he came from behind with a meteoric burst of speed, collared them, passed Lord Jim and then, as it were, taking the filly by the throat, in the very last stride thrust his head in front of hers,the time, 2.013/4.

Having not before this season seen the Futurity stars in battle array, I now asked for information from sundry of the men who had. Uncertainty prevailed among them, but I found that they were now doubtful of Lord Jim's ability to come through. "They have taken his measure," I was told. "He is a game colt, but the job is too big for him. Caton ought to win. But that filly is h—l today!" For in the first heat Princess Peg, they thought, might even have beaten Lord Jim had she been able to get through. She was not and was forced to a break because of it, running out third, right on top of the two colts.

In the third heat came the incident that alone marred the race and possibly affected its outcome. Emily Stokes and then Muscletone, in the early part of the mile, had been doing the leading. Suddenly at the half the whole field rushed together in a compact mass, like a school of goldfish, and it became impossible, from the stand, to separate one from another. "A good time for an accident!" I exclaimed inwardly, as they swung into the far turn—and just at that moment one almost occurred. Both Muscletone and Emily Stokes were regarded as outsiders, though each has tremendous speed, but the filly has a painful curb, while Muscletone has contracted a habit of hitting himself behind that leads to disastrous breaks. As they swept around the turn and the pace increased to a two minute gait, Emily broke and swerved from the pole out across toward the outer rail. She interfered with both Lord Jim and Vitamine, which were racing close together, out in the center of the track and just behind her. Lord Jim broke and was immediately out of it. Vitamine, for the moment impeded, is a colt with fine control of his action and did not lose his stride, but the interference perhaps cost him the heat and race.

When Emily swerved out, Palin, who had been following her closely with Princess Peg, by a piece of quick thinking and skilful reinsmanship, slipped that filly through at the rail, free from trouble, and took after Muscletone, who was now leading. That colt went to a break passing the three quarters and the heat resolved itself into another breath taking duel between Princess Peg and Vitamine. After getting his colt loose from the scrimmage, Caton brought him forward by degrees and sought to again nip the filly at the wire. Coming from behind he made a thrilling eff ort, but was not quite equal to the task and in a finish in which both contenders and their drivers covered themselves with glory, the game daughter of Volomite defeated him by not more than the length of her bloodlike headthe time, again 2.01¾.

An interesting feature of the heat was the last three quarters trotted by Bertha C. Hanover. She bad broken early and fell far back, but after recovering exhibited truly marvelous speed and finished close by the leading pair.

As Parshall had laid up Lord Jim after his break, just dropping him inside the flag, many thought he would be the freshest of the three for the final. On the other hand, Vitamine had now been three terrific miles, winning one by a head and losing the other two each by a neck. But Princess Peg was exhibiting the most unflinching gameness and strength at the finish. Truly, it was "anybody's race." Meanwhile the announcement that Dr. Edwards had become the owner of the filly added to it still another element of tingling interest.

It was apparent from the word "go," in the race off, that nobody wanted to take the lead. Finally Lord Jim did so, and they went down to the half in but 1.07, with Princess Peg laying an open length behind him and Vitamine two open ones farther back. They now began to put on steam and the next quarter was trotted in .311/2, but at the last turn their relative positions were still unchanged. When straight for home they all "went into high" 'simultaneously. The final quarter was trotted in .291/2 and the filly, as before, showing surprising strength in the last furlong, simply raced Lord Jim into submission and beat him in 2.08. Vitamine again endeavored to come from behind with a wet sail, but in order to win he would have had to trot the last quarter in at least .281/2; a manifest impossibility. He got to them, but could not pass the leaders, and so finished.

Had the mile been trotted but a half second faster, in 2.071/2, a new four-heat race record would have been established. As it is, we must pause in admiration before three such young trotters as those who waged the battle in such Homeric fashion through four bitter heats. There is ample glory for all, but the lion's share for the filly. As one of the first crop of foals of Volomite, bought at the close of his three year old career by Dr. Edwards to ultimately take his sire's place at Walnut Hall Farm, she has developed that "case of good judgment" in the most emphatic way. As for her dam, Margaret Arion 2.101/4, that matron now ranks as easily the greatest dam of colt trotters ever known, with three Kentucky Futurity winners to her credit for she is also the dam of both Protector and The Marchioness. Now owned at Walnut Hall, Margaret Arion, as is well known, was bred by Mr. A. H. Cosden, who witnessed the victory of Princess Peg and received many congratulations for the part he had played in her production.

 


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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.