By Dean A. Hoffman
As Hambletonian Day dawned in 1965, everyone knew how the big race would end. Not only were they were wrong, but as the day wore on it seemed that the Hambletonian might not end at all.
This year marks the Golden Anniversary of most of the most dramatic classics in Hambletonian history.
That Hambletonian 50 years ago was supposed to be another cake walk for Noble Victory, who had lost only one heat in his career. But when darkness began to fall over the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds, the race still wasn’t over, and pre-race favorite Noble Victory was being cooled out in the stable area.
Noble Victory was born to Hambletonian greatness. His sire Victory Song has been second in the 1946 Hambletonian although many observers felt he was clearly the best colt in the race. Emily’s Pride, the dam of Noble Victory, had won the 1958 Hambletonian over male rivals and trotted the first sub-2:00 mile in Hambletonian history in doing so.
Prominent owner K.D. Owen spent $33,000, a godly sum in 1963, to secure Noble Victory and set about seeing if the blue-blooded baby could live up to his heritage for Stanley Dancer. Noble Victory did that—and more. As a 2-year-old, he won 18 of 19 races and trotted in 2:00 at Lexington, equaling the fastest time ever by a freshman trotting colt in a race.
If there was an ominous note in his freshman campaign, it was that Noble Victory’s only defeat came at the DuQuoin State Fair, the site of the Hambletonian.
As a sophomore, Noble Victory took right up where he left off in his freshmen season, winning every time he faced the starting gate. He looked invincible coming into the Hambletonnian.
Perhaps a worrisome sign coming for Noble Victory was that he had never met the redoubtable filly Armbro Flight. While Noble Victory was mowing down his male opponents, Armbro Flight was flying away from her rival fillies.
Late summer rainstorms pelted southern Illinois on the eve of the Hambletonian that summer. Horsemen prized the clay cushion on the mile oval, but when that clay got wet, it became a quagmire.
And it was a boggy mess when Hambo Day dawned.
Officials delayed the start of the race program as they frantically waited for the track to dry enough to make it safe and race worthy. Not until mid-afternoon did the horses parade to the post.
In that era, there was no betting at DuQuoin (and there wouldn’t be for another decade).Yet Noble Victory was a rock-solid favorite among the pundits.
But the pundits were wrong.
In the first heat, the upset winner was Short Stop, a robust Speedster colt who got little consideration in the pre-race jawboning. He won for trainer-driver Ned Bower, who had sprung an upset in the ’56 Hambletonian with The Intruder.
Noble Victory led into the stretch in the first heat, but faded and finished ninth. The winning time was a pedestrian 2:05.1 over the boggy surface.
Dancer explained that Noble Victory had low heels in front and wore a bar shoe for support, and that bar shoe mired him down in the South Illinois mud.
In the second heat, Egyptian Candor, who wasn’t above trying to pace when pressured in a race, was all trot and won the second round in 2:04.3 for driver Del Cameron. He was Noble Victory’s stablemate but had not figured in the pre-race considerations.
The sun was beginning to sink low in the prairie sky when the tired Hambo hopefuls returned for a third heat. If either Short Stop or Egyptian Candor won it, the Hambo was history and fair officials would beat the fast-approaching darkness.
But Armbro Flight tossed the Hambo into a race-off by winning the third heat for Joe O’Brien by thrust her head in front at the wire in 2:03.4.
Noble Victory finished third, and Dancer later claimed that Noble Victory would have won the third heat he’d found room in the stretch.
Instead, Noble Victory went back to the barn without a trophy for the first time in his career. He simply picked a very bad day to come up empty.
That meant that the three heat winners—Short Stop, Egyptian Candor, and Armbro Flight—would return to settle the score. It was past 7 p.m. and dusk enveloped the DuQuoin State Fairground as the three trotters went behind the gate.
At the start, Short Stop broke stride, but the tempo was so tepid that he was able to catch Armbro Flight and Eygptian Candor as they dawdled in tandem around the track.
Once into the stretch, the trotting got serious and Cameron, a master reinsman, coaxed every ounce of courage out of Eygptian Candor. Just before the wire, he edged past Armbro Flight to win in a final time of 2:10.1.
Trackside photographers resorted to flash attachments to get their action photos.
Since the fairgrounds track had no lights, even some trackside spectators weren’t sure who actually won (watch the race).
It was a case of bitter irony because Egyptian Candor was a mere supporting actor in the major 3-year-old trotting dramas before and after Hambletonian Day.
Egyptian Candor was trained by Stanley Dancer and bred and owned by his wife Rachel. He was supposed to be part of the supporting cast for Noble Victory that day, but instead he emerged as the star in a long-running afternoon drama. Trainer Dancer looked stunned as he walked into the winner’s circle behind catch-driver Cameron and Eqyptian Candor.
The era of four-heat Hambletonians is long past, but the Hambo of 50 years ago added immeasurably to the lore of trotting’s greatest classic.