On shaker cans, Greyhound, Sep Palin and Francis Dodge

by Alan Leavitt

One important element that wasn’t mentioned in the piece about yearling videos (full story here) is the shaker can. A shaker can is simply a tin can, say either Coke or Pepsi, with some pebbles inside. Or, if you prefer to go high tech, metal filings. Just so it’s sufficiently noisy when you shake it that the yearling responds by putting on a burst of speed.

This kid was introduced to the shaker can more than 60 years ago by one of the greatest horsemen who ever lived, Marvin Childs. At the time, Childs was in semi-retirement, but every fall he was in charge of prepping the Hanover Shoe yearlings at the Hanover fairgrounds.

In those days, Hanover led all their yearlings to pony, and I spent every fall morning at the fairgrounds, absorbing every word of wisdom out of Childs’ mouth. Then, one afternoon, Childs drove out to my parents’ farm, where I was leading to pony our little consignment of Ebby Hanovers and Solicitors.

After watching for a few minutes, Childs said, “See if this won’t wake them up a little,” and handed me a Red Man tobacco can with some pebbles inside. I gave it a shake, and the yearling on the strip suddenly switched to high gear, still on the trot. That was my introduction to the shaker can, and I like to think it’s one of my major contributions to the sport of harness racing.

For some reason, Childs took me under his wing, as it were, and I learned so much from him, as well as so much about our sport and its early days.

Childs had started out as a trainer, which also meant driver in those early days. He obviously was pretty good at it, because in 1927 he catch-drove Iosola’s Worthy to win the second Hambletonian. The purse was $54,964, and she won it in straight heats, the fastest going in 2:03 ¾.

In those days, you had to win two heats to win the race, and Childs explained how that worked if you had the best horse.

“You’d win the first heat,” he said, “And then you’d fix the next two heats so you could win a bet. And then you’d win the fourth heat so you could collect the trophy.”

This was de rigueur in those days, and the racing itself was frequently more like a demolition derby than a sporting contest. This was well before the invention of the plastic wheel dish, one of the most important improvements in the history of our sport, and one of the things that made it possible for harness racing to become a pari-mutuel success.

This kid still has vivid memories of so many racing accidents when a horse would put a foot through the spokes of someone else’s racing bike. I also remember Frank Ervin declaring that he was not going to make a circus horse out of Bret Hanover by putting colored wheel disks on Bret’s racing bike.

Which also brings back the memory of a cartoon in the long since departed Harness Horse magazine. In it, a young woman journalist is interviewing a grizzled old driver in shabby colors and a soft hat.

In the balloon above the girl’s head, she’s saying: “Well, old timer, I guess you’ve seen a lot of changes in your day.”

And the old guy is responding: “Yep. And I was against every one of them.”

But back to Marvin Childs and his place in our history. By 1932, Childs had retired from driving, and he was managing Henry Knight’s Almahurst Farm, outside Lexington, KY. Knight was a car dealer from Chicago, and a great promoter. He bred both standardbreds and thoroughbreds and he was a market breeder. The standardbred yearlings were sold at the sale in Indianapolis, and the thoroughbreds sold at Saratoga.

At the time, the Indianapolis sale was the big one, which changed abruptly in 1942 when Hanover started selling, first at the York fairgrounds, and then at the Farm Show Building in Harrisburg.

Regarding Henry Knight and Marvin Childs, they had an unwritten agreement whereby Childs got a certain percentage of the total amount the yearlings sold for. Childs’ time as Henry Knight’s farm manager came to an abrupt end after Almahurst had a great sale at Saratoga one year.

The minute the last yearling was hammered down, Mr. Knight told Childs that their usual deal was off.

“That’s too much money for me to give away,” he told Childs. So much for honoring his word, a concept apparently totally foreign to Henry Knight when money was involved.

Childs quit on the spot, and he was quickly grabbed up by Lawrence Sheppard to manage the Shoe Farms. But all that came later, long after a mare of Henry Knight’s named Elizabeth foaled a grey colt by Guy Abbey in 1932.

From the get-go, the colt was a rogue, striking and savaging with his teeth whenever a human hand was laid on him. Knowing that he would be useless as a racing prospect in his present, vicious state, Marvin Childs did what any good horseman would do. As soon as the colt was weaned, Marvin castrated him. If he’d been left entire, he’d have just been a bad actor no one ever heard of. His name was Greyhound.

Greyhound brought $900 as a yearling gelding at the Indianapolis sale. The buyer was E. J. Baker, a hotel owner from Illinois, and a standardbred aficionado. He raced a string of horses, and his private trainer was Sep Palin. And you don’t need me or anyone else to recount all the races Greyhound won, and all the world records he set. For this kid, along with a number of other informed observers, Greyhound was the greatest racing standardbred who ever lived.

Which brings us to the Indianapolis Yearling Sale of the 1940. By then Sep Palin had been fired as E. J. Baker’s trainer for letting Francis Dodge ride Greyhound in his record-breaking mile under saddle. Baker had told Sep: “I don’t want that girl ever sitting on my horse’s back.”

‘That girl’ was the automotive heiress Francis Dodge, whose mother had been married to two of the ten richest men in America, both Detroit automobile magnates. Francis was, at the time, totally caught up in the show horse world. She was a top rider, and she herself rode one of her horses to the reserve world championship in the five-gaited stake at the Kentucky State Fair.

She finally reached her goal of owning the world champion when she hired Earl Teater, and he made Wing Commander for her. A few years later, Francis bought a run-down farm in Lexington, and transformed it into Castleton Farm.

But back to 1940 and Indianapolis. Baker had fired Sep Palin immediately after Francis made her great ride on Greyhound, and Francis hired Sep as her trainer the same night.

The star of the sale was another grey yearling, a colt, and a full brother to Greyhound named Grey Fox.

After a bidding frenzy, Grey Fox was knocked down to Sep Palin for $32,000, highest auction price for a standardbred of all time. After the crowd finally quieted down, Palin stood up with a piece of paper in his hand.

“I want to read you this telegram that I got this morning,” Palin said.

“Sep, buy Grey Fox. Francis.”

There really were giants in those days.