10/20/2016 12:16PM

Hovdey: Recap of '62 season was vintage Hatton

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The heavy package in the mailbox the other day was a gift from a friend. Everyone should have such a friend.

The box was of surprising heft, suggesting it contained either an exotic car part or a bag of Boynton Beach sand. To my surprise and pleasure, the unwrapping revealed a 1963 American Racing Manual, which instantly filled a nagging hole in a collection dating back to a misspent youth.

Of course, you couldn’t just file it away and go on with business. The ’63 Manual covers the 1962 season (the odd twist of titling required some getting used to), and after an hour’s worth of page-flipping, the bygone year seemed as immediate as last weekend’s results from Keeneland.

It was all there: the carload of statistical material, stakes charts, past performances, and leaderboards, accompanied by the grinning images of Rex Ellsworth, Mesh Tenney, Marion Van Berg (Jack’s dad), W. Hal Bishop, Bill Shoemaker, and Ronnie Ferraro, the 19-year-old shooting star who rode more winners than anyone (352) in 1962 and was out of the business just a few years later.

The charts revealed a year full of amazing, roughhouse races for 3-year-olds, with many of the main events decided on the nod.

Ridan beat the filly Cicada by a nose in the Florida Derby. Admiral’s Voyage beat Roman Line by a nose in the Louisiana Derby. Sunrise County and Admiral’s Voyage finished in a dead heat in the Wood Memorial, although Sunrise County was disqualified.

Greek Money beat Ridan a nose in the Preakness, despite Manny Ycaza throwing John Rotz an elbow near the wire. Crimson Satan was disqualified after beating Jaipur a nose and Admiral’s Voyage another nose in the Jersey Derby. Ten days later, Jaipur beat Admiral’s Voyage by a nose in the Belmont, with Crimson Satan not far behind in third, and then Jaipur beat Ridan a nose in the Travers, a race that moved grown men to song.

There were only six champions in 1962, plus the 4-year-old jumper Barnabys Bluff. Among sprinters, the East’s Merry Ruler and the West’s Winonly won good races, but neither had the look. As for a turf champion, consensus was impossible since the main prizes were scattered among a group of horses like Olden Times (San Juan Capistrano), Mongo (United Nations), and Beau Purple (Man o’ War) who were equally adept on dirt.

Of course, you know how 1962 ends before the final page. Kelso earned an unprecedented third straight Horse of the Year title, capped by his third Jockey Club Gold Cup, this one by 10 lengths in a Belmont Park track record for the two miles. It was the star-studded Woodward that really told the tale, however, as recalled in the Manual’s “Review of 1962 Races,” by Charles Hatton.

“Leaving the half-mile pole … Kelso catapulted past Jaipur as if he were tied to the fence,” Hatton wrote. “At the 3 furlongs marker, Kelso roared past Beau Purple, who stopped so suddenly he appeared to go into reverse at the sight of this rampaging, implacable foe with the 23-foot stride.”

The Manuals of the era are worth their weight in shelf space because no one ever wrote about horse racing like Hatton. Maybe Faulkner the couple of times he tried, or Hemingway in “My Old Man,” or Bill Nack among the moderns. But no one could draw from such a deep well of knowledge and deliver the goods like Hatton. His “Profiles of Best Horses” in the ’63 Manual was typically rich.

Hatton noted that Beau Purple was “built like a night watchman.” He called the 4-year-old Carry Back “sound as a stick.” The young Candy Spots moved “stealthily as a timber wolf,” while fellow 2-year-old Never Bend was “a colt of feline agility.”

Among the fillies and mares, Primonetta was “balanced like a see-saw,” Cicada was “a synthesis of sweetness and fire,” and the formidable Seven Thirty was “stacked like Lois Defee, the lady bouncer.”

As for the 3-year-olds, Jaipur had “a seal brown coat which gleams with purple lustre.” Ridan was “gladitorial.” And Mongo’s “pluck was such that even after he was caught, he had still to be beaten.”

The only recent stars to inspire prose as purple as the luster of Jaipur’s coat have been Zenyatta, whose mythology rose and crested over three intoxicating seasons, and American Pharoah, who could ignite a sonnet just standing there thinking about his next meal. Anyway, if a racing writer tried dishing the language like Hatton on today’s readers, they’d get laughed off the page, or the website.

And yet, wouldn’t it be pretty if there was an audience for the Hatton indelible image, the burnished phrase, the deep dive into details mined from a lifetime observing the Thoroughbred in its racing element?

“Kelso has a head of Arabesque quality, with a bulging forehead, large, expressive eye and delicate muzzle,” Hatton wrote, eliminating the need for a photograph.

“One can only guess the size of mighty Kelso’s heart,” he added, “but all racegoers have had thrilling proof he has plenty of it, and that it is on the right side, so to speak. Like Richard the Third’s steed, Kelso ‘... trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it.’ ”

There you have it. Hatton had Shakespeare, and racing got Hatton.