(This is the first of a two-part story...)
In the late spring of 1868, a prominent Ohio stallion named Tom Rolfe sired a colt who, during the first few years of his life was unimaginatively called Tom. Tom was not put into training to be a racing harness horse until age five, rather late, and the two men who had control over his training fate in consecutive years pushed the relative youngster savagely. Tom was soon thought to be a washout as a racer, and came to the job of newspaper delivery.
The two big Sunday papers of the day in that area, the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Gazette, shipped their papers to the northern town of Dayton, from which they were delivered by horse-drawn wagon to the smaller town of Xenia. The Enquirer, hearing he was a former racehorse prospect, hired Tom, now called Sleepy Tom, and soon it was a "sure thing" as could be that the Enquirers arrived in Xenia first, and thus had a big head start in selling over the Gazette.
One local amateur horseman who had heard about Sleepy Tom was Stephen Phillips – the
uncle of the Stephen Phillips whose invention of the mobile starting gate some 60 years after this story would revolutionize harness racing. The mid-1870's Phillips bought the horse for $150 and set about to train him.
Phillips knew he had a fast horse in front of him, but he wasn't sure he was getting the most out of his charge, wasn't helping him to reach his peak, so he asked his friend Fred Stark, a local railroadman and horse enthusiast, to watch a training mile. When Sleepy Tom shaded 2:30 in a training mile (the world record then was 2:16 ¼), Stark declared that Phillips had "the greatest pacer in the world," and should be taking him on the road, on the big stakes circuit, where he could make some "real money" with him.
And so Sleepy Tom and Phillips the elder went on the racing circuit and soon became the stars of the show, popular with fans and drawing the respect of all horsemen, whether
racing with (more likely behind) him, or just watching.
(Stay tuned tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of the story!)