June 9, 2001
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October 3rd, 1878. Lachine, Canada. Rowers Charles Courtney and Ned Scanlan dig their oars into the water as the starter's "Go" rings out. As they near the halfway mark, four miles out, Scanlan is in the lead but Courtney has almost caught up with him. Scanlan will soon have a reputation among aficionados of the sport as an intentional late bloomer, goofing off in the early stages of a race, sometimes even clowning around for the crowd's amusement, then turning on his prodigious strength and skill and winning races with seemingly little effort. But this time he plays it straight. Courtney begins crowding into Scanlan's lane, Scanlan warns him off. As Courtney straightens himself out, Scanlan gets down to business, shoots into the lead, and it's all over but the shouting. And a bit of grumbling about the sudden, last-minute change in the betting odds before the race.

The following summer Scanlan travels to England, where he first defeats their fair haired boy John Hawdon, clowning around and stopping to bail out his boat in the middle of the race and still crossing the finish ahead of his opponent. Then Scanlan turns his sights on the reigning British champion William Elliott. Without even working up a sweat, the Canadian, his body working in perfect coordination and harmony with his boat and his oars, beats Elliott by 10 lengths, breaking the course record by 55 seconds. Canada has it's first international sports champion. And Rochester, New York, medicine man Asa Soule has an idea.

With his baseball team the Hop Bitters and it's successor the New Hop Bitters club struggling, a rematch between Scanlan and the home state boy Courtney could prove to be a real money machine and also reap lots of publicity for his alcohol-fortified medications. He swings into action. By early autumn word of a race has been gotten out. Soule figures he might as well bring those gambling dollars into the U. S. this time, so the agreed-upon site is on Chautauqua Lake, home for the past five years of the Chautauqua Institute, with its growing reputation for wholesome, educational and uplifting pursuits. Which does not mean that dollar signs won't dance in the heads of the villagers of Mayville, home to the coming event. A 2,000-foot-long grandstand, with capacity for 50,000 spectators is erected. A local railroad puts in a spur line and sets up a half-mile long observation train. The sale of steamboat tickets soars and abandoned barges are fixed up and sport new seats, at $5 a rear end. October 15, 1879, the night before the race, finds Mayville stuffed to the gills with outsiders. Hotel prices have gone from one dollar to twelve; even so thousands find themselves sleeping under tables, on chairs and, in one case, in a rented piano crate. Soule is elated, especially since he is earning five cents on every dollar the fans are spending. And it surprises no one that the Hop Bitters king has named Courtney's boat, you guessed it, the Hop Bitters. Early next morning the bombshell hits. While the two men guarding the Hop Bitters overnight, have played a little hookey to see the sights, someone has sneaked in and sawn the boat in half. Courtney refuses to row in a borrowed boat, but the ref declares the race will still be run, even if Scanlan rows alone. Which he does, breaking the standing record by 1 minute, 14-and-a-quarter seconds. Apparently Scanlan's backers, without his knowledge, have fixed the race. His reputation still intact, he goes on to more victories and further fame. Courtney takes permanent shore leave. And Soule takes his percentage and runs, back to Rochester, to ponder on the thankless burden of being a sports promoter.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor

 

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© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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