You know that slogan 'Join the Navy and see the world'?" said Eleanor Weiner of 384 East 57th Street, Brooklyn. "Well, for us it's been 'Buy a horse and see the country.' " The country that Eleanor and Hyman Weiner, Meyer Goldstein, Milton Goldstein, George Karl and Seymour Schwartz have seen lately is right out of the movie State Fair. They have been to places like Bloomsburg, Pa. and Du Quoin, Ill., and last week the owners of Brooklyn's Lucky Star Stable found themselves at a county fair in Delaware, Ohio, watching their horse, Romeo Hanover, win the $74,617 Little Brown Jug, harness racing's top event for pacers.
"I never dreamed in my life that Milty and I would be here today," said platinum-blonde Mrs. Goldstein, her spike heels sinking slowly into the paddock mud. But then, what Brooklyn housewife would have?
Lucky Star Stable got its start at a Monday-night poker game five years ago, when, late in the evening, the Goldsteins and Schwartz, who are caterers, and Karl, who is a beauty-salon owner, agreed to buy shares in a pacer from a friend. When they told their accountant, Weiner, he asked in, too. "I'll tell you why," he says. "You sit behind your desk—I'm a C.P.A., and that's the antithesis of being a horse owner—and you dream of all the things you'd like to do. What was that movie with Danny Kaye? Walter Mitty? Well, I'm a Walter Mitty. You dream about things and you never do anything about them. But this time we got up enough nerve to do something. That's all it takes, nerve."
The neophytes subscribed to the trade journals and began to study bloodlines. In 1964 they decided to invest in yearlings instead of hand-me-down raceway horses, and for three months they pored over the pedigrees of the colts in the Harrisburg sale. Weiner even consulted his college textbook on genetics. When he and Milton Goldstein finally set out as "the purchasing agents" for Lucky Star that November, they had a list of 20 yearlings that interested them and $10,000 in the bank. They took along a veterinarian and their 29-year-old trainer, Jerry Silverman, who had left the real estate business to try his hand with trotters only five years before.
October 2, 1966
Of the yearlings the partners were considering, the veterinarian ruled out 15 as lame, halt or blind, in a manner of speaking. "We got one colt for $3,500 right away," recalls Weiner. "The next two went for very high prices, and by the time they came to Romeo Hanover I didn't think we had a chance to get him for the $6,500 we had left. When the bidding hit that figure I looked at Milty and he looked at me and we decided to keep going. We got the colt for $8,500. I wrote out a check, and we rushed back to New York to cover it."
What Weiner did not know was that two of the most famous men in harness racing, Billy Haughton and Stanley Dancer, had considered buying Romeo Hanover, too. Haughton wanted the colt for his wife, but she said no for a sound female reason: she did not want a chestnut. Dancer was bothered by something more practical than color. The horse had crooked hocks, and Dancer could not find a veterinarian to okay them. That is how a $2 million horse got sold for an $8,500 check, and a rubber check at that.
Another person who went to the Harrisburg sale intending to purchase Romeo Hanover was a onetime insurance man with an apt name, Morton Finder. A not unfamiliar figure around harness tracks and their pari-mutuel windows, Finder passed up Romeo, but a few months later he saw the horse work out and was impressed. "I got talking to Jerry Silverman about him," Finder says, "and he asked me some things about the colt. I gave Jerry some friendly advice." Not long afterward Lucky Star decided it could use a friendly owner who knew his way around racing, and sold 25% of Romeo to Finder for $7,500.
The owners of the colt then hired a canny, close-mouthed horseman, Billy Myer, to drive him. Romeo was hard to steer and headstrong, but Myer calmed him down and the colt became the best 2-year-old pacer in the country, winning 13 of 16 races. Like all harness champions since the days of Goldsmith Maid and Dan Patch, Romeo won his title by racing on the Grand Circuit, moving week after week from one fairgrounds to another through the Midwest. His pleased owners, dressed in their best black silk business suits, followed him.
At the Indiana State Fair the colt paced the mile in 1:59, and you would have thought from the excitement in the grandstand that he had won the 500. "I couldn't get over all those people out there cheering for a horse when there was no betting," says Hyman Weiner. "It was the greatest thing any of us had ever seen. Why, it isn't even the same sport at Yonkers and Roosevelt. They're just betting operations."
There was also the day at Du Quoin, Ill. when the clay track was deep from heavy rain and Hyman Weiner almost found himself in the middle of a race. He was standing near Driver Joe O'Brien at the paddock gap watching Romeo score before the start, and he was worried about the slippery track. "Should we be running Romeo in the mud?" he asked O'Brien. "If he was mine, I wouldn't," the leading Grand Circuit driver replied. "I ran out," says Weiner, "and jumped on a truck that was circling the track. When the truck passed Romeo, I shouted to Billy Myer, Take the horse back.' Then I rode to the judges' stand, ran up the stairs and hollered 'Scratch my horse.' "
Owning a colt like Romeo can be an emotional business, but the more emotional the owners got the more taciturn Myer became. Finally this August he was fired in a dispute over another Lucky Star horse. "We could not communicate with him," says Mrs. Goldstein. "We happen to be pretty warm people, and we wanted to talk to someone." The night Myer was fired—after not showing up at a Yonkers diner to talk to Romeo's owners—they hired George Sholty, a popular raceway driver, to take his place. "Romeo is a speed horse," Morton Finder said then, "and Sholty's forte is with speed horses."
The colt has, it is true, almost always been raced on the lead. One trainer says this is "because the owners like to have their horse on exhibit," but a more reasonable explanation is that Romeo is safer out there all alone, and the prospect of his being injured is more than a caterer or a C.P.A. can be expected to bear. Two weeks ago Alan Leavitt, who recently put together the syndication of Noble Victory for $1 million, made a $2 million offer for Romeo. The owners were tempted, but declined the bid—just as Walter Mitty would have—yet one can see why they like George Sholty to race their four-legged fortune out in front.
Not long after Sholty began driving Romeo, word circulated that the colt was showing signs of turning speed-crazy. He was pulling too hard and seemed impossible to rate. Horsemen who once thought he could beat Bret Hanover, the fastest pacer of all time, suddenly no longer did. (A match race between Bret and Romeo would help settle the issue, and Roosevelt Raceway is planning one with a $50,000 purse.)
Coming into the Brown Jug, Romeo had won 13 straight. On a good track he would surely be unbeatable, but mud might make a difference. It rained Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, and by noon of race day most of Delaware, Ohio was mud. But then Ohio sunshine and Track Superintendent Curly Smart took over. Smart scraped off 50 tons of topsoil and the sun evaporated the water that kept oozing out of the track as 35,000 people in galoshes and rain gear packed the fairgrounds. When the grandstand and the rail the whole way around the half-mile track became crowded three deep, someone got a ladder and started charging two bits for a view from a stable roof. Business was good, but his profit was considerably less than that of a ladder operator in former years who charged a quarter to climb up—and then a quarter to get down.
One of the stalls the crowd gathered on top of was Romeo's, and right underneath them George Sholty's father, who retired recently after 37 years as a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Logansport-to-Columbus run, was enjoying the excitement. "George's uncle used to race horses around these fairs," he said. "People would go to watch him drive, like they go to see George now. He gave George a horse when he was 17. George's mother sure didn't want the boy to get into the business."
Mrs. Sholty need not have worried. Her son, in a midnight-blue suit and alligator shoes, had flown in from New York that morning in Stanley Dancer's private plane, harness racing having changed somewhat in a generation.
A little later Morton Finder arrived in pinstripes and a white-on-white tie. "Mazel tov," someone called in greeting, bewildering 100 farmers. Finder looked the track over, then went off to confer with Sholty and a worried Jerry Silverman, who by this time was clenching a bottle of tranquilizers. "Romeo's never raced in mud, worked in mud or stepped in mud," fretted Silverman.
About an hour before post time the rest of Romeo's owners turned up in the paddock. Mrs. Goldstein had a fan letter from The Netherlands asking for a lock of the colt's hair. "I'll send a picture now," she said, "but I don't want to touch him until after the season. Maybe then I'll cut a piece of hair. Right now I might be like Delilah."
Even shorn, Romeo could have handled his competition in the Little Brown Jug. He did not warm up particularly well, but Delvin Miller, who had Meadow Lenco in the race, said, "I don't think the slow track or anything else will matter because Romeo stands over the other colts so much." Billy Haughton agreed. "The only way you can beat him is if he makes a mistake," he said. Even Stanley Dancer, who was driving Bonjour Hanover, the second choice, considered Romeo all but a sure thing.
Romeo had been barred from the betting three times at places like Yonkers and Batavia, but the Delaware County Fair officials announced they would allow betting on the colt, at least in the first heat (as in all traditional harness races, a horse must win two heats to take the Jug). He went to the post as a 2-to-5 favorite and immediately comforted his owners and his backers by bolting for the lead. Once he got it he was never seriously challenged, winning by a length and three-quarters over Good Time Boy.
Romeo's victory cost the Fair 51,800 and, in the interest of having enough money left to buy more jugs, the track now barred the colt from the betting in the second heat. This time Romeo did not get the lead, but showed how much he wanted to by almost pulling George Sholty out of his sulky seat in his annoyance at the heavy traffic around him. When he finally did get room to move he moved well, winning in the excellent time of 1:59 3/5, as Good Time Boy finished second again and Bonjour Hanover third. In two straight heats, Romeo and Brooklyn had the Jug.
Afterward, out in the middle of the track, there were roses and ribbons and trophies and George Sholty getting kissed by Miss Ohio. It was, come to think of it, exactly what Milton and Seymour and Meyer and George and Hyman and Morton had expected. They had seen it all long ago when State Fair played on Flatbush Avenue.