The eight 3-year-old pacers stood in line in the Roosevelt Raceway paddock at 9:15 last Saturday night, waiting to be steered onto the track for the Messenger Stakes. A few horses pawed at the gravel, and the sweat showed on their necks and shoulders as they sensed the start of a night's work. Their tension spread to every trainer and groom and stableboy around them—this race was for $178,064, richest harness-racing purse of all time. Strangely, no one seemed more nervous than the most successful, secure and experienced man in the sport. Billy Haughton had driven more than 2,500 winners and trained a million-dollar stable of standardbreds for years. But the challenges never stop around racehorses, and Saturday night Billy was shooting for the biggest pot of all with Romulus Hanover, a colt that had been one of the biggest challenges of his career.
"Romulus is not really a bad-acting or counterfeit type of horse," Haughton said. "He's just done a lot of little things wrong. But I guess when a horse is as incredibly fast as he is, he's got to do some bad things. Sometimes Romulus seems to go faster than any horse can and then gets himself tangled up."
No one could argue about Romulus' speed—both Haughton and Stanley Dancer, who drove him three times last year, have called him the fastest horse they ever handled. But the little things he kept doing wrong made many people wonder if he would develop into the equal of his full brother Romeo Hanover, last year's Messenger winner and 3-year-old champion.
Last year Romulus had managed to lose races by pulling himself up while in front, by ducking in sharply to the rail and by breaking stride for no apparent reason. Against one of the best 3-year-old fields assembled in years, any one of these mistakes would cost him the Messenger. Stalking around him in the paddock, Haughton tried to insure against all mishaps. A stable hand named Doug Peate lifted a blue blanket off Romulus' broad, chestnut back so Haughton could inspect his equipment. Billy peered at both sides of the sulky and adjusted one leather strap. Then he walked up to the colt's unusually fine, Thoroughbred-type head and checked the tongue strap that Romulus had been wearing for only a week. Finally, as if there were nothing else left to worry about, Billy tapped the sulky wheels with the butt of his whip, to make sure the tires were properly inflated. The paddock judge signaled him, and Haughton climbed into the sulky to drive Romulus out for the biggest test of the colt's life.
Half an hour later Haughton was back in the paddock, smiling broadly and shaking hands and saying that the Messenger was the "most gratifying" of Romulus' 15 victories in the last two seasons. Romulus had made no mistakes at all, justifying every training move and equipment change Haughton had made with him. He had paced easily past Best of All, last year's 2-year-old champion, and won the mile race by 2¼ lengths in 1:59⅕ fastest time ever by a 3-year-old pacer at Roosevelt.
"You should be awfully relieved now," Stanley Dancer said to Haughton. "I don't know when I've ever seen you look so worried before a race."
"Oh, I wasn't that bad," said Haughton. "I guess I was stall-walking a little more than usual. But I really felt this colt would be all right tonight. I don't know why, but I did."
A lot of other people might have wondered why Haughton would be confident—especially people who had watched Romulus finish last in his final prep race 10 days before the Messenger. Haughton had weathered the boos of the bettors, who made Romulus 1 to 10 and watched him go off stride after half a mile. Characteristically, Billy had accepted the full blame for the race. "He was just in with too slow a bunch of horses," he said. "When he started to pull away from them I tried to hold him back and choked him down. He pulled so hard against me that he dragged the sulky forward and wound up hitting my legs with his back legs. That won't happen again."
To make sure it wouldn't, Haughton made two changes during the week. He switched part of the harness that had been stretched during Romulus' wild break in the prep race, and he used a tongue strap to prevent the colt from choking himself again. "I had tried tying his tongue last year, and he didn't like it," he said. "But this week I started tying it loosely, to get him used to it. When he went that last training mile I knew he'd be all right with the tongue strap." With backstretch attention centered on the undefeated, but untested, Jackavin and the champion from the Midwest, Best of All, Romulus' last training mile had gone almost unnoticed. He paced it in a good 2:03, but the last quarter was timed in a sensational 28 seconds. His equipment was clearly right for him—and so was the competition. "I didn't have to worry about choking him down, trying to keep him back with these horses," said Haughton. "I knew he'd need all the speed he could give me."
Nardin's Byrd, the other half of Haughton's stable entry, went to the lead at the start of the Messenger, as Jim Hackett took off after him with Best of All. Nardin's Byrd is steady, easy to handle and unspectacular, a direct opposite to Romulus Hanover. Driver John Chapman was able to use the colt to hang Best of All on the outside for most of a 28 2/5 quarter, while Haughton eased Romulus back into sixth place. Best of All stayed in front for another half a mile, but when Romulus made his move there was little doubt about the result. Best of All held off a late drive by Nardin's Byrd to salvage second money, with longshot Coral Ridge fourth. Jackavin, who had begun to look like a champion in five races against mediocre competition, never threatened and finished fifth.
Bettors who ignored Romulus' 1-to-10 debacle in the prep race collected a $5.80 mutuel on the Haughton entry. And Romulus' owner, John Froehlich of Glen Head, Long Island, picked up a record purse that Haughton thought he had deserved for a long time. "I'm especially glad for Mr. Froehlich," Billy said after the race. "He loves to win here. Roosevelt is like his home track. After all, he used to raise potatoes practically right across the street."
Those potato farms have long since become shopping centers and office buildings on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, so Froehlich was not in dire need of the cash. But he is also a man who has put a lot into racing without taking much back, and horsemen always enjoy seeing this kind of owner win a big one. "Mr. Froehlich has had a few good horses, like Charming Barbara and Quick Chief," said Haughton. "But he's had a lot that weren't so good, too. And he's always been the type who'll buy one after another and never complain when they don't turn out for him."
Three years ago Froehlich spent $45,000 on a good-looking, well-bred yearling, and the colt bowed a tendon shortly afterward and won only one minor race. The next year Haughton went to the Harrisburg sales to find another horse for him. One of the most talked-about colts in the sale was Romulus Hanover, because his brother Romeo was already a winner. "But I wasn't going to buy him," said Billy. "The owners of Romeo said they would go to $50,000 to get him. and with that $45,000 bum fresh in my mind I wasn't going to spend that much of Mr. Froehlich's money. Then, for some reason, the bidding on Romulus just stopped at $27,000. So I bid once. Then it ran up a few thousand. I bid again, and, to my surprise, I got the colt for $35,000. I walked out and told Mr. Froehlich that if he wanted him he could have him, and he said sure."
The low price on Romulus may have been the result of his long pasterns—the bones between the ankles and hooves—and one slightly narrow foot. But overall he is a good-looking colt and, as Dancer said, "Those pasterns get shorter and shorter every time he wins."
Looking ahead to a long summer campaign, Hackett had not drilled Best of All too hard for the Messenger, and he may well rebound to beat Romulus when he is tighter. "I know Best of All is a very good horse," said Haughton. "I don't think he was as good as he could be for this race. I guess we'll have some pretty good battles with him all year long."
But Haughton was too elated to be very cautious. He didn't sound as if he really believed that Best of All or any other horse would beat Romulus. "A great colt you've got there," a friend said after the Messenger. "Yeah," said Billy, smiling. "A real flying machine, isn't he?"