Victory in last week's $50,000 International Pace at Yonkers Raceway would have pushed New Zealand-bred Cardigan Bay tantalizingly close to being the first horse in harness racing history to win $1 million. What makes this especially noteworthy is that he has won more than three-quarters of his $950,571 since he was 8 years old, and is now 12, the equine equivalent of a 60-year-old man. Cardigan was in good health for the International despite his frightening medical history (a two-inch splint bone cut out of his left foreleg, a cracked bone in that same foreleg, a broken right hip, etc.), and he was driven by Stanley Dancer, who has trained him for all of his triumphs for four years, and driven him to most of them. But Cardigan Bay did not win. In fact, because of poor racing luck and extraordinarily tough competition, he was way out of the money.
The winner was Cardinal King, another New Zealand pacer trained by Dancer and raced as an entry with Cardigan Bay. Since First Lee of Australia was second and Southern Song of New Zealand was third, this should have been called the Anzac Pace. It was another demonstration that pacers from New Zealand and Australia—because of superior early training methods or perhaps Maori tribal magic—now dominate the sport in the U.S. (SI, Feb. 26).
Cardinal King is owned by the Slutskys of Nevele Acres, who also run one of the giant year-round resorts in the Catskills. Less than two months ago they bought Cardinal King for $35,000 (plus transportation to the States) and they already have won $47,000 with him in just two races. They are bugging New York officials to let them change his name to Nevele King, the better to publicize their hotel and to match their other horses (most notably Nevele Pride, Horse of the Year in 1967 and the overwhelming winter-book favorite for The Hambletonian in August).
Although Cardigan Bay and Cardinal King made an attractive entry, the Yonkers bettors sent First Lee off as the 4-to-5 choice. First Lee was a surprise in other ways, too. For one thing, as an Australian-bred, he was the first non-New Zealand pacer ever to win the Inter-Dominion Championships in Auckland. For another, his trio of Aussie owners, Joseph Bova, George Pieper and Robert Preen, all from the steel town of Wollongong near Sydney, had refused four offers of more than $100,000 for their horse and came with him to the U.S. instead.
May 5, 1968
"We first saw him at a sort of sunny get-together, a picnic," said Preen. "More or less a workout, and we asked the owner, 'How much do you want for this horse, mate?' "
" 'A thousand pounds will buy him,' he said.
" 'O.K., we've bought ourselves a horse,' we answered. Never at any time did we dream we'd come over here with him to race in the International—not at first, anyway."
What they paid for First Lee at that sunny get-together was $2,240 in U.S. money. What they will undoubtedly sell him for before they leave is a small fortune. Their trainer-driver, Kevin Robinson, followed New Zealand custom and stabled First Lee at a farm instead of the racetrack. In this case it was Dancer's farm in New Egypt, N.J., where Robinson surprised the staff with the severity of the horse's workouts. New Zealanders do not believe in babying their talent. Robinson's only problem had been to find New Egypt. He knew it was near Allentown, N.J., asked for directions from New York City and ended up in Allentown, Pa., 60 miles out of the way.
Robinson may have made his horse the favorite in the International by his pre-race procedure. American drivers rarely work a horse the morning of a race. In the evening, between earlier races on the program, they warm up with successively faster miles, then jog a bit and try a few brief bursts before the start. Robinson jogged First Lee the morning of the race but did not bring him out on the track again until the spotlighted introductions were made. Then he sent First Lee flying around the half-mile oval. One stable hand watching from the paddock said, "Wow, I can just see the bettors racing to get their money down now." He was right.
There was no danger of Robinson ending up in Allentown, Pa. this time. First Lee had the No. 2 post position and quickly took the rail and the lead. Just before the quarter, Canada's Golden Blend took over, and the first quarter time, 29.2, was exceptionally fast for a mile-and-a-half pace. As Golden Blend eased up, Robinson urged First Lee into the lead again and there he stayed most of the way, in the soft going along the rail that may have taken more out of the horse than Robinson realized.
Cardigan Bay, starting out in fifth post position, moved up strongly to challenge First Lee with a mile to go but could not pass him. The position outside the leader is called the "death seat" in Australia and is regarded with equal disfavor here; Robinson was happy to keep Dancer there. Dancer knew he either had to get the lead or drop back for another try later, so he pulled up on his horse. But Ol' Methuselah was not interested in slowing down at that point.
"He just grabbed me so much, I couldn't back him off," said Dancer. "I choked him down. He was rarin' to go because he was extra sharp."
Choking, Cardigan Bay quickly fell back to sixth place, and there he stayed. When he was unable to move him up again, Dancer thought his horse might have broken a bone because "he took some funny steps," but Cardigan came out of the race perfectly sound, if not any closer to that $1 million.
Cardinal King, with Billy Myer substituting in the sulky for Dancer, was hardly a factor in the first half, but when Cardigan Bay made his move Myer had Cardinal King follow him. "I didn't feel too happy till the last half," said Myer, one of the best catch drivers in the business. "I felt good then, though. I was right beside First Lee on the last turn and I knew I had a real good chance."
Indeed, he was perfectly placed for the stretch drive. With First Lee still on the rail, Cardinal King, fresher and on firm ground, outpaced him in the last yards and won going away by almost two lengths.
Dancer, who split his 10% of the purse with Myer, as is customary, insisted he was not trying to help Myer by challenging First Lee with Cardigan Bay. "I was driving that horse for Stanley Dancer," he said. "Actually, I could have helped Billy and Cardinal King more if I'd gone faster, but I felt I had to rate my horse in a mile-and-a-half race. So I choked him down. I'm more than happy for Nevele Acres. Cardinal King was certainly worth $35,000, wasn't he?"
Dancer was happy for Billy, too. The 51-year-old Myer, one of nine harness racing Myer brothers, has had his ups and downs in harness racing, but Dancer has used him frequently as a catch driver, and with success.
So the "wrong" half of the entry went to the winner's circle, and Billy Myer, not Stanley Dancer, got to take off his cap and goggles in the spotlight and shake hands with Ed Sullivan, who presented the trophy. Kevin Robinson was already back in the paddock, unperturbed and saying, "I'll have to be content with the minor money."
The Wollongongers were not too downhearted, either. There were two races left in Yonkers' international series, the Good Time Pace this week and the National Championship Pace on May 9, and they were pleased "to have another lash at it." Like many in the crowd, the Aussies still felt that their horse was better than Cardinal King and could have held off the final challenge if he had not had to waste his energy earlier dueling with Cardigan Bay. They remembered a trial race early in April at Dancer's farm when First Lee went up against Cardinal King and a third horse to prove his ability to New York harness racing officials. First Lee trailed Cardinal King by three lengths at the final turn but moved up steadily in the stretch and won rather easily.
Whatever First Lee does in those two races at Yonkers, he will be sold and the Aussies will fly back to their half of the world loaded down with Yankee dollars. Anzac horseflesh is an extremely valuable commodity in the pacing market these days and, after all, First Lee won't reach age 12 for six more years. As for Cardigan Bay, don't bet he won't hit that million.