There wasn't much suspense; at least not over which of the eight 3-year-old trotters on the track was going to win the Founders Gold Cup. The Saturday night crowd at Vernon Downs in upstate New York managed to scrape up $25,166 in betting money, and the bulk of it was plunked down on Nevele Pride (see cover), which was sensible, but at a 5¢ return on the dollar not all that rewarding. Nevele (rhymes with reveille) Pride vs. the clock was the attraction. After all, wasn't he being touted as the greatest trotter in history? And wasn't he a cinch to win the Hambletonian on August 25? O.K., then, let's see something—like a track record, for instance.
"What is the track record, anyway?" Stanley Dancer, the slender, pleasant millionaire who drives and trains the wonder colt for Nevele Acres and Louis Resnick, asked an hour before the race. A track official reported that the trotting record was 1:59[1/5] for a race, 1:59 for a time trial. "It's much too cool for anything like that," Dancer said. "But there is a lot of speed in the race. Right now I'd say two minutes will do it."
It was late July, but by nightfall the temperature at Vernon Downs was dipping into the low 50s, and Dancer was about to tuck his whip under his left arm and set off in search of a woolen sweater and a warming cup of coffee. Just a few feet away, Nevele Pride, his more docile rivals safely separated from him by two empty stalls in the paddock shed, was trying to gnaw his way through the two thin steel cross-chains holding his head in check. Failing in this, he settled for glaring angrily at the people passing his stall.
"He looks mean as hell," said a horseman, "but if you can just sneak him out of that stall for five minutes, I'll run and get my mare."
August 4, 1968
Andy Murphy, the groom who should be awarded a battle star for every trip into Nevele Pride's stall, looked up and laughed. "He's not mean," Murphy said. "It's just that he's been up since 10 this morning, and he misses his afternoon nap. He takes a nap every day but race day. When he knows he's going to race—and he knows—he stays up, getting, well, maybe just a little mean. But if you think he looks mean now, just wait until after the race. He looks like he wants to kill somebody. Which he does. But that only lasts for 10 or 15 minutes and then he settles right down."
"That's the only time he's hard to drive," said Dancer. "Going into the winner's circle. You had better get that sulky unhooked in a hurry before he starts kicking. Then you have to keep an eye on him to see he doesn't bite or kick the people around him. He's a terror in that winner's circle. But he's not a vicious horse, just one that's high-strung. He's like a big kid, real frisky, full of energy and spirit."
Andy Murphy rubbed a hand across his mouth, washing away the makings of a grin. On his left forearm, the 43-year-old ex-dairy farmer carries a scar the size and shape of a half-dollar. And while there is no scar on his right hand, there should be. A year ago, while coming in after a workout, the big, frisky kid clamped his teeth into the groom's right thumb and lifted him from the ground. Murphy weighs 170 pounds. "He just held me up there, dangling and cursing. There was another groom with me. He took one look and run off. He told me later that he didn't know what to do, so he left." Murphy shook his head. "When he got ready Pride let me down. He hadn't even broken the skin, except in one little place. But that thumb was swollen for two weeks. Hurt like hell, too."
Murphy is Nevele Pride's third groom. The horse worked his way through the first two in less than six months. "I shuddered the day Stanley called me in and said I was next," Murphy said. "I knew what he had done to the others. But I decided right off that I wasn't going to fight with him. And I haven't. You fight with him, he just fights you back. Of course, every day I give him a good cursing or two. And I got real mad the day he grabbed my $90 wristwatch and crushed it with his teeth. But we get along. I never take my eye off him for a second. You do that, he's got you. And when I raise my voice he knows I'm on the verge of getting a shillelagh and he settles down. Most of the times he grabs you he lets right go. He's just teasing."
Dancer thought again of the sweater and started to leave, but he turned back when John Wood, the 72-year-old ex-jockey who serves as the colt's night watchman, began to edge a training sulky into the stall. Wood worked his way around behind the horse, began leaning the sulky against the rear wall. "John, get out of there," Dancer yelled. "One of these days you're going to do that and he's going to kick you right through the partition. Get out of there."
It is Wood's duty each night to place a cot in front of Nevele Pride's stall door and there to lie until dawn, guarding against whatever evils might seek out a horse that last year won 26 of 29 races and $222,923—record earnings for a 2-year-old—and was the first juvenile ever to be voted Horse of the Year and this year has won eight races worth another $130,000. "I know Stanley thinks I'm old and I can't get out of the way," Wood grumbles. "But if that horse hasn't kicked me by now he's never gonna. He's sure had plenty of chances."
Murphy thinks the secret to Wood's evident good health is the chewing tobacco he uses nightly to bribe Nevele Pride. The horse will eat just about anything handed him, including fingers, and especially enjoys sandwiches, doughnuts and beer. "I even seen him eat a filter cigarette once," swears Murphy. "He ate all the tobacco, then he spit out the filter."
At last came the call for the sixth race, and Dancer, engulfed in a bulky woolen sweater, began the long walk from the paddock to the track. Behind him came Nevele Pride, led by Wood, acting no less pleasant than any of the other horses in the file. "Don't let that fool you," said Murphy from behind the sulky, holding tightly to the reins. "That just means he's ready to race. It's all bottled up inside, and he'll take it out on the track. That's good."
Nevele Pride is the color of deep mahogany, but under the track lights he looks black. Black and powerful. He stands no more than 15½ hands, which is not exceptional for a harness horse, but he packs 1,100 muscular pounds, and next to him the others looked like greyhounds.
As Dancer climbed into the sulky and drove Nevele Pride onto the track, the people in the stands roared and pressed forward, as other people have pressed forward to see a Mantle or a Williams hit or a Namath drop back to pass.
"I hope he gets it," said a man.
"Gets what?" said another.
"The world record."
"I don't know, but I hope he gets it."
All through the stands, 10,700 people—the second largest crowd in Vernon Downs' history—were hoping the same thing.
Upstairs in the press box, the track officials, too, pressed forward. And they were hoping. But their eyes were on the tote board and not on the horse, and they were hoping the numbers wouldn't become too large. In only two of his last six starts had Nevele Pride been included in the betting. Being as close to a sure thing as most gamblers will ever see, Nevele Pride always is a threat to create a minus pool. Minus pools cause a track great distress, forcing it to pay the minimum 5¢ on the dollar from its own treasury. Most harness tracks have eliminated the distress and the problem simply by eliminating Nevele Pride from the betting.
The officials at Vernon Downs had elected to play a different hand: they decided to include Nevele Pride in the betting, and at the same time they decided not to tell anyone. They still remembered a night in 1957 when a gambler called "The Count" showed up with $20,000 in a paper bag. Richard Domina, now the mutuel manager, was in the $50 window. "He handed me the bag and told me to count it. He said he'd be back later to tell me what to do with it," said Domina. Returning. The Count took 400 show tickets on a hot horse named Torpid, which won, and collected $2,000 for a little over two minutes' sweat. "We were paying 10¢ on the dollar then," said Domina.
"We were afraid of the big gamblers coming in from New York and Chicago. We don't mind the people who come here every night causing a minus pool. But we certainly didn't want those other people. We hoped they figured we would be like the other tracks; that we'd bar him from the betting."
The keep-mum strategy worked. When the race was over and Nevele Pride, at 1 to 9, had won, the track found it had come closest to a minus pool in the show betting, and even there it had shown a profit of 12¢.
As expected, it was a typical Dancer-Nevele Pride race, wire to wire, with all the other Hambletonian not-so-hopefuls bobbing in their wake and battling for second place. Dancer rushed the Star's Pride-Thankful colt away from the starting gate and had a safe one-length lead the first time past the clubhouse, and he hit the quarter pole in: 28[3/5]. "That was a little faster than I would have liked," Dancer admitted later. As the horses turned into the backstretch Nevele Pride's lead suddenly was multiplied by four, and the crowd roared when the electronic timer showed :59[3/5] for the half mile. "And that was a whole lot faster than I liked," said Dancer. "But Final Notice came on a little to get Pride excited, and he got into me a little. I was having a hard time holding him back. In fact, I was having a damn hard time holding him back. My hands were killing me."
His competition smashed, the fiery colt raced on alone, now facing only the clock. He rushed past the three-quarter pole in 1:29, with Dancer checking the stopwatch he carries in his left hand and deciding then that perhaps it wasn't too cool for a record at that. "I figured we were that close," he said, "we might as well go for it. So I clucked him a few times." Nevele Pride needed no more urging than that—Dancer has yet to sting him with the whip—and they swept past the finish line in 1:58⅘ breaking, of course, all the track's trotting records.
And now came the hard part—the trip to the winner's circle. Upstairs, track officials were having an equally hard time trying to talk Julius Slutsky, one of the owners of a resort in the Catskill Mountains called the Nevele Hotel and Country Club, and of a racing stable called Nevele Acres, into accepting the track's Gold Cup trophy. Like his brother Ben J., and Ben J.'s son Charles, Julius much prefers the background. Usually it is Leon Greenberg, the Slutskys' close friend and the president of Monticello Raceway, where the Slutskys are the principal stockholders, who is dispatched to pick up the hardware. For a long time many race fans thought Greenberg was the owner of Nevele Pride. Finally, reluctantly, Julius Slutsky agreed to go down with Louis Resnick and accept the Cup. Just a few weeks before Resnick had purchased a half interest in the horse for $1 million.
By the time Slutsky and Resnick, under police escort, had worked their way into the winner's circle, Dancer had unhooked the sulky and was standing guard at the head of Nevele Pride, who was doing his best to kick in Dancer's left leg. The horse glared at his owners, and he glared at the crowd, and as the ceremony was prolonged Dancer became more and more apprehensive. Finally the trainer-driver would wait no longer and ordered Murphy to take the horse back to the barn. As they left, Nevele Pride was unsuccessfully trying to sink his teeth into Murphy's right hand.
Nevele Pride's next start is the Su Mac Lad at Yonkers this week, to be followed by the $150,000 Yonkers Futurity August 8, and then he has one more race, at Springfield, Ill., before going on to Du Quoin, Ill. and the Hambletonian. Originally, Dancer had planned to race his supercolt at Monticello last Saturday, which would have delighted the Slutskys; their large resort complex is in the nearby town of Ellenville. A few days before the Vernon Downs race, however, Dancer decided that Nevele Pride could use the rest more than the Monticello race and cancelled it. The Slutskys said it was fine with them if that was what Dancer thought best. "Actually, I guess everyone kind of left it up to me," said Greenberg. "Julie called me and said Stanley wanted to pull out of our race, but that he would let me decide. I told him that it was his horse and his track and to make up his own mind. Then Dancer called and asked me what I would like him to do. What could I say? I told him to give the horse a rest." Greenberg sighed. "And I guess I could have put 16,000 people in here that night."
When the Slutskys put their Nevele Acres under Dancer's command four years ago they gave him complete control and a blank check. "We're pretty much in Stanley's hands," said Charles. "We never butt in"—and now he laughed—"except for odds and ends, like Stanley calling to say he's going to spend $100,000." Two years ago Dancer called to say he was going to spend only $20,000 for a Star's Pride yearling named Thankful's Major. "Fine," said the Slutskys. "Only let's change the name to Nevele Pride." (The Nevele comes from 11 spelled backward and is the legacy of 11 schoolteachers who once picnicked at a falls on the Slutskys' property.)
"Right off we knew we had a good-looking horse," said Dick Baker, who handles all of the Dancer horses stabled at Roosevelt and Yonkers. "But of course we didn't know anything of his potential. The first time I rode behind him, he had gait. And the more you rode back of him, the more you knew he was a horse. Everything he did, he did right. After 30 days we knew we had a horse. And I've never seen that horse tired, not even after a race. I don't think Stanley has ever driven him all out—but he's been extended. Anytime a 2-year-old goes 58 and change, he's been extended."
Nevele Pride did "58 and change" twice last year. The first occasion was a 1:58[4/5] heat at Du Quoin. The colt had done 2:01 in the first heat in 100° weather and had returned to the barn with a temperature. After the first heat Charles Slutsky and Greenberg hurried to the barn, and they almost passed out. There stood the young pride of Nevele Acres, an ice bag strapped to his head, all four feet sunk into buckets of ice. This is not unusual for a horse racing in the hottest weather, but it came as a shock to the visitors. Told by Dancer that Nevele Pride would race (Veterinarian Dr. Steele has discovered Nevele Pride's metabolism is higher, his temperature higher and his heart beat faster than those of the average horse), Slutsky and Greenberg hurried back to their seats.
"Anything wrong?" asked Joan Slutsky, Charles' wife.
"Everything is fine," said the two men, settling down to watch the race.
"I'll never forget what happened after that," says Joan Slutsky, "I was so embarrassed. I was sitting there trying to act like a lady, but I couldn't control myself. When the race started I had a program rolled up in one hand. I started beating on the shoulder of this little old lady sitting in front of me. And she never said a word. She just left."
Meanwhile Charles was running into problems of his own. Greenberg was armed with a Hanover Shoe Farm catalog, and halfway through the race he realized he had been slamming it against the top of Charles' head. This had made Charles' glasses fly off. "From then on," says Charles, "all I could see was a blur. It was like watching a snowy picture on a bad TV set."
"But I described the rest of the race to you," said Greenberg.
"Thank you very much," said Charles.
Later in the year Nevele Pride turned in his second sub-two-minute mile, a 1:58[2/5] at Lexington, that broke a world record for 2-year-olds. This year he won the Battle of Saratoga in 2:01, a world record for 3-year-old trotters over a half-mile track.
"There's no telling what this horse can do," says Dancer. "And because of that, he's a tremendous responsibility. That's why no one but myself has trained him; no one but myself has driven him. Now how could I explain to the owners if someone else was driving him and he went over a fence and broke a leg? But I try not to worry about it. Darn it, so many things can happen. If you thought about it you'd never get any sleep. It's like having kids. A lot can happen to them: sickness, injury, a lot of things. But you can't stay awake worrying about what might happen."
"You trying to convince me or yourself?" a man said.
"I don't know," said Dancer, grinning.
After August 25, Dancer will breathe a little easier, if only a little. That is the day of the Hambletonian, and that is the one he wants most of all. Nothing else has eluded this ex-groom who 21 years ago began building an empire with $300 he borrowed from his wife and with a crippled 8-year-old gelding named Candor. He is the first driver to win $1 million in a single season, something he has now done three of the last four years and will do again in 1968. For the last six years he has led all harness drivers in a weighted analysis called The Universal Driver Rating system. Just as soon as he wins another $12,400 with his imported pacing star, Cardigan Bay, he will also become the first to have a harness horse with winnings of $1 million in a career. But Stanley has never driven a Hambletonian winner, and since that is the Kentucky Derby and the World Series and the Super Bowl, Dancer wants it badly.
"The payoff for this whole thing will be the Hambletonian," said Ben J. Slutsky. "I'm so nervous from just thinking about it. I really want Stanley to win it. Sure, I'm thinking about the horse, but it will be Stanley I'm rooting for, not Nevele Pride. This whole thing has been a lot of luck. The only thing I'd say we did right was when we said to Stanley, you recommend a horse and we'll take it. We didn't do a darn thing."
"Aren't they beautiful owners?" says Stanley Dancer.