Even before last week's battle, the rivalry had become a classic. The combatants were a pair of remarkable pacing colts—Most Happy Fella and Columbia George—and all through the summer their furious, continuous duel had been the talk of harness racing. They raced everywhere, week after week, mile after mile, and the result was a stalemate. After 13 meetings the score was: Most Happy Fella 7, Columbia George 6. And the same was true of their speed. Eleven times Columbia George won by pacing the mile in under two minutes (with a season record of 1:56[2/5]). Happy Fella did it 12 times (with a record of 1:56[4/5]). That is moving. Rarely has the sport been blessed with two such stars in the same year.
They met again last Thursday in Delaware, Ohio, and this time the pressure was at absolute pitch, for this was the $100,000 Little Brown Jug, the most esteemed prize in pacing and the race both colts had been bred, trained and pointed for. A boisterous crowd of 43,000 showed up on a hot, windy afternoon at the Delaware County Fairgrounds and the two colts gave the fans what they wanted to see, challenging each other all-out through three of the fastest, most exciting heats in Jug history. And in the final yards of the final heat it was Most Happy Fella, driven expertly by Stanley Dancer, his owner and trainer, who got his neck in front as they flashed past the wire.
The finish was so close that from her angle up in the crowded wooden grandstand Stanley's blond wife Rachel thought that Columbia George had won. When the photograph of the finish was examined and the official result announced, she was, of course, most happy herself. The Dancers had bought the colt for $12,000 and now he has won almost $300,000, with more big purses ahead. Moreover, Dancer has already made a $1 million deal for the colt's future. Most Happy Fella will race out this year, with the Dancers pocketing all the earnings; then he will be retired to stud at the Blue Chip Farms in Wallkill, N.Y.
"You know, I almost sold him for $100,000 early this year, but Rachel wouldn't let me," said Dancer. "I said, 'Honey, we are in this business to make a living, you know,' and $100,000 looked pretty good to me then. But Rachel just wouldn't let me sell him. I guess that was the difference between $100,000 and $1 million."
Luck? Perhaps. But, if so, it was the exception, because good sense—both horse and business—have made Dancer, at 43, one of the wealthiest and most successful men in all of sport. His stable always is one of the country's largest and his horses have won thousands of races and millions of dollars. Like Arnie and others in the athletic aristocracy, Stanley flies his own plane (a deluxe Beeclcraft Queen Air), and he is the leading man in a current movie, a 14-minute color feature produced by Universal entitled Dancer to Win. Mannerly and generous, Dancer nevertheless is a man his fellow horsemen all love to beat, simply because he represents the best. And last week nobody wanted to beat him more than Roland Beaulieu, the 54-year-old who trains and drives Columbia George.
If Dancer and his million-dollar colt were the epitome of harness racing's Establishment, then Beaulieu and his colt were just as surely the classic underdogs. For more than 30 years Beaulieu had knocked around the fringes of the sport, doing well enough at fairs and such but never getting a horse good enough to compete at the very top. He is a sound horseman and he loves horses, and once he traveled from Maine to New York just to have a look at Columbia George's sire, Good Time, one of the great pacers. Then Dr. and Mrs. George Smith of Byram, Conn. brought him Columbia George.
Beaulieu knew early that the colt had potential, but he also had bowed tendons, a serious ailment in the forelegs that usually signals the end of a horse's racing career. But George was the only horse in his stable, so Beaulieu could give him what a horseman like Dancer could not—all of his time. Everything the colt has accomplished is due entirely to the special efforts of Beaulieu and his wife Blondie, who is George's groom. To them the colt became a household pet. He and a toy terrier travel in a trailer attached to the Beaulieus' own camper. One of the most appealing scenes at Delaware last week was that of the Beaulieus sitting in front of George's stall watching TV, with George looking over their shoulders.
Beaulieu: He loves TV, especially cowboy movies, but he only watches at night.
Beaulieu: Well, you don't watch daytime TV either, do you?
By noon on Jug day the track grounds were overflowing with the usual odd mixture of humanity—from tobacco-chewing farmers to bell-bottomed teens. A huge American flag flew over one group eating chicken from the tail gate of a station wagon lest one of them forget where the party was. Another group set up a dice game in the apple orchard off the backstretch. In the paddock the drivers were thinking only about the race and how the wind would affect their times.
Most Happy Fella figured to win the first heat, because George had the worst post in the field—No. 11, on the outside of the second tier of starters. The race went true to form. Taking the lead for good just after the half-mile mark, Most Happy Fella was an easy winner, by 2¾ lengths, over the dark horse Ferric Hanover. Columbia George had to go outside three horses going into the last turn to find racing room and was fortunate to get up to third. What was surprising, however, was the time—1:57⅕ only a fifth slower than Bret Hanover's record, set in the 1965 Jug. Back in the paddock Dancer was looking at his stopwatch and shaking his head.
"Look at that," he said. "I caught him in :57 flat and if you get out your magnifying glass you'll see it's actually a tick under that. Even with the wind. I think I could have gotten the record if I had just driven him on. But we've got another heat—and maybe more—still to go, so I didn't want to waste him."
In the second heat Columbia George was expected to make a race of it, coming out of the No. 3 post, with Most Happy Fella on the rail. This time George took the lead at the half, with Leander Lobell, driven by Curly Smart, second and Most Happy Fella third. Just before the three-quarter pole Dancer moved out, threw his colt into high gear and began to catch up on the outside. But suddenly Smart pulled his horse out in front, forcing Dancer to check Most Happy Fella. It was a smart move by Curly, and it cost Dancer the race. Although Most Happy Fella rallied to pull even down the stretch, Columbia George had not been used and one stroke of Beaulieu's whip sent him flying home three-quarters of a length in front. The time was an excellent 1:57[3/5].
Now it was down to the third heat and this time they were head-to-head at the gate, Columbia George leaving from the rail and Most Happy Fella from No. 2. George took the lead and Most Happy Fella settled in right behind. Before the quarter pole Smart again moved Leander Lobell up on the outside and he stayed there until the final turn. But as Leander began to tire and fall back, Dancer took Most Happy Fella out and up alongside Columbia George as they turned for home. With the crowd on its feet and screaming. Most Happy Fella slowly drew out in front. Columbia George battled back—and then it was over. The time was 1:57[3/5]. Never had any horse raced three straight heats all in 1:58 or less, and now two had done it on the same afternoon.
Their eyes fixed straight ahead, Roland and Blondie slowly led their pet back to his barn, through the litter of empty beer cans and worthless mutuel tickets. "I feel I did the best I could and so did the horse," Roland said as he brought George a drink of water. At Dancer's stable a crowd had gathered to gawk and snap their cameras while Most Happy Fella took a bath.
"That last heat was perfect," Stanley said. "You couldn't have drawn a blueprint and done it any better. And if the wind hadn't been blowing, who knows how fast he could have gone in that first heat? This is the best pacer I've ever had. I would like to race him next year, but a million dollars doesn't grow on trees, you know."
No. it doesn't. In Stanley's case it just seems that way.