They said it was a fluke—this young Austrian fellow coming over here to New York's Roosevelt Raceway and winning three straight on the opening night of harness racing's world driving championship. Skunk Billy Haughton and Herve Filion? Adolf √úbleis had to be plain lucky. But when he did it again four nights later at Saratoga Springs, even the grooms, a skeptical lot, became believers. "Never saw anything like it," said one dusty old character in Levi's. "This boy is good."
By the end of the first week of the two-week series—a punishing schedule of 34 races at nine different North American tracks—there were no remaining doubters. √úbleis had driven in 17 races at five tracks and had won nine of them to go 263 points ahead of his nearest rival, Haughton, and virtually out of sight of the other six drivers. When the second week ended he had clinched the championship and had become the talk of the sport. √úbleis had proved he could win with long shots as well as favorites, go to the top or come from behind in the stretch for a victory. "He has the hands," said one rival. "Natural ability," said another. "The horses listen to him," said a third. Whether they understood him is another matter, since he speaks only German and the horses he drove—mostly cheap claimers—are not familiar with commands auf Deutsch.
In a brilliant driving exhibition at Saratoga, √úbleis won with a favorite, Little Love, in the first race, then beat Filion by a head and a nose in the next two with long shots Disband ($24.20) and Joe Rodney ($43.60). With Disband, √úbleis pulled out of fourth place going to the quarter pole—early in the race as European drivers often do—and took the lead on the paddock turn. Filion looked as if he would catch him at the top of the stretch, but √úbleis jiggled up and down and nearly out of the sulky to keep his mount a head in front.
"He's got ability, all right," said a not-so-smiling Haughton. "I think I better hire the guy." He wasn't kidding, Haughton said after some reflection; he planned to have a little talk with Herr √úbleis.
Only 33 years old, √úbleis got his professional trainer's license when he was 16 and now has some 60 trotters in his public stable in Baden, south of Vienna. Last year he won 105 races, including the prestigious Austrian Trotting Derby, and that's not bad for a man who drives only two or three days a week. To qualify for the world championship, √úbleis won the European driving title at Recklinghausen, Germany on April 12.
Although he won with four trotters in the U.S., √úbleis' biggest success was, surprisingly, with pacers. Adolf had never sat behind a pacer before (in Europe there are none), yet he won six of 19 paces. His only difficulties came because he was not familiar with the pacing gait—something he found out when he warmed up his first one—and he was not able to read a race program properly to evaluate his horses' past performances. After the first few days, with the help of Kurt Kollross, his interpreter and the racing secretary at the two Vienna tracks where he drives, he learned that, too.
"He says he likes the pacers, even though they seem to pull more on the arms," Kurt said.
"Yeah, I see that," muttered last year's champ, Filion, resplendent in a blue and white, wide pinstriped blazer and white bell-bottoms. "When I watch how good he is doing, all I want to do is be able to finish second." Which is quite an admission from the most flamboyant driver in North American racing.
Something of a showman himself, √úbleis enjoyed the translated accolades, the handshakes, the slaps on the back. He cheerfully signed autographs and posed for photographers. A mischievous, crooked smile often wrinkled his face. His helmet was off, on, off again, and he was quick to wave a hand or flick the black and white driving whip he carried even off the track. Out in the paddock, after each win, he hopped up and down with glee and yelled indistinguishable German somethings to Kollross.
Sometimes Adolf tried a little English. After finishing last with a 14-year-old trotter named Gypsy Boy at Rosecroft, he cried, "Aha! Gypsy Boy! Gypsy Boy!" and gesturing with his hand at his chin to indicate a beard, said, "He ist a grandfater." In Detroit, after Kollross had told a reporter, "He says to win this would be the greatest thing in his life," Adolf himself quipped, "Ja. As Cassius Clay. Der Gr√∂sste!"
The schedule was hectic—racetracks from New York to Washington to Saratoga to Toronto to Montreal to Detroit to Pittsburgh to Vernon to Philadelphia in 13 days—with planes and buses to catch, press conferences to attend and luggage to keep track of. √úbleis was tired. He didn't get enough sleep. The sporadic nature of the duty lunches and dinners bothered him, although his discovery of Scotch sours relaxed him a bit. He was smoking more than his usual pack a day of HBs, German-made filter cigarettes, and was fast going through the 20 packs he had brought with him. On the bus trip from Buffalo to Toronto he confessed that he was lonely; he wished his wife Herta were there.
Everyone else—except for Norway's Karsten Buer, who was accompanied by Alf Moe, his interpreter—brought along his wife and/or a gaggle of friends from his own country. Buer said that his wife thought the trip would be too much for her and, besides, she had to stay home on their farm near Oslo to care for the broodmares. He was happy to have come, however, because he had decided, at age 58, to retire from driving at the end of the year and would never get such a chance again.
Traveling with Jean-René Gougeon, the fortyish Frenchman who looks more like a diplomat than a race driver and has no intention of retiring from anything, were his translator and a well-known French journalist, Alex Ignatieff, amateur driver Didier Van Themsche and two pretty Parisian girls. Italy's Cencio Ossani, a smiling, round teddy bear of a man, brought his attractive dark-haired wife Pia, the daughters of a horseman for whom Ossani trains and Italian journalist Rino Icardi. Not a one could speak English, so Roosevelt Raceway's Frankie Gennari rode along to interpret. One day Mrs. Ossani arrived at her hotel with two mink coats she had bought on a shopping binge in Montreal. Amid a lot of chattering and hand waving, Frankie smiled and said, "Mr. Ossani says he is glad she only took one day to shop."
Australia's Gordon Rothacker and New Zealand's Peter Wolfenden and their families were constant companions, strolling the pleasant woods of Saratoga and talking about the "ghastly long plane flights" which would take them home to winter.
√úbleis was joined by his pretty wife in time for Saturday's finale in Philadelphia, where he stalked the paddock nervously and fretted that Haughton might win a couple and catch him. Adolf's worries were brief, though; by merely finishing fourth in the first of three races the title was his.
Afterward, he said, "There is a song in Vienna that goes, 'To sit behind a horse is possible for any man. But to really drive a horse, that is possible only for a man from Vienna.'" That's some waltz, Adolf.