Nobody really expected the $88,800 Adios Pace to be much of a race—not with Albatross in the field. By the time he arrived at The Meadows, that lovely little track in the rolling hills south of Pittsburgh, Albatross (also known as the Big Bird, for obvious reasons) had soared so far above his competition that even Stanley Dancer, his taciturn trainer-driver, was moved to say, "I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't lose another race the rest of the season." Which means, of course, that Stanley figures his supercolt is a shoo-in for pacing's top prize—The Little Brown Jug—next month in Delaware, Ohio.
But last week the colt's goal was the Adios, a classic in its own right and one of pacing's Big Four since its inception in 1967. The race was the brainchild of Delvin Miller, long one of harness racing's most influential horsemen. Miller built The Meadows only a pasture or so removed from his sprawling Meadowlands Farm, and he saw to it that the new track's premier race was named after Adios, the fine pacer whose overwhelming success at stud made Miller wealthy. The Adios is always the highlight of Grand Circuit week at The Meadows, and last week the mood was particularly festive, what with this being the circuit's 100th anniversary season and Miller being its president.
Although the track's efforts to publicize the Adios were hampered somewhat by the Pittsburgh newspaper strike, a healthy crowd of 9,506 showed up to watch the classic and to get a look at the colt who already is being compared with Dan Patch and Bret Hanover. Going into the Adios, Albatross had won 27 of 31 starts—including the Messenger and the Cane Futurity, the first two legs of the Big Four—and $485,029.
When Dancer brought out Albatross for a warmup between the first and second races, the public-address announcer proclaimed dramatically, "Albatross is on the track," and people craned their necks and stood on tiptoe to get a glimpse of the Big Bird. Later, in the first heat of the Adios, Albatross started from the No. 10 post position, back in the second tier of starters. Dancer allowed him to dawdle along behind until the field sorted itself out. "I couldn't see rushing him into that pack and taking a chance on getting him bumped," the trainer-driver explained. But by the half-mile mark Albatross had moved up easily into sixth place, and at the three-quarter he was second, behind H.T. Luca, driven by Del Insko. Halfway down the stretch Dancer wiggled his whip and Albatross instantly moved up and past H.T. Luca. "I heard him burning gravel back there," Insko said later. At the wire Albatross had a length and a half margin and an official time of 1:58[3/5] for the mile. "He did it the hard way," Dancer commented, "and that's how the great ones do it."
August 22, 1971
The win gave Albatross the pole for the second heat, which turned out to be a laugher. Never worse than second, Albatross was maneuvered into the lead by Dancer just at the half, and down the stretch it was Albatross way out in front, alone, with the rest of the field bunched behind him in a fight for second. His winning margin was an easy three lengths, his time 1:59[3/5].
Albatross was born May 26, 1968 at Stoner Creek Stud near Paris, Ky. He was by a good sire, Meadow Skipper, but his dam, Voodoo Hanover, never made it to the races. She was the property of five horsemen who called themselves the Voodoo Hanover Syndicate, and Albatross was her first foal. He was not considered anything special and in July 1969, the syndicate sold foal, mother and a suckling filly to Bert James for $11,000.
James, 51, is known as a master salesman. He hit it big with a Cadillac-Chevrolet agency in Windsor, Ontario, which at peak did an annual business of around $8 million, or, as James puts it, adjusting his black-rimmed Barry Goldwater glasses and flicking the ashes off a fat Windsor cigar, "I ground a few dollars out of it." In 1965 he made a fateful deal: a new Cadillac for a used car and three harness horses. He sold one horse for $500 and a second was claimed away from him for $1,000, but the third earned $13,000—and James was hooked. By 1967 he had shelved his automobile agency and plunged headlong into the horse business. Now he leases a 500-acre farm—called The James Boys Farm—not far from The Meadows, where he keeps nearly 100 head of breeding stock, though he still considers himself a businessman first and a horseman only incidentally.
James' first move with Albatross, then a scrawny yearling, was to try to sell him. In November 1969 he sent the colt to the famous Harrisburg sale, where he hoped to get $7,000 for him. No one bid that high, so James had a friend, Tim Rooney, a son of Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, buy him back for 56,800. James tried again to unload the colt but to no avail—one deal fell through when a prospective buyer balked at paying the $500 transportation fee from western Pennsylvania to New Jersey—and Albatross remained at Arden Hills Farm near The Meadows, where James had put him in the care of Trainer-Driver Harry Harvey.
Before he began to train Albatross, Harvey was best known as the youngest man ever to drive a Hambletonian winner—he was 29 when he won with Helicopter in 1953 (27-year-old Johnny Simpson Jr. won with Timothy T. last year). Long one of Del Miller's assistants, Harvey bought Arden Hills Farm from his boss in 1966 and began a modest breeding business. In 1968 he resumed training and driving and began to beef up his public stable.
From December 1969 through late May 1970, Harvey worked with Albatross every day. "He was a nice-gait-ed horse, intelligent and alert," says Harvey, "but he was high-spirited, so I had to put him in a padded stall. He had lots of little idiosyncracies. He was fussy about the bits in his mouth, and he didn't like to have dirt kicked in his face. But we got those things corrected." Soon Harvey realized that Albatross was a much better colt than his owner had thought.
On May 20, 1970, Albatross made his debut at The Meadows. He won convincingly, the beginning of a summer-long odyssey that carried him to the forefront of the harness-racing world. He started 17 times, all with Harvey in the sulky, and won 14. His best mile times of 1:57[4/5] on a mile track and 2:00[1/5] on a half-mile track were better than any of his peers, and his earnings of $183,540 made him the leading money-winning 2-year-old pacer of all time.
This year in May, Albatross, now a prime 3-year-old, was syndicated for a whopping $1,250,000. James retained a 25% interest in the horse, with eight other prominent racing people also owning shares. Dancer, whose clients included four of the nine syndicate members, replaced Harvey as trainer-driver. "I was in a state of shock," says Harvey. "It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
To compensate Harvey for his projected financial losses—as trainer-driver he would get 10% of the colt's winnings—the syndicate gave him 5% of the gross sales price, or about $60,000. But there was no way they could reimburse him for the thrill of driving the horse, his horse, the one he had broken and developed. Harvey felt that James sold him out, and that he had been squashed in the inexorable machinations of big business. He is so bitter about the deal that he refuses to watch Albatross race, or even visit him when they are at the same track. He still trains a promising filly, Saucy Wave, for James, but their relationship is uneasy at best.
"Oh, we get along," says Harvey. "I'm enough of a realist to know that in this business you're strictly at the mercy of the owner, and Bert's a businessman."
"Look," says James, puffing coolly on his cigar, "I know Harry was upset. But in my position I had to look at the overall picture, and a million plus is a lot of money. In any business my prime objective is to be a success, and I guess that's measured in money, isn't it?"
By that yardstick, the deal is paying off as handsomely as expected. The syndicate plans on racing Albatross all this year and next and, barring misfortune, the colt may win back most of his syndication price even before he is sent to stud at syndicate member Alan Leavitt's Lana Lobell Farm. Everything after that would be so much gravy.
As for Dancer, his stable earned more than $2 million in 1970, and with Albatross he may surpass that sum this year. He might also break a few records with the colt en route. In a race at Yonkers a year ago, Harvey turned Albatross loose in one race and he opened up eight lengths from the¾ pole to the finish. Recently, in the Commodore Pace at Roosevelt, Albatross was behind turning for home, had to go three horses wide to the outside and still won, coasting, by 2½ lengths. "That was the fastest eighth of a mile I ever saw," said Earle Avery, a veteran of over 50 years around harness tracks.
So far Dancer has not asked Albatross to go after Bret Hanover's world records, but races at the fast mile ovals in the Midwest are coming up, and Dancer occasionally wonders what might happen if the colt went all out.
"Sure, I'm curious," he says. "Off what he's done so far he's great—maybe supergreat. But right now I'm more interested in winning races than setting records. This is a business, you know."