The Big Bird lost the big race. He was shot down on the threshold of his finest moment by Herve Filion, a saucy little French Canadian who makes a specialty of discomfitting the mighty. His most enthusiastic admirers—and the ranks are growing fast—claim Filion is something of a wizard in the sulky. Maybe he is and maybe he is not, but there is no denying what he accomplished in last week's $102,964 Little Brown Jug. He and an ill-regarded colt named Nansemond, who was fresh off the hospital list, defeated Albatross—aka the Big Bird and Superhorse—in the most surprising upset in the 26-year history of the Jug.
Held on the steeply banked half-mile track at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Ohio, hard by an ancient whitewashed grandstand and an old-fashioned country fair, the Jug is one of the more unusual scenes in sport. It combines the pleasures of the rural and the rinky-dink with the pressures of a premier sports event. The Jug is pacing's grandest prize, the race that every breeder, owner, trainer and driver wants above all others.
Albatross, with his almost unblemished record and humbling speed, was a cinch to win in straight heats. Earlier this year a syndicate of horsemen had purchased him for $1,250,000 and put him in the hands of old pro Stanley Dancer. Albatross breezed to 16 straight victories, each of them so impressive that by Jug day Delaware track officials, fearing they would suffer a Bird bath, barred him from the betting. But they reckoned without Filion, whose record—the most wins for four straight years—rivals that of Albatross.
And so on a bright, gala afternoon, some 40,000 fairgoers saw Filion and Nansemond do the improbable. There was curiosity when Albatross beat Nansemond by only a nose in their first heat. There was amazement when Nansemond won his second heat going away in the brilliant time of 1:57[2/5]—a national season's record for 3-year-old pacers on a half-mile track. And finally there was a wild ovation when Herve and Nanse downed the Bird again in the final heat, this time by a solid three-quarters of a length. As Filion guided Nansemond back to the winner's circle, he recalled later, he "almost stood up in the sulky." But he settled instead for a spell of laughing and waving at the crowd.
October 3, 1971
And what of Dancer and Albatross? "He just wasn't himself today," said Dancer. "I'm not sure what was wrong. He had two races last week, one in the mud, so maybe that hurt him."
The winner, a Tar Heel colt, was bred by two Virginia lumbermen, Fermer Perry of Suffolk and William M. Camp Jr. of Franklin. Just before Nansemond's 2-year-old season, Perry and Camp began looking for someone to drive him. They wanted Filion, and as a lure they offered to sell the driver a one-third interest for $13,000. It was the second largest sum Filion had ever spent on a horse—his Capital Hill Farms Stable consists mainly of inexpensive claimers—but it proved a canny investment on everybody's part. As a 2-year-old Nansemond won nine of 17 starts and $80,217, and by last May Filion was predicting that if anybody could beat Albatross in the Jug this would be the horse.
The boast was dismissed as mere Filion flash, but Herve meant what he said. Everything went well until mid-July, when Nansemond suffered a torn ligament in his right front leg. Oddly enough, the injury occurred in a bumping incident with Albatross.
"Usually this type of injury finishes a horse for the rest of the year," says Veterinarian Kenny Seeber, who attended to Nansemond. "It requires a lot of rest. Maybe that is what did him so much good."
It was not until 12 days before the Jug that Nansemond could make his first start, and he finished a dismal seventh. But with the Jug only six days away, the colt suddenly found himself. With one of Herve's brothers, Yves, in the sulky, he won at Liberty Bell by 1½ lengths in the brisk time of 1:59[4/5]. "He was real good," said Yves afterward, adding in the Filion tradition, "He's going to win the Jug."
"Brother," said Herve, "you're nuts."
Since the 1971 Jug drew 15 entrants, the opening heat was split into two divisions. The winner of the first was H T Luca, driven by Del Insko. Then the track was sprayed and raked, and it was time for Albatross to fly.
Early in the race Filion took Nansemond to the lead, with Albatross, who started from the extreme outside post, settling comfortably in fourth. Just before the three-quarter mark Dancer and Albatross moved outside. As they swept past Nansemond turning for home, everybody expected one of the Big Bird's bursts of acceleration. "I was looking for Stanley to go past me with a whoosh," said Filion, "but when he tried I hit my horse and he took off. I couldn't believe it." While the judges examined the finish picture it was Filion who was smiling and Dancer who looked worried.
"Well, Stanley, you won," said Filion when the result was posted. "I hate to see it happen, but that's show biz." Even Dancer laughed.
The top four horses in each division came back for the next heat. This time Dancer set most of the pace. Again as they turned for home he had the lead, now with H T Luca second and Nansemond third. But when Nansemond rushed up on the outside, Albatross did not respond to Dancer's whip. At the wire Nansemond was in front by a full length. "I like to be Hertz, not Avis," said a jubilant Filion. "I didn't whip my horse at all. I just yelled at him. In both French and English. He understands both, you know."
As the three heat winners got ready for the race-off, Filion said, "The only thing I can do is take the lead and make Albatross come after me." But he did more than take the lead; he slowed the pace to a crawl that would have embarrassed a claimer. Even so, when Dancer asked Albatross to move just after the three-quarter pole, he feared he did not have enough horse. Still, the Bird showed his class by taking the lead midway through the last turn. In response Filion hit Nansemond a few whacks with his whip. Nansemond began to pull away, and it quickly was apparent that Albatross was finished.
For Filion it was by far the most important victory of his career, but he did not allow himself time to savor it. He hurried to a private plane and took off for New York's Roosevelt Raceway, where he was scheduled to drive in eight races that night. "I'm trying to win 500 races this year," said Filion, whose 486 last year was a world record. "Just because I won the Brown Jug, I can't stop living, you know."