A filly's heart defeated a mathematician's calculations in the richest match race in turf history—$250,000 winner-take-all—at Hollywood Park last weekend. The heart belongs to a 4-year-old filly, Convenience, owned by Leonard Lavin of Chicago. The mathematician whose figuring did not quite pan out is Fletcher Jones, owner of Typecast, the 6-year-old mare pitted against Convenience. But Jones, president of the Computer Sciences Corporation, was only a matter of inches off in figuring the outcome of one of the finest match races ever run.
Historically, such events come on with a buildup that would make a fight promoter blush and then end as a bust. Sea-biscuit beat War Admiral by four lengths, Armed trounced Assault by eight, and in 1955, Nashua finished 6½ lengths ahead of Swaps, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, who was again aboard the loser on Saturday.
But this match race was different. It almost died aborning, the promotion was spotty and the contest was spectacular. The basic idea originated with Jones after his Typecast, bottled up in traffic and carrying five pounds more than Convenience, finished second by half a length to that filly in the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 3. The next day Jones was in the game room of his Los Angeles mansion reading an account of the race in the Sunday paper when his sporting instincts were stirred by a statement of Willard Proctor, the trainer of Convenience. Proctor said his filly was as good as Typecast and Turkish Trousers, another very good filly who had finished in the money in the Vanity. Jones thought to himself, "If Convenience is that good, let's see her pick up the weight and race against us." On Monday morning Jones called James Stewart, general manager of Hollywood Park, to suggest a special race involving the three from the Vanity and possibly Chou Croute, the top filly in the East. Each owner, Jones proposed, would put up $25,000, and the race would show which was the best filly or mare in the country.
Stewart started phoning around. The owners of Turkish Trousers and Chou Croute were not interested. Well, said Fletcher Jones, how about a $25,000 deal between Convenience and Typecast. "He put it as a challenge," recalled Lavin on the eve of the match. As the phone calls went back and forth the ante kept increasing. Finally it was decided the owners would each put up $100,000 and the track $50,000. The race was to be at a mile and an eighth at level weights, 120 pounds. The only conditions Lavin insisted on were that it be a fast track and that if either horse were not fit, the race would not go.
June 25, 1972
The 52-year-old Lavin could afford the $100,000 gamble on Convenience. He is the president and largest stockholder in the Alberto-Culver Company, a giant in mass toiletries, household products and foods with interests in 62 countries. He got into racing in 1966. Three years later he bought Convenience for $32,000. A big filly with a massive rear end, or "power house," as one trainer put it, she was too fat to race at two. At three she had nine starts, four wins and finished in the money every time. At four she has gotten better. Prior to the match, she had six victories in nine starts, a second and a third. The one time Convenience was unplaced she pulled up in the stretch when she shied at the sight of the starting gate. At the time she was leading by 1½ lengths; she finished fifth.
By contrast to Lavin, Jones has a reputation in racing circles for being aloof if not arrogant. A very private person, he collects paintings and Georgian silver, buying at auction under a different name "to keep a low profile." As handsome and mod-attired as a TV private eye, he regards comments about his personal appearance or life-style as not being pertinent. He does not suffer a fool gladly and the press rarely.
A Texan by birth, he worked his way through Duke, and then, after studying statistics and probabilities, headed for California. In 1959 he and a partner formed Computer Sciences, which now has 8,000 employees and has put together computer systems for such disparate clients as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Panama Canal and New York's Off-Track Betting Corporation.
In 1964 Jones bought his first racehorses. "My stimulus for getting involved was the intellectual aspect of breeding and racing," Jones says. "Certainly one can't get into it for the emotional appeal, because there have to be more losers than winners in a race. One must play quality and numbers so that the probabilities work for you."
Jones purchased Typecast for $22,000 as a yearling, and she won her first race at three, coming from off the pace. She seemed to lack early speed and did not win her first stakes race until last year as a 5-year-old. But she gained consistency thereafter under Tommy Doyle, the latest trainer retained by Jones. Going into the match race, Typecast had earned almost $300,000 and was becoming known for her belated rushes.
For a Hollywood extravaganza, the Typecast-Convenience duel stirred up surprisingly little fuss, except on Saturday when a crowd of 53,515 showed up. Indeed, the grand opening of a used-car dealer's lot out on La Brea Boulevard would have gotten more ink. The principles in the race either weren't around or were keeping their mouths shut. Lavin spent most of the preceding week in Mexico and Chicago on business and flew into town only the night before. Relaxing in his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel with his wife and daughter, Lavin said, "I happen to think we have the best filly in the country, and that's why we're running." However, he would say nothing about strategy for the match. Convenience's jockey, Jerry Lambert, a quiet Kansan, made himself scarce. The only one of the filly's clan who would allude to any strategy at all was Proctor, who on Friday allowed that the horse that took the lead "would have the best of it. I'd rather be in charge than not be, but for God's sake don't print that now." Proctor added, "The filly's doing fine. So far, I'm satisfied. If she gets beat, it's my fault—Mr. Lavin hasn't been training her."
Over in Jones' stable Tommy Doyle was not talking at all. Shoemaker was unavailable. That left Jones, who was at his stud farm 120 miles away. Late Saturday morning Jones flew in to Los Angeles. He was not going to the track until shortly before the race, but he set aside time to talk candidly and precisely, as only a mathematician can. "In our operation," Jones said, lighting up a cigarette in the game room, the very place he had gotten the idea for the race, "we tend to disavow some of the old wives' tales in the business. For instance, a lot of farms in Kentucky wean and geld by the sign of the moon. And there are a lot of other backstretch maxims. Such as today, 'Speed will win the race.' I think this doesn't bear the weight oldtimers give it. If a speed horse like Convenience is tackled and forced to fractions that are realistic, the closer will nail him or her if the closer is a better horse. The pace has to be realistic, so the closer will have the ability to make up the distance and challenge at the quarter pole. The clock will be in the jockey's head. When the gate opens and the pace begins to make itself known, then and only then can we begin to speak about the results. That's why we got Shoemaker. He is a masterly judge of pace.
"We would like to see Convenience go in 45 or 46 seconds to the half," Jones continued, "because if she does, we can outfinish her. All of this assumes no untoward events occur. If the pace were very slow, say 48 for the half mile, she would have a lot of foot left, and our chances would diminish but not disappear. When we look that filly in the eye at the end she'll have to reach down into her heart, because Typecast is a fine closer."
What if Convenience set a dazzling pace? "If she goes in 44," said Jones, the numbers clicking in his head, "she can be 20 lengths in front and we'll nail her. If she goes in 46 and is five lengths in front, we'll have problems, but Shoemaker is not going to let that happen."
While Jones was speaking, Lavin was having a happy time at the track. His Product Test won the second race, paying $25.60, and he took that as a good omen. When the match race started Lavin and Jones watched from box seats near the finish. Typecast, the 2 to 5 favorite in the betting, broke first from the gate but Convenience moved to the lead. At the half-mile pole Convenience led by a neck, and the time was 46[2/5] seconds. All right so far for Jones.
In the far turn Convenience opened up by 1½ lengths. Jones was not concerned. Shoemaker had eased back to give Typecast a breather so she could make her late run. At the top of the stretch Typecast began her move just as Jones had predicted. As the crowd screamed, Shoemaker narrowed the gap. But it was not enough as Convenience, reaching down into her heart, hit the wire first. The photo sign went on, which prompted another roar from bettors watching from various angles up and down the track, but the picture showed Convenience the victor by a head. Her time was a speedy 1:47[3/5].
In the winner's circle Lavin accepted Jones' congratulations and a check for $250,000. He praised Proctor's training and Lambert's ride. "Jerry rode the horse beautifully," Lavin said. "And the strategy was Proctor's, to make the mare run to the filly."
Meanwhile, back on the farm to which he split, to use his own term, Jones had no regrets. As he had put it earlier that afternoon, in a moment of statistical introspection, "The scenario doesn't always work out the way one would like. For every dictum there is a contradiction."