It was the scent of riches that lured the French mare Une de Mai, the leading money-winner in harness-racing history, to Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway last Saturday night, and it was the same unmistakable aroma that whipped her handlers into a Gallic rage when she was in effect evicted from that track's prestigious International Trot. The abrupt banishment left a bitter aftertaste, but the sport's big-money horses had a full weekend in New York State all the same. Right there in the International, for example, the Canadian-owned mare Fresh Yankee, second on the alltime money list, further enriched her owner by finishing runner-up to America's Speedy Crown. Meanwhile, in the upstate resort town of Saratoga Springs, the 4-year-old pacer Albatross won a purse just large enough to make him both a millionaire and, easy as that, the third richest harness horse ever.
The sophisticates who frequent Roosevelt's betting windows can probably deduce from this—and it may even have occurred to a few of the shirt-sleeved tourists at Saratoga—that harness horses are becoming ever more proficient at converting oats into dollars. Although 10 U.S. thoroughbreds have reached the $1 million mark, headed by Kelso at $1,977,896, none is still running. By comparison, only five trotters or pacers have won $1 million, but the Big Three among them are all active. After the final hoof-beat sounded last week, the earnings report read: Une de Mai $1,545,740, Fresh Yankee $1,251,502 and Albatross $1,001,868.
The trio's financial status reflects not only improving purses—witness the International's $125,000—but the sturdy disposition of harness horses. "There's just less wear and tear on our animals," says Trainer-Driver Billy Haughton. This makes for longer and busier careers—it is not unusual for top trotters to have 30 or more starts a year—and it helps explain why Une de Mai and Fresh Yankee have enjoyed successes that no thoroughbred mare can rival.
Until Speedy Crown triumphed in what Roosevelt calls harness racing's "summit gathering," the International had been won by mares six straight years, and by foreign horses seven straight. Une de Mai had played a spectacular role in both these streaks, having taken two of the last three Internationals, and that partly explained the commotion the 8-year-old bay caused following her arrival from Paris. A bizarre chain of circumstances began with a mixup over documents that resulted in the horse being quarantined in New Jersey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 48 hours instead of the usual 24. Getting little exercise during that period, she arrived at Roosevelt with her hind-quarter muscles so tightened up that Jean-René Gougeon, her driver-trainer, crinkled his sloping forehead and, utterly exhausting his English, proclaimed, "No good, no race."
July 23, 1972
No sooner did the headlines UNE DE MAI DOUBTFUL STARTER begin appearing than her owner, Count Pierre de Montesson, arrived from France. Inspecting his mare late Friday afternoon—it was Bastille Day—he pronounced her condition "100% better" and resolved to race her. Montesson, a frozen-meat mogul in Normandy, is a swart man with droopy hound dog features, and what followed did nothing to unburden his expression. Though relieved that Une de Mai apparently would be racing after all, Roosevelt nonetheless barred betting on her because of what a track spokesman called "her dubious physical nature." It was the rationale that was dubious, as a group of rival drivers firmly pointed out to the New York Harness Racing Commission barely two hours before the race.
The protesters included Howard Beissinger, who bred Speedy Crown and has continued to train and drive the 4-year-old bay even though he sold him to the Lana Lobell Farms just two weeks ago. Beissinger, a folksy sort with a fondness for rodeo, drove Speedy Crown to victory in last year's Hambletonian and brought his trotter into the Roosevelt with five straight wins. It no doubt helped Beissinger's confidence that the last U.S. horse to win the International was Speedy Crown's sire, Speedy Scot, in 1964. "He's as good as any horse here," said Beissinger of Speedy Crown.
He included Une de Mai in that assessment, but this did not prevent him from arguing, correctly, that harness horses are customarily barred from betting because they are prohibitive favorites—not because of a possible indisposition. "If she's not sound to bet on, she's not sound to race," he insisted. The commission belatedly agreed.
When the announcement that Une de Mai had been ordered scratched came over Roosevelt's P.A. system, Gougeon was already in the paddock preparing to race. "This would never have happened at home," he fumed. For his part, Montesson inveighed against U.S. racing officials and turf writers, lumping them together as les petites gens—the little people.
So poor Une de Mai, wrapped in a blue blanket, stood forlornly in a paddock stall as the reduced field of six went into motion on the synthetic Roosevelt track. The race developed into a two-horse affair between Speedy Crown and the 9-year-old Fresh Yankee, sometimes called "the Cinderella mare" because Nova Scotia lumberman Duncan MacDonald bought her as a yearling for a mere $900. Speedy Crown took the lead at the quarter pole, with Fresh Yankee, driven by the veteran Joe O'Brien, tucking in behind, and it quickly became obvious that both respected the 1-mile distance, a slightly longer race than U.S. horses are used to.
Beissinger had not intended to go to the front so soon, for fear of tiring Speedy Crown, but had reluctantly done so when the early leader, a Belgian 5-year-old named Fideel, cut a slow pace. "Nobody else moved, so I had to," Beissinger explained later. O'Brien was conserving Fresh Yankee for the stretch, waiting in vain for somebody else to challenge Speedy Crown. When nobody did, the Canadian mare finally made a move coming out of the last turn, briefly exciting the crowd of 36,000, but Speedy Crown held her off to win by three-quarters of a length in a relatively pokey 2:35[1/5].
"Speedy Crown's a darn good horse," O'Brien said afterward. Then he added, "He's also a younger horse." O'Brien had agreed with the move to have Une de Mai scratched, but an ironic thought now occurred to him. "It might have been different with Une de Mai in there," he said. "Maybe she would have gone with Speedy Crown and worn him down a bit." O'Brien could console himself with the second-place purse of $31,250.
No such complications marred Saturday afternoon's proceedings on the dirt track in Saratoga, where Albatross outclassed six rivals by an awesome 14 lengths. Stanley Dancer, his trainer-driver, did not get the world-record clocking he had hoped for, but it hardly mattered. By taking the $8,000 purse the Big Bird became not only the third-richest harness horse ever, but the youngest to reach the $1 million mark.
Albatross' victory also helped vindicate Dancer, an accomplished horseman who suddenly found himself an embattled figure earlier this year after suffering a spinal fracture in Florida when a fence railing broke beneath him. His back in a cast, Dancer drove Albatross to an unprecedented string of three straight losses—two seconds and a third—and the syndicate that owned the horse, accustomed to nothing but victory, voted to let the driver go. Dancer responded with a breach-of-contract suit. The matter was resolved when control of the horse passed to the sport's biggest breeder, Pennsylvania's Hanover Shoe Farm, which quickly reinstated Dancer. He drove Albatross to nine straight wins following the three losses and now, with a mile-track pacing record of 1:54 4/5 already in hand, felt he could beat Bret Hanover's 1:57 mark for half-mile tracks, made when he was 3.
When the small, cozy Saratoga harness track was elected for the half-mile record attempt, the purse was sweetened to enable Albatross, should he win, to pass both Rum Customer and Cardigan Bay, retired pacers who had barely cleared $1 million. Ballyhooing the event, the track passed out photos of Albatross, offered prizes for the best letters to the horse ("When my daddy takes me to the track, will you please fly for me?") and rechristened its hot dogs "bird dogs."
The temperature hovered near 90° on race morning, but Dancer was happy. Sipping iced tea, he told SI's Herman Weiskopf, "This is the best weather we could have. All the record times by harness horses have been achieved in daylight and hot weather."
With a holiday crowd of 5,600 on hand in a holiday mood, Albatross flew—but not quite high enough. After rushing to a commanding lead at the quarter pole, he finished in 1:57⅗ less than a second off the pacing record. A stiff breeze had come up and, Dancer said, "That's what made the difference." Even so, it was Albatross' 30th mile in two minutes or better, putting him even with the legendary Dan Patch and just one behind Bret Hanover.
The Big Bird, whose record is now 49 wins in 58 starts, is expected to go into stud at year's end, a reward that also awaits Speedy Crown. The $62,500 International purse raised Speedy Crown's career earnings to $367,369 and, because he is still so young, he probably could become a. millionaire, too. But he is also syndicated and, as Howard Beissinger calculates it, "He's probably good for $250,000 a year in stud." Pulling a sulky is not the only way a good harness horse can strike it rich.