Everybody knew that it was more than just another horse race. The real problem lay in sorting out the humans and just who was mad at whom. First there came the French, a tightly knit group still boiling because their great 8-year-old champion, Une de Mai, had been expelled from the $125,000 Roosevelt International the week before. Then there was Duncan MacDonald, the Canadian millionaire, and he, too, was angry. MacDonald had accused his driver, Joe O'Brien, of unheavenly deeds after his Fresh Yankee had not showed her usual explosive starting speed and had finished second to Speedy Crown in that rich classic. "I'll drive my own horse from now on, and maybe better," muttered MacDonald. Since O'Brien is as close to sainthood as any harness driver may ever get, that left still another group of racing followers angry. The tempers flared all week right up to last Saturday night's showdown: a three-horse, $150,000 match race.
To flashback briefly to the exciting opening episode, Une de Mai, top money-winner in all harness-racing history, had arrived from France rich in banknotes but, alas, one paper poor in meeting the immigration demands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the oversight, the mare was penalized twice the normal 24 hours in quarantine while the missing document was flown from Paris. Une de Mai came out of the idleness with her hindquarters so tight that her group was set to withdraw her. But, "she has recovered quickly," said French Drive Jean-René Gougeon on the day of the race. The Roosevelt officials decided she could race—but that no one would be allowed to bet on her. Then some of the other drivers, led by Speedy Crown's Howard Beissinger and George Sholty, argued that if the mare was not fit for wagering, she wasn't fit for racing, period. Finally, at the last moment the state racing commission barred the winner of two of the last three Internationals. Some fine Gallic curses were uttered, if not understood.
The race went on without Une de Mai. Beissinger won with Speedy Crown and MacDonald came away frothing at O'Brien. Early next morning the owner and the driver met in the lobby of the Island Inn Motel in Westbury, N.Y.
Recaps MacDonald: "I told him, 'Joe, at any time did you try? You went for second place.' And at no time did he deny that there was something afoot." (MacDonald was alluding to a possible conflict of interest on O'Brien's part. Among others who employ O'Brien as a trainer-driver is a group that owns a piece of Speedy Crown.)
July 30, 1972
Then, MacDonald said, O'Brien told him to go to hell, that no man questioned his integrity.
Recaps O'Brien: "He never asked me anything. He was waving his arms and raving and saying, 'I know all about it, you never tried.' I never held back a horse in my life and I wasn't going to listen to anyone question my integrity. He was like a madman. She's his mare. He can keep her."
Roosevelt officials, who know a dramatic confrontation when they see it shaping up, offered to match the three horses in a $50,000 race, winner take all. "No," said MacDonald. "Not winner take all."
"No," said Count Pierre de Montesson, the frozen-meat tycoon from Normandy who owns Une de Mai. "The horse is feeling much better, but not better enough for winner take all."
Just as it seemed the match race was disappearing, Alan Leavitt, who heads the group that recently syndicated Speedy Crown, suggested the track put up $75,000, each owner add another $25,000—and that they split the pot $100,000, $30,000 and $20,000. In effect, it meant that the track upped its ante to $75,000, winner take all, with a $5,000 side bet between the second and third horses. All agreed on the compromise.
Once the race was agreed upon, Speedy Crown, last year's Hambletonian winner and 3-year-old trotter of the year, quickly became almost everybody's champion to defend O'Brien's good name by soundly thrashing the MacDonald-driven Fresh Yankee, a 9-year-old who has returned $1,250,502 on MacDonald's original $900 investment. Almost everybody's champion. The French, still angry at being scratched the previous week, were rooting only for themselves.
By Saturday afternoon MacDonald was ready to dismiss the animosity on his part. He is a stubborn man and he doggedly defended his outburst against O'Brien, yet at unguarded moments he seemed inwardly to regret it.
"I've been good to Joe," he said, as though puzzled by the outrage of his peers. "I told him the horse was good for him and I was happy for him. He got over $100,000 out of that horse. I don't appreciate hurting him." But then the voice hardened: "The horse had three two-minute miles or better this year and at no time in the International did he try with her. He just pulled up and didn't do a good job. I just told him it looked funny to me. If he got hot, I'm sorry. If he can't take a little criticism, well, after all, I'm the owner. And I don't care what other people say. They are always saying things. I'm a good driver. We'll see tonight if I'm right or wrong."
MacDonald has been training and driving harness horses for more than 25 years, but mostly on small Canadian tracks. Until last Saturday night, he had never driven in New York.
"He's an amateur," said one veteran driver. "It's like taking A. J. Foyt out of a car and replacing him with Little Orphan Annie. Beissinger and Gougeon will eat him alive."
"I don't understand how anyone could question O'Brien's integrity," said Sholty. "If anybody stands for honesty in this sport, it's Joe. He'd beat his own grandmother in a race if he could. The whole thing is absolutely ridiculous."
Beissinger was similarly disgusted by MacDonald's assault. "Anybody who would question Joe O'Brien's integrity is just plain crazy. Joe O'Brien is the last man in the world you'd ever accuse of any kind of cheating. Why, he tries for his life every time he goes out on the track. There isn't a person in the country who doesn't know that."
A few hours before the race the principals gathered in the paddock. Beissinger, cheerful as usual, joked quietly with friends and ignored the occasional dark glares cast in his direction by Gougeon. MacDonald, his hard craggy features jutting from beneath his helmet, stood alone against the railing. To each of the few people who did approach him, he would say, "I was good to Joe...." To one he said sadly, "Do you hope I'll get beat tonight, too?" Then a little smile appeared. "Well," he said, "we're going after them."
Then it began. The three flowed evenly behind the start car—and there went MacDonald and Fresh Yankee out in front, swooshing along, with, typically, Une de Mai just outside. "Beautiful," thought Beissinger, tucking Speedy Crown in on the rail as they sped the first quarter in 30[2/5] seconds. They stayed that way until about the three-quarter pole when Fresh Yankee—no longer fresh—began to fall back. Now Gougeon made his move with Une de Mai, but it was not enough. Near the top of the stretch, having saved his horse the entire trip, Beissinger pushed Speedy Crown to the lead and won by an easy length. The exhausted Fresh Yankee was 14 lengths farther back. Speedy Crown's time was 2:32⅕ just [4/5] off the world record for 1¼ miles on a half-mile track.
"That Frenchman," said MacDonald, shaking his head. "He pushed me all the way and we had to go faster than we wanted. If he hadn't, we'd have had more left at the end. He just paid more attention to me than to the other horse." Beissinger came back laughing. "Boy," he said, "that was the easiest big race I've ever won. Fresh Yankee really got tired. I've never seen her that tired before. 'Course, I've never seen that man behind her before, either."
Or perhaps it was just as Joe O'Brien had said after the International. "Fresh Yankee is a great horse. But Speedy Crown is a great horse, too. And he's a lot younger."