Stanley Franklin Dancer is a millionaire New Jersey harness horseman with full, rich ambitions: he wants all the good horses he can possibly fit into his barns. And he did not feel he had enough. So all year long he had been bargaining for some of the country's best 3-year-old pacers, alas without success. Then came last Saturday night and Dancer discovered that he can stop shopping. There, right inside his very own stable, was a leggy, pollution-colored colt named Smog who was plenty good enough. Smog, after having raced only five times as a 2-year-old, sneaked away with the richest event he had ever been in, the $100,000 Cane Pace.
If that was one racing irony, another was that Dancer was not even there to take part in the victory at Yonkers Raceway. Confined to bed with a recurring neck ailment, he had to listen to the race over the telephone as his brother Vernon drove the colt into the winner's circle. Still, it was a satisfying long-distance phone call. The Cane is the second leg of pacing's Triple Crown, just as prestigious to standardbreds as the Preakness is to thoroughbreds.
Dancer has been in and out of hospitals periodically the last few years because of injuries suffered in a five-horse wreck at Yonkers almost two decades ago. He even has a hospital bed at home and spends several hours a day in traction. "He thought that if he couldn't drive, he could at least come to see the race," said brother Vernon, noting that Stanley had entered himself as the driver early in the week. "But he couldn't even do that. He really feels bad."
If it was any compensation, Duncan MacDonald, a retired Canadian lumberman whose Armbro Nesbit was the horse to beat in the Cane, felt pretty bad himself. He had wanted desperately to win in order "to show those guys who have been saying all those terrible things about my driving." But Vernon Dancer and Smog slipped through on the rail to beat him by three-quarters of a length in 1:58[4/5]. Nesbit, after setting a blazing pace through the entire race, tired in the stretch and drifted out just enough for Dancer and Smog to roll on through.
July 22, 1973
The victory was something of a formal introduction for Smog. Although both Dancers had felt the colt was much improved lately—especially after he soundly beat seven older horses in a 2:00[4/5] mile at Yonkers the previous week—Smog still was known to be often fussy at the gate and he went off at 5 to 1. And those who collected on him owe a lot to that sudden hole that opened.
"I suppose I should have tried harder to keep Nesbit in," said MacDonald, "but I was worrying about those horses on the outside of me."
MacDonald took on the training and driving of Armbro Nesbit last summer after a disagreement with his driver, Joe O'Brien, about the way O'Brien drove Fresh Yankee, MacDonald's millionaire trotting mare, in the International at Roosevelt. All season long MacDonald has endured horsemen's comments on his ability on the track.
"People talk about my driving all the time," he said before Saturday's race. "Some of them have said some pretty nasty things. But they all seem to be afraid of me and my colt, so I must be doing all right."
A week earlier MacDonald had done more than all right in a preview for the Cane. He and Nesbit led all the way in a 1:59[2/5] victory over Johnny Chapman and Valiant Bret, who had won the Messenger, the first Triple Crown pace.
Since last August Nesbit has been sick off and on with a throat disorder, and even now he spends 15 minutes twice a day wearing a horse-sized oxygen mask over his nose as he breathes a concoction calculated to clear a scratchy throat. "He doesn't even seem to mind it anymore," says MacDonald's 17-year-old son Gordon, who takes care of the colt. "I guess that's because it makes his throat feel a lot better."
Just before the race, as an all-girl drum and bugle corps was blasting out noisy entertainment on the track, the elder MacDonald was in the barns sipping an orange soda for his own parched throat and Armbro Nesbit was dozing in his stall. "Those guys aren't going to get me tonight," said MacDonald, who suspects other-drivers are giving him something of a hard time on the track. "Nobody's going to hang me on the outside, like they've done before." He was referring specifically to a race in May when he was parked four wide and finished a frustrating eighth with Nesbit. Now, in the Cane, MacDonald had the No. 2 post, with Chapman and Valiant Bret in the No. I spot. "If Chapman wants to go, we'll go all right," MacDonald said. "I got a little better horse than he has. At least I think so. And we'll just get out ahead of him."
When the band tootled off the track and the race began, MacDonald did what he had promised: he and Nesbit roared from behind the gate like an Indy car. MacDonald took the lead just before the quarter pole and now was able to do some parking out of his own. Chapman's entrymate, Lucien Fontaine, with Good Time George, was kept outside until the half-mile mark, then faded, ending up last. Now Herve Filion with his Otaro Hanover came up to challenge, but he was never a serious threat, having pushed his horse too hard on the backstretch. Next Chapman and Valiant Bret slipped out to have a try at MacDonald, got nowhere, and finished third, a length back of Nesbit.
"I started to come out when Filion did—at the half," said Vernon Dancer. "But there wasn't any room, so I just got back in and sat there in third on the rail. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I noticed just before the three-quarter pole that MacDonald's horse was bearing out a little. The pace was tiring everybody. I figured if Nesbit bore out in the backstretch, he'd be drifting out in the stretch, too, and might leave a hole. And I was right."
When it was all over, Smog's owner, A. M. (Mac) Cuddy, a turkey farmer from Strathroy, Ont., allowed, "I didn't think you'd make it there for a minute, Vernon."
"Well," said Vernon, "it was the easiest trip in the world. I just sat there and when the hole opened up, I had enough horse to get through and beat him." He made it sound like even Stanley could have done it, aching neck and all.
Though he had lost the big one he so wanted to win, Duncan MacDonald drew a certain measure of reward: the other drivers congratulated him on having such a fine horse—and no one said a word about his driving. Several horsemen even sympathized, "Duncan, there was no way you could help it."
The Cane establishes Smog as a new threat on the circuit. The principals will meet nearly every week until the final Triple Crown race, the Little Brown Jug, in late September at Delaware, Ohio. Waiting for them there will likely be Dick Buxton and Faraway Bay, whom many of the Cane field followed around the track often as 2-year-olds last year. Faraway Bay has been slowly recovering from smoke inhalation suffered at a barn fire this winter, but should be in top form by Jug time.
So almost everybody left the Cane happy. MacDonald basked at last in the praise of his peers. Armbro Nesbit went back to his oxygen mask. Smog went home knowing he would never be anonymous again. And back in New Jersey Stanley Dancer hung up the telephone and smiled.