The Russians thought they had a new folk hero, one who would rank right there with Valery Borzov and Olga Korbut, with the Olympic basketball team and the baker who invented black bread. They shipped him 4,806 miles from Moscow last week, a 4-year-old chestnut trotter with a pink nose and the unlikely name of Othello, and they smiled a lot when they said he had won 24 races and lost none. And they frowned when they were asked whom he had beaten.
"What does it matter who he has beaten?" asked an honestly puzzled Alexander Georghievich Martinenkov, the chief of horse breeding for the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Agriculture. It was just a few hours before last Saturday night's $150,000 International Trot at Roosevelt Raceway, and Martinenkov was obviously weary of politely defending Othello's impressive but incomplete credentials. In Russia horseplayers wager on win only, and the memory of horses that run second lasts about as long as an empty vodka bottle.
"I don't care if he raced against three-legged pigs," said Lew Barasch, the Roosevelt publicist, who was just happy to have lured any horse out of Russia for the first time since Osman finished last in the United Nations Trot at Yonkers in 1966. Soon after that disaster the Russians retired their top horseman, Yevgeni Dolmatov, and decided to retire their horses from U.S. competition. At least, until they had bred and developed a superhorse.
While losing apparently was bad enough, ex-Comrade Dolmatov was also accused of spending money like a capitalist, and that's when they punched his ticket to the farm. If things had turned out differently in the International, possibly they might have brought him back. In 1960 Dolmatov gave $40,000 of the state's money to Del Miller for Lowe Hanover, now Russia's top stallion and the sire of Othello. The scene for Dolmatov's vindication was set. But they played it the way Shakespeare wrote it. At the wire, it was Miller's Delmonica Hanover followed by eight others, and then Othello—a tragic last.
"My God," Miller shouted, "I don't believe it." Neither did anyone else. Just six days earlier Roosevelt officials had intimated that Delmonica Hanover hadn't even qualified for the race. In the past, the top two finishers in the American Trotting Championship were named as the U.S. representatives in the International, and Delmonica, with John Chapman driving, had finished second behind Billy Haughton's Spartan Hanover. But then Roosevelt officials decided only the winner qualified. Enraged, Miller called George Levy, the track's top executive, who said he thought someone had promised the French that there would be only one U.S. horse. Miller's reply isn't recorded, but after hearing it Levy said he would double-check. The next day the track told Miller to bring his horse.
Earlier Count Pierre de Montesson, the owner of Une de Mai, the great French mare who won the International in 1969 and 1971, had inquired if Delmonica Hanover was for sale and for how much. Miller had said maybe, and for $350,000. Later in the week an Italian group asked him the same question and he said, "Yes, and for $400,000." And by Sunday morning the price had risen to $500,000.
Une de Mai had won only two of her last eight races, and it was said that at the advanced age of nine she was slipping. "Ha," smiled Jean-René Gougeon, the dapper little driver-trainer. "In her last race she easily won at 2½ miles. She is still the big money winner. She is as great as ever, but not always."
Taking him at his word, and since no one could figure out the field anyway, Une de Mai was touted as the early favorite. Carosio, the Italian entry of Gina Biasuzzi, was the second choice, but the 6-year-old was nervous and was kept blindfolded until just before the start of the race, and when they uncovered his eyes no one was sure what he would do on a strange track.
"Never mind the horse," warned Soren Landin, a Swedish trainer. "Watch the Italian driver. They are all crazy. If you get in their way, they are just as liable to go over you, or under you, as around you."
The Russians, meanwhile, were having problems. Remembering Dolmatov, they weren't about to lay out a single ruble. Before they would come, Roosevelt had to agree to pick up all expenses, including $16,000 in air fare. When the Russians arrived, the track discovered expenses included two helmets for Driver Yevgeny Mosienkov and other equipment.
"We always make up special helmets for the International," said Lew Barasch. "But when the Russians sent Mosienkov's size, they sent it in centimeters, 18 centimeters. One of our geniuses at the track figured that out to be 6‚Öû. It sat on Mosienkov's head like an egg. He wears a 7‚⅛."
The Russian asked for a helmet that fit. "Oh, no," Barasch groaned. Then he remembered that a special helmet had been made for George Levy for publicity pictures. It was a size 7‚⅛.
"Would you mind using a helmet with the name Levy on it?" Barasch asked. "It looks very nice."
Mosienkov said he'd rather have one with his own name; Levy isn't one of the more popular names in Russia. It was Saturday morning, but Barasch said he would figure out something. He left. An hour later he returned, his shirt and hands covered with white paint. "It's done," he sighed. "I had to kick in the door of our paint room and I painted it myself. It's the most God-awful, worst-looking helmet you've ever seen. But at least it will fit, and I'll just tell Levy somebody stole his."
"Yeah," someone said. "Tell him Howie the Horse snatched it."
Howie the Horse is Howard Samuels, the head of New York City's Off-Track Betting Corp. and a long and bitter Levy antagonist. But when the track landed the Russians, Samuels decided the race could be a financial bonanza for both sides. He went to Levy with an offer of $50,000 to help promote and televise the race. Stunned, Levy said yes. For a nice big slice of OTB's action, of course. "Of course," smiled Samuels. But on the day of the race OTB's computers broke down for three crucial midday hours, and an estimated $80,000 was lost.
"Just think, if Bill Hopkins had kept on singing that day in Moscow," Barasch said with a grin, "this might have been a nice dull race."
Lou Miller, a former trainer who had been assigned by the track to handle the Soviet group's requests, shook his head. "You kidding us, Lou? What song?"
"We had been inviting them over for a couple of years," Barasch said. "They kept saying no and we figured they'd say no again this year. Then I get this telegram that says come to Moscow. Right now. We went to Moscow. Right then. And, bam! they agree to come."
To celebrate, the Roosevelt group, which included Barasch and Bill Hopkins, the track's vice-president and treasurer, took a group of Russians to dinner at a Georgian restaurant in downtown Moscow. Hopkins began to sing. He opened with an old Irish song, dazzled the crowd with two quick George M. Cohan numbers and then decided he should close with the University of Pennsylvania's alma mater. "Hail! Pennsylvania! noble and strong." Hopkins felt a Russian interpreter's elbow dig deep into his ribs. "Nyet. Nyet. No more," she said.
"What's the matter?"
The interpreter leaned close. "That tune is taken from an old Russian song, God Save the Czar."
In the paddock at Roosevelt an hour before the race, Mosienkov, the Russian driver, paced nervously back and forth near his horse. Spotting Lou Miller, Mosienkov rushed over and began spouting Russian while making sign language.
Miller nodded impassively. "Twenty meters," he said.
Mosienkov smiled and walked away.
Karl-Gustav Holgersson, who drove Sweden's Emter W., looked at Miller. "What was he asking you?"
"How the hell would I know?" Miller said. "I can't speak Russian. He's been doing that all day. I always answer 20 meters and it seems to make him happy."
How good Othello is no one found out. Used to the cinder tracks of Russia, he was confused by the strangeness of the rubber surface at Roosevelt, broke at the gate and never recovered. The Italian driver, Giancarlo Baldi, discovered he had similar woes. Carosio broke and crashed into Emter W., taking both horses out of the race. Up front Haughton moved Spartan Hanover into the lead and waited for Une de Mai. She never came.
"I was afraid to move, I was afraid Haughton would park me," Gougeon said later.
Quickly, it was a three-horse contest: Spartan Hanover, Une de Mai and Delmonica Hanover. As they swept into the stretch of the 1-mile race, Del Miller watched in disbelief. "We're still in it," he said, and then Chapman, who drove a brilliant race, made his move.
"I could feel her tiring." he said later. "She started to bear in. We rarely put the whip to her. But now I gave her just one good touch. Her head came up, and her eyes almost bugged out and she took off."
Delmonica Hanover raced past the French mare and caught Spartan Hanover at the wire. "Did you win?" Haughton shouted at Chapman. "I don't know; did you?" Chapman shouted back.
Gougeon drove up and nodded at Chapman and said, "You win."
Upstairs, Miller shouted, "We were second. Ain't it great? Hey, what's Chappy turning back for? He thinks he won. My God, that's our number; we did win. I've got to get to the winner's circle." A blur of red and pinks, Miller raced through the crowd, took a wrong turn and wound up on the wrong side of the winner's circle. He was cut off by a wall of Plexiglas. They began bringing out the trophy. "No, no," Miller shouted, his fists banging against the glass. "Wait for me. Wait for me. Chappy, make them wait."