Any trotting freak who needs cream, sugar and a track consensus with his morning coffee was pondering the Dexter Cup last week. The Dexter is one of harness racing's early-warning radars, the season's first $100,000 race for 3-year-old trotters, a glimpse at the contenders in the campaign that leads up to the Hambletonian at the end of August. Most of the good ones were there at Roosevelt Raceway last Saturday night.
Nevele Diamond, a strapping offspring of the fabulous Nevele Pride, was One, and his rival, Armbro Ouzo, was Two in the morning line. For a feminine touch there was Starlark Hanover who won 21 of 22 races last year and set a mile record for 2-year-olds on her way to earning $144,918, more money than any filly her age had ever won. Spitfire Hanover, driven by the indefatigable Del Miller, and Journalist, driven by Billy Haughton, also were on hand and rated as threats. Spitfire has an extra glitter because of his three owners: Miller, Arnold Palmer, who at the time of the race was preoccupied with another sporting event nearby, and Baseball Hall of Famer Whitey Ford.
The Dexter also was to be a check-out for Stanley Dancer, the driver and trainer of Nevele Diamond. Dancer is one of the sport's millionaires and the custodian of many of its significant achievements. Last September, after a disheartening try at acupuncture, he underwent arduous and complicated surgery for an old neck injury that had been aggravated and gradually numbed one arm, leaving him unable to drive. Then, five days after the operation, he suffered a heart attack.
Dancer is a man whose country charm and syntax conceal the fact that racing is the way of life for him and his entire family. He deems it appropriate that his mother collapsed and died in a racetrack elevator, en route to cashing a winning ticket. For Dancer the sulky is a throne, and last fall he discounted his heart attack as a reason for relinquishing it, even arguing with the doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center about the need for intensive care until they pointed out the obvious alternative.
Dancer believes that he is fully recovered now, and he sent his surgeon the trophy after Nevele Diamond won his section of the Tompkins Memorial at Detroit's Hazel Park earlier this month. Stanley drove, of course.
In the Dexter, Dancer was hoping his colt would demonstrate that he, too, had fully recovered from adversity. Last July Diamond cut a foot in a stall accident, and did not race from mid-August until this June 2. His entire career therefore showed only 10 races with six wins and two seconds, which was enough for the U.S. Trotting Association to rate him as 1974's top 3-year-old trotter in its preseason rankings. But Dancer, who had always been optimistic about Nevele Diamond, mumbled his concern.
Armbro Ouzo, by contrast, had 29 races to his credit, although Nevele Diamond beat him in three of five furious meetings last season. Ouzo is owned, trained and driven by Duncan MacDonald, an intractable, controversial Canadian who is a retired lumberman. His blunt tongue got him into trouble with harness racing's best families two years ago when he impugned the integrity of his trainer-driver of the time. That earned him the lasting enmity of a good number of his peers. They still regard him as an interloper and a dilettante, and many drivers sniff at his ability in a sulky. "He's an amateur," one of them said a few days before the Dexter.
By way of defense, the 61-year-old MacDonald could point out that he personally broke and often raced Armbro Nesbit, the 4-year-old pacer with more than $400,000 in winnings. MacDonald drove Armbro Ouzo early last year but then turned him over to another driver, and was dismayed when Ouzo regularly began breaking stride. Under MacDonald's hands again this year, the colt settled down, winning four of seven races, including his section of the Tompkins, in which he handily beat Nevele Diamond's time.
MacDonald contrasts sharply with other successful drivers. On the morning of the Dexter Cup he could be found mucking out his horse's stall. While some trainers use catch drivers, MacDonald goes so far as to use a catch groom. He does not have a regular stable hand for Armbro Ouzo, and he himself drove the van transporting Ouzo from Detroit to Roosevelt. Most top drivers have long since abandoned such chores.
Armbro Ouzo, in the No. 2 hole, and Starlark Hanover, in the three, were both inside Nevele Diamond, who was in four. Because of the 10-horse field, Buckeye Count and Spitfire Hanover were obliged by the draw to start in a second row behind the other eight horses. As they approached the starting gate, Buckeye Count, with a bad history of breaking, broke again, and the horses had to be called back. As the starting car went around a second time, the recalcitrant Buckeye Count once more went awry, and had to be scratched. The crowd jeered.
What followed when the Dexter finally did get under way was not so much a harness race as a drag race, not so much plan as chance.
Dancer quickly moved Nevele Diamond into the lead on the rail with Duncan MacDonald urging Armbro Ouzo to make up ground. Dancer would say later that he could not hold back his colt, who had been hyped up by the two recalls. But MacDonald, perhaps to show disdain for the competition, declined to fall in behind Dancer and save his horse. He parked Ouzo on Dancer's right wheel just after the quarter and, as drivers watching the race from the paddock clucked disapproval, kept him there the rest of the race. The duel ultimately produced two burned-out horses.
As he contemplated this peculiar strategy from back in the pack, Driver William Wellwood of Clarkson, Ontario, behind a 30-1 shot named Surge Hanover, had every right to feel as lucky as the man who edged his wife in a run to answer the telephone and then heard the voice of an old girl friend, just arrived in town. Wellwood was 15 lengths back at the half-mile post and still trailed by almost seven at the top of the stretch. But then he came jetting up on the outside, and caught the now staggering and worn leaders at the finish line, beating Nevele Diamond by a nose and Armbro Ouzo by little more. Journalist and Spitfire Hanover followed and Starlark Hanover was a faded seventh.
Having taken the scenic route, MacDonald's excuse came up lame in the paddock. "Probably if I would have pulled back and rested him, I would have won," he admitted. "But I knew the other horse was the one to beat."
Wellwood's rich purse was five times anything he had won before and beyond his previous hopes for Surge Hanover. He had not, in fact, even nominated the colt for the Hambletonian—and he cannot now. "The Hambletonian is the true test of a champion," said Wellwood ruefully, "but I never figured I'd have a champion."