Listen, all of you with schemes and dreams of moving from peasant to pheasant surroundings. Throw away your lottery tickets and uranium stock options and your secret blueprints for the atomic mousetrap. If you want to become rich enough to have Howard Hughes light your cigarettes, let your fingers do the walking—through the classified section.
That is how his owners came by Nero, the best 3-year-old pacer since Albatross was kicking racetrack loam in everybody's face. Last Saturday night at the Battle of the Brandywine mile in Wilmington, Del., Nero was back, challenging his archrival Alert Bret, a horse that matches him in breadth and almost equals him in reputation. It was the beginning of their Endless Summer, the series of sulky-to-sulky matches over the next few months that will determine their places in pacing history.
Nero's career already has had enough surprise and controversy to dull John Galsworthy's pen. He was bought by tyros who answered an obscure ad in the Wall Street Journal. As a 2-year-old, he quickly became the four-legged equivalent of Filbert Bayi, even though he wore sunglasses and slept more than a newborn baby. Then some transgressor slipped Nero a drug strong enough to kill a horse and he almost died. And finally he was in a Demolition Derby that left him sprawled past the finish line.
To show how much his stock has risen, consider that he was purchased in 1973 for $20,000 and last year was insured for $100,000. Now he has a $2.5 million policy, and a purchase offer of $3 million already has been spurned.
There is talk that in two years he will be syndicated for $4 million. Secretariat, remember, was a thoroughbred worth $6 million in his third year. Nero's trainer and part owner, Jim Crane, is an ingenuous man, not nearly as calculating as Penny Tweedy. His milieu is the barn area of the racetrack, where he can be comfortable with dirt on his boots. He owns a Cadillac, but he leaves it home and drives a leased sedan with a crumpled fender.
It was Crane who first spun the roulette wheel that turned up Nero. Now 53, he had operated for years on the fringes of harness racing's spotlight, a man with a reputation not quite strong enough to risk big money on. Finally, he took out an ad looking for partners to invest in a race horse with him. Rene Dervaes, who owns a small pump supply business in Wilmington, Del., read the Journal one slow day at lunch. He answered the ad, talked his friend and former neighbor Jack Massau into coming in for a small percentage, and the three new partners purchased Nero for what Crane thought was a bargain price. The coup occurred on the first night of the Tattersall's Yearling Sale, when the buyers from the unlimited-checkbook stables had not yet arrived. While they fiddled, Nero escaped.
Nero came to Brandywine last week with a record of 16 wins in 17 starts. Six times as a 2-year-old last year he broke the two-minute mark, and he had turned in a 1:59 in the Cane Prep Final on Yonkers' half-mile track a week earlier. "He put a few moves on them there that kind of choked up the rest of the field," said Ben Benjamin, his caretaker. Benjamin was talking about Nero's most astounding trait, his ability to move into high speed instantly at the urging of Driver Joe O'Brien. This characteristic, plus his remarkably pure and powerful gait, a rippling build and an intrepid heart that helped him evade death, are the reasons for his experimental speed rating of 1:54, the fastest in history.
Alert Bret's credentials are almost as good and his rating only a tick behind—1:54[1/5]. He is the only colt to beat Nero. That happened at Lexington's Red Mile last October and he needed a 1:55[4/5] record time and some racing luck to win by a scant neck. At the finish, Nero was crowded by Alert Bret, brushed the rail for 75 feet and finally toppled. Driver O'Brien was fuming afterward, and for months refused to speak to Alert Bret's driver, Glen Garnsey.
Alert Bret showed up at Brandywine with two victories in two starts this year, and a new silhouette. Over the winter, eating everything from donuts to potato chips, he had filled out and stood a mite taller than Nero's 15 hands and weighed a bit more than his rival's 1,075 pounds. "I'd say he's about on target," said Garnsey before the race. "Right where I'd like him to be."
Last year Garnsey tried a number of game plans against Nero. In their first few meetings, he raced from the front. Then he came at him from behind. In the final confrontation at Lexington, he tried putting the pressure on by racing alongside, parking himself by Nero for almost half the race, an unusual and difficult tactic. Before the encounter at Brandywine, he wondered whether he ought to ask Alert Bret to try it again. "It might be too early in the season," he said. In any event, he had drawn the No. 1 post position while Nero was in No. 7. Incredibly, in every one of their meetings, Alert Bret has drawn the advantageous inside position.
The other entries were being treated as if they were hitchhikers, even though they included Billy Haughton's Trooper Chip, with a 1:59[2/5] mark to his credit; Keystone Accent, who had won his last four starts; and Tango Byrd, three for three this season. Their chances were mentioned less than the possibility of Nero setting a new track record on the five-eighths-mile circuit.
The big colt has never been a dull trackside topic. Last year in Indianapolis, just before the Fox Stake, someone injected him with a massive dose of tranquilizer that almost killed him. The vet, Jim Crane, the groom and the owners were up all night walking him around his stall and feeding him liquids. "A horse is like a man," says Benjamin. "Some want to live more than others. Some want to win more than others. Nero has a desire to win, and he had a desire to live. It pulled him through." Now Nero has a 24-hour guard stationed in a portable enclosure next to his stall.
It was when a vet examined him after the drugging that Nero was found to have an abnormally slow heartbeat. He has other odd quirks, including a remarkable ability to rest, even going so far as to nudge his hay into a small pile so that he can eat it while lying down. He wears an elaborate set of dark goggles because his eyesight is so acute that he occasionally jumps over minute things on the racetrack. And when he races, his tongue often flops out the left side of his mouth, an indication to Driver O'Brien that his horse is taking it easy. He also yawns a lot.
Late Friday night, Nero's barn was crowded. Rene Dervaes and his wife Judy were there checking on their annuity. When they purchased Nero, they kept it a secret because they thought the neighbors might snicker. Even Crane was a bit embarrassed. At first, he told people that he had met Dervaes at the racetrack. Now nobody cares. As Dervaes stood in the barn, he kept a discreet distance from Nero, who was munching oats. Crane does not like anyone around when Nero is dining. When Crane speaks to Dervaes, a man schooled in balance sheets but ignorant about horses, his instructions must sound as if they come from heaven, like the dollars raining about all of them.
For his part Crane is chary of flaunting his success, circumspect about appearing a bit too pleased. For years he stood outside the center ring, and now that he has a foot in it, he does not want to offend anyone. He has bought a few more horses, and there are plans to expand further, but for the most part he is deferential rather than jubilant, realistic rather than optimistic. He is a driver himself but as soon as he realized what he had in Nero, he called in O'Brien. "I couldn't compare myself to Joe O'Brien," he says.
The night of the race was raw and blustery, which precluded any chance of a track record. There was talk that Garnsey would not challenge Nero, that there was little need to strain Alert Bret with so much racing ahead of both of them. Nero won the race right away when O'Brien moved him down and by Alert Bret at the start. They raced like that for the remainder of the trip. Midway through the final turn, Nero made a surge that opened a three-length lead, then—inexplicably, tongue out—he slowed just before the finish and O'Brien had to tap him back to reality with a flick of the whip. He beat Alert Bret by 1¼ lengths in 2:00[3/5]. In the winner's circle, Crane approached O'Brien and said with mock gravity, "What do you mean, hitting my horse?" Everyone laughed—Crane, O'Brien, the owners and their families. There is a lot of laughter around Nero these days, the titter of good fortune, like found money.