A chaw of tobacco in the cheek, a piece of straw between the teeth, overalls: harness racing is constantly trying to overcome its rustic image, and never mind all those glossy big-city tracks and the click of their pari-mutuel machines. So last week the sport picked up the pace and trotted out a new cosmopolitan image. Instead of the bucolic backcountry lanes, the racing was over the Yellow Brick Road.
Harness racing may not yet be as sophisticated as the Sport of Kings, but the Monticello-New York City OTB Classic held on Sunday at Monticello Raceway was at least a showy step in that direction. The total purse was $268,521, the largest amount ever offered for standardbreds, and it was payable in solid gold bullion, which is certainly classy enough. The attendant hoopla and publicity generated a satisfactory number of big-city headlines and proved, among other things, that if you give a public-relations man a free rein, he will take you on a stagecoach ride through the streets of Manhattan.
The OTB Classic was a mile pace for 3-year-old New York-bred horses only, which eliminated the season's top pacer, Nero, but included a bunch of worthy contenders, including the fillies Silk Stockings and Tarport Hap—both of them by Most Happy Fella, who is beginning to rival Meadow Skipper as the top pacing sire. The idea was to illustrate that the quality of New York stock has risen dramatically. The race was also intended to show that OTB, New York's off-track betting parlors, was not necessarily ogres siphoning away fans and money from the racetracks. OTB would, it was predicted, contribute enough to the purse to bring it up to $300,000. But shortly before post time the computers decided that because betting had been lighter than expected, OTB's part would be only $20,121. That left the purse at $268,521—still a record, though not as nicely round a figure.
The gold was an inspired touch. In the days before the race an armored car lugged the bullion around the New York area as race organizers held press conferences and Joe Goldstein secretly wished for a hijacking. Goldstein is a New York public-relations man whose rate of speech would knot the fingers of a court reporter. The gold was his idea. Goldstein had a novel plan for transporting the treasure to Monticello, which is 70 miles from Manhattan in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains. His idea was to have the gold picked up at a Manhattan bank vault by stagecoach, with perhaps New York Mayor Abe Beame riding shotgun, and then driven through the city to an East Side heliport where it would be flown to Monticello. But when Lloyds of London, the venerable insurers of the gold, heard about the scheme for moving their $300,000 responsibility through Fun City, they said no. That reduced Goldstein to hoping that Murph the Surf would show up at one of the press conferences as an unindicted guest.
On the Monday before the race the principals and bit players assembled in Ma Bell's, a Manhattan restaurant of the nostalgia genre: white tile floors, slowly rotating overhead fans, potted plants and vintage telephones on each table. Goldstein was resplendent in a white suit, purple striped shirt and tie and white shoes. The faces of the women present were almost incandescent as they awaited the arrival of the gold.
Outside, in the morning heat of Times Square, mounted policemen stood patient vigil. Inside, New York City detective James Smith, a 15-year veteran, commanded a force of four detectives augmented by five OTB security men.
"There's always the chance of trouble," Smith said somberly. "It could come internal. It could come external."
"There are 18 gold bars," a man was saying to the gathering. "Approximately 1,800 ounces, or 112.5 pounds worth $300,000. It was purchased Thursday, July 17 at the second London fixing and has been stored at the Iron Mountain Depository in Lower Manhattan." Bob Lip-man, who handles advertising for Monticello Raceway, had purchased the gold. He confided to an onlooker that the firm from which he had acquired it did not want its name used, for fear someone might try to break into the bank.
Then a Brinks truck pulled up and three guards walked in carrying a small wooden crate. They set it on the bar and began clawing at the top, trying to get the box opened.
"Got a screwdriver?" one of them asked the girl tending bar.
"Only with orange juice in 'em," she said.
Finally, using a penknife and a table knife, the guards got the lid off and arranged the gold bars on the counter, each of the small, shiny rectangles worth about 516,666. Flashguns popped. Everyone crowded in for a closer look. Detective Smith looked for trouble, internal or external. Joe Goldstein watched the front door hopefully. And over in a corner, a man and woman dressed rather simply sat with bemused looks and calculated what they could do with that gold. They were Dr. Ken Mazik and his wife Claire, the owners of Silk Stockings who that morning had been installed as the 8-to-5 favorite.
The Maziks operate the Au Clair School for autistic children in Bear, Del., where a group of 26 severely introverted and withdrawn youngsters are learning to communicate with the outside world. Dr. Mazik is a clinical psychologist, his wife is a nurse, and together they are an ingenuous, altruistic couple devoted to the rehabilitation of the children. Silky—their nickame for Silk Stockings—is helping them.
The Maziks try to teach the children a skill so that eventually they will be able to support themselves. First they tried farming, but that didn't work. Then they tried raising turkeys, but the children balked at slaughtering the birds. There are a lot of horse farms in the vicinity, so in 1971 the Maziks decided they would race harness horses, though a few years earlier, on their first visit to a racetrack, they were stunned when they lost $24, and vowed never to return.
After a string of minor successes with claimers, the Maziks pooled their $10,000 annual salaries and purchased Silk Stockings for $20,000 in 1973. Last year, as a 2-year-old, Silky was cared for by the children and won 12 of 18 races and $144,110. Going into the OTB Classic she had eight straight victories and $91,868 in winnings this season. "We're in the horse business, thanks to Silky," said Dr. Mazik.
Silk Stockings' driver and trainer is Preston Burris Jr., who was working as a farmhand on his father-in-law's potato farm five years ago when he decided to quit and go into harness racing. Dr. Mazik and his wife had watched Burris at nearby Brandywine Raceway and asked him to join their venture. Burris helped select Silk Stockings, and he wears a diamond ring inscribed, "Best Wishes from Silky."
Usually when an unknown horse turns out to be a superstar the owners call in one of the sport's heavyweights to handle the property. The Maziks have stuck with Preston Burris Jr.
"We think Preston's a big-leaguer on his own," says Dr. Mazik. "He's in our Hall of Fame. We have a 72-year-old groom named Ira Bennett who has been around racetracks about all of his life. He's our toughest critic. If Preston can get a compliment out of Ira, he must be O.K., and he gets a lot of them."
On Sunday Preston Burris Jr. was in rich and fast company, going against top drivers like Del Miller with Tarport Hap, Billy Haughton behind Golden Fulla, and Hervé Filion, the driver for Echo Brook Phil. The other nine drivers had won more than 19,000 races among them. Burris figures he has "a couple hundred victories," although the Trotting and Pacing Guide does not even list him.
At the first turn, Silk Stockings' chief rival, Tarport Hap, broke stride and a chafed Del Miller pulled back hard on the reins. By the quarter pole, after a little early jostling with Tango Byrd, Burns had Silk Stockings in front, and he could hear the others struggling and panting to keep pace.
Coming down the stretch the second time around, Silky was clear and free, charging toward a three-length victory that produced not only a track record but a world record for 3-year-old fillies on a half-mile track, a smashing 1:57[3/5]. The crowd roared and among her fans was Richard Raczkowski, a youngster from the Au Clair School. He and his classmates have a saying: "Silk Is Better Than Gold." Even if she had lost, they would have believed that.