Thirty minutes before post time last Saturday, Joe O'Brien was limping around the paddock area at The Meadows racetrack in Meadow Lands, Pa. He was silent and grim, clenching his teeth against pain that pills barely dulled. The final heat of the $124,141 Adios Stake was coming up, and O'Brien was determined to be in the sulky behind his 3-year-old pacer Armbro Ranger for the decisive mile.
O'Brien is true grit. In a run-of-the-mill race earlier in the day, he took a bad spill when a horse clipped his sulky from behind. No blood was shed, but his innards and muscles were in knots. His condition became more painful as he suffered through the wait for the start of the Adios, the first leg of pacing's Big Four. O'Brien leaned against a barn, grimacing and occasionally stretching his leg. He rubbed his hand over his groin and buttocks. "It hurts all up in here," he said.
O'Brien is 59 years old and has been racing for 45 years. Brilliantly. He is at times somewhat reclusive, given to brief answers. Shunned and ostracized by many drivers when he came to this country from Canada early in his career, O'Brien quickly earned their respect for his professionalism. Diminutive and tenacious, he is independent, his own man, with demanding standards.
It had been a rough week for O'Brien. On Thursday night, right in front of the grandstand, he was dumped to the ground, fortunately uninjured, when his entry reared during the post parade and went off on a mad, driverless tear around the racetrack as the crowd laughed. Moreover, some fans were questioning O'Brien's refusal to use the new modified sulky that has hearts pumping a little faster this season. He also was being grilled about the sudden swoon of Armbro Ranger, the 1975 2-year-old Pacer of the Year. Inexplicably, the colt had lost five straight races since July 5.
"I don't think anything's wrong with Ranger, I just think the others are racing better right now," O'Brien said matter-of-factly the day before the Adios as he stared down at his luncheon plate of macaroni and cheese in a motel coffee shop.
"I'm not worried," interjected J. Elgin Armstrong, Armbro Ranger's owner. "He's going to win a lot of money for me."
Then Armstrong tried to give a lift to O'Brien's spirits with a bit of repartee, but the driver remained somber. Armbro Ranger developed an abscessed hoof recently, and rather than tune him up with a race last week, O'Brien rested the colt at Del Miller's nearby Meadowlands Farm. Armbro Ranger stayed in the same paddock used by Miller's wondrous stallion, Adios, before his death in 1965. Even though Ranger looked fit on Miller's farm, O'Brien was unsure of his condition. "It'll probably rain because I have the rail," he said glumly.
The Adios was split into two divisions, with the first five finishers from each qualifying for the final. Adding to O'Brien's moodiness was the news that the morning-line oddsmaker had made Richmond the favorite in the first division, because O'Brien was not using the modified sulky. This season there already have been more sub-two-minute races than all last year. "You have to go with the statistics," said Stanley Dancer, one of the drivers who has taken to using the new rig.
Dancer was in the No. 1 post position and the favorite in the second division with his colt, Keystone Ore. The last time out, Keystone had lost when a piece of equipment snapped, but before that he had won seven straight, all under two minutes. To prep him for the Adios, Dancer put Keystone through four rigorous trips in a training session the previous Saturday, the final two in 1:58[2/5] and 1:57[4/5]. Dancer admitted this was a bit radical, but, as he explained, "I wanted to make sure he's good and tight."
Dancer's mind operates like a bookkeeper's. He knows that checkbooks open and close to reputations built in such prestigious races as the Adios. This now-classic race began in 1967 in honor of Del Miller's supersire. "People ask what Adios meant to me," said Miller as he drove by the horse's grave the day before the race. "With him I went from reading a minus bank balance to reading the Wall Street Journal." Miller, however, has never won the Adios. His best finish was a close second in 1974 driving Tarport Low.
Saturday came with the threat of rain safely offstage and with Armbro Ranger on sure footing. Ollie Mumford, the trainer of Richmond, was not so certain of his morning-line favorite. "Richmond has a tendency to be lazy sometimes," he muttered.
When it was race time for the first division, O'Brien had to be helped onto the sulky. He found sitting less painful than standing, and on this note of relative cheer he drove Armbro Ranger at a furious pace. O'Brien beat back an early challenge by Beautron Hanover and a late one by Richmond, who finished second. The time of the opening-heat victory was a track-record 1:56[3/5]. "That's a lot more than I thought they'd go," said Dancer. The record was all the more startling because Armbro Ranger threw two shoes during the race.
In the second division, Billy Haughton's Windshield Wiper was rated as Keystone Ore's biggest threat, but students of the occult were intrigued with Warm Breeze, off at 24 to 1. The horse was afflicted with an ailment known as "the wobbles" and did not race in 1975, but his owner sent a picture of the animal to a "psychic," Ed Snedeker of Naugatuck, Conn., who instructed trainer-driver Dick Farrington to rub a secret substance under the horse's mane. The substance turned out to be castor oil, but after its initial application last spring, Warm Breeze had no further trouble getting to the starting gate. Indeed Warm Breeze even managed to win five of 14 starts. "I don't know if it helped or not, but it didn't hurt," said Farrington, who planned to find out early Saturday if the stars were in the right configuration. "I'm afraid of that rail horse, Keystone Ore," he said. "If I don't get on top right away, I'm in trouble. Quick."
Stanley Dancer was not about to let that happen. However, he allowed George Sholty to take Raven Hanover to the lead at the half-mile pole, then dropped in behind him with Windshield Wiper third. Down the backstretch, Keystone Ore made his move and no one could stop him as Dancer rolled to a 2½-length victory in a world-record 1:56 for a ‚Öù-mile track. Warm Breeze was an unlucky sixth while Windshield Wiper finished fourth.
Dancer was relieved. Keystone's stock was back on the rise. "No matter what happens in the final," he said, "he proved that he is a great horse."
In the draw for post positions in the final, Armbro Ranger won the rail and Keystone Ore, the betting favorite, was slotted just outside of him. Dancer's strategy was to try to rush to the top early, but O'Brien parked him outside. Dancer dropped in behind him at the quarter pole. They raced that way for the next half mile, then Dancer swung wide for the final dash. Briefly, with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Keystone Ore edged in front, but Armbro Ranger came on again to win by a head. His time was another amazing 1:56, tying the hour-old world record. Richmond finished third and Del Miller, catch driving Beautron Hanover, was fourth.
After Armbro Ranger and Keystone Ore crossed the wire, O'Brien shouted over to Dancer, "The luck of the draw beat you. They're both great colts."
Afterward, O'Brien said, "Ranger was probably as good today as he ever was, or ever will be." He added that his pains probably would be hurting much more if he had lost. He walked slowly, and the eyes of the other horsemen followed him as they murmured congratulations. O'Brien had won, but, more important, he had won doing it his way. Having done so, he did it their way—driving to Columbus, Ohio, aches and all, for races at Scioto Downs. With one of those newfangled sulkies.