The Messenger Stakes, third jewel in pacing's Triple Crown, is named after a horse that didn't race all that well nearly 200 years ago and was so ill-tempered that he kicked his groom to death. So it seemed bicentennially appropriate that this year's Messenger was won by a like-mannered colt that regularly kicks and bites and doesn't always try as hard as he should.
Windshield Wiper roared from the back of the field at New York's Roosevelt Raceway to win the $161,290 pace as Driver Billy Haughton solidified the hold he appears to have on the Messenger: it was the seventh time he had won it and his third in a row. And by getting home in a fairly pedestrian 2:00, three-quarters of a length ahead of Keystone Ore, the heavy betting favorite driven by Stanley Dancer, Haughton thoroughly muddled the question of which of an exceptional crop is this season's best 3-year-old pacer. Dancer and Ore could have settled the matter, having already made off with the Cane Pace and the Little Brown Jug, the first two pacing jewels.
That Dancer would fail had been foretold by a Naugatuck, Conn. psychic named Ed Snedeker, who has been busy earning himself a reputation as a harness racing clairvoyant and healer of ailing standardbreds. Windshield Wiper would win on the night before Halloween, said Snedeker, followed by Ore. And while his predictions for the remaining order of finish were off-base, his forecast was heavy enough stuff for Haughton. He plans to send a snapshot of one of his physically impaired horses, along with $150, to Snedeker who, in turn, says he will run his hands over the photograph, determine where the problem lies and prescribe treatment. "Billy is a sucker for this sort of thing," says Haughton's wife Dorothy.
Windshield Wiper, who has been known to react with a kick if touched with a whip when racing for home, has been an enigma this season. Although he has won only six of 22 starts, Wiper has been in the money 17 times and earned $188,395—a considerable sum except when compared with Ore's $469,302. But Ore had beaten Wiper 13 times and was obviously in a class by himself. A victory in the Messenger, worth some $80,000, would have put him within a few dollars of Albatross' single-season record earnings ($558,009 in 1971) for a harness horse.
November 8, 1976
Two weeks before the Messenger, however, Wiper defeated Ore at Freehold, N.J. He still got no respect. The feeling was that Ore had worn himself out against Oil Burner, another hot 3-year-old in the race, leaving Wiper with the edge. After the Freehold win, Haughton put Wiper out to pasture for a week at his palatial Long Island home, an establishment worthy of the sport's alltime leading money-winner—about $25 million since 1949. Wiper's disposition didn't noticeably improve.
On the eve of the Messenger, Billy confessed, "Unless Stanley gets in trouble, I'm not going to beat him." Dancer did get into trouble and so did Haughton. The draw had given both of them starting positions in the second tier of the 11-horse field, and they both had to spend most of the race trying to find a way through the heavy traffic, which at times resembled that on the notorious Long Island Expressway. At the head of the stretch Haughton found himself an unpromising sixth. Then Dancer drove Ore through a small opening, and into the lead. Haughton followed him and swung to the outside, guiding Wiper past Ore with 50 yards to go. Third was Raven Hanover, driven by George Sholty.
"At the half-mile, I didn't think I was going to win a nickel," said Haughton. "And I wasn't feeling all that much better as we started home." Dancer had no excuse (he has won one pacing Triple Crown and two for trotters) and said, "It's no disgrace to be second." Even so, it was a discouraging finish to a campaign that had both crests and troughs for Dancer. In the Hambletonian early in September, his top trotter, Nevele Thunder, broke a leg. His 12-year-old daughter Shalee got hit in the head with a golf ball and has been suffering recurring migraine headaches. And last week his 27-year-old son Ronnie was severely kicked by one of brother Vernon Dancer's yearlings, and at the time of the Messenger was lying gravely ill in a Philadelphia hospital.
So while Stanley Dancer will earn more than $1 million this year, he gives the season mixed reviews: the fact that his crop of 2-year-olds has begun to look unusually good is one of the pluses.
Somewhere Messenger must surely be pleased that a kindred spirit won his race. Although the progenitor of today's standardbred was foul-tempered, ugly and unable to trot or pace well, the horses he sired sure could. If Windshield Wiper turns out to be a fraction that good, everybody will make money.