Arthur J. Brown is founder and chairman of the board of the New York based ABC Freight Forwarding Corp. He estimates he has owned between 800 and 1,000 harness horses. For hundreds of them, he has incorporated the word "Freight" into their names: Top Freight, Pay Freight, Night Freight, Trim Freight—almost everything except Damaged Freight, the very thought of which dismays him. Brown has been in racing since 1947, waiting and waiting for his superhorse, the one worthy of the ultimate corporate salute: ABC Freight.
Three years ago Brown bought a mare in foal named A.C.'s Princess for $8,000, and her offspring turned out to be so gorgeous, so exquisite, so everything, that Brown bestowed upon him the coveted name.
But early on, it was discovered that because of one of those inexplicable administrative goofs, nomination payments had not been made to keep ABC Freight eligible for most of the biggest and best races for 2- and 3-year-olds, including the Hambletonian. And nothing could be done to rectify the mistake. The woman who made the error, Jeanette Van Manen, felt certain she would lose her office job at ABC Freight. "If I were Mr. Brown, I would have fired me," she says. "He had cause." Says Brown, "It makes me a little sick. But I can take things in stride pretty good."
So can Freight, who simply went out last year and won the only two stakes races he was eligible for (during the season, he won 11 of 14 starts), then was shipped to California where he time-trialed in 1:57.1, more than a second faster than any 2-year-old trotter in history. Based on his 1976 efforts, the U.S. Trotting Association estimated in its experimental ratings that Freight could race a mile this year in 1:55, which would eclipse the world record of 1:55.3 set by his old man, Noble Victory, in 1966.
ABC Freight is so impressive that discussions this spring have been on two levels: Freight and The Others. Last Friday night at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., Freight made his first start of the season. The bettors quickly made him the 6-to-5 favorite in the field of 16. Mostly, talk centered on whether Freight would go through the season undefeated: the consensus was that his chances were good. At the trackside restaurant, overlooking the sports complex that rose out of a swamp, Arthur J. Brown, family and friends had the victory champagne delivered before the race. "This horse is poetry in motion," rhapsodized Clint Galbraith, Freight's driver-trainer.
The starting gate went by and Freight trotted home 10th, beaten by a shade more than 23 lengths. The winner in 1:59[1/5] was Green Speed, a horse registering his own Hambletonian credentials. Speed has a sometimes nasty disposition: his owner, Beverly Lloyds of New York, insists, "He bites everyone but me."
Yet, while Green Speed was getting the big bucks (his share of the purse was $50,000) and showing the big promise, horse people were talking once again about how terrific ABC Freight is—as if yellow jackets had invaded the picnic but everybody was determined not to notice. Driver Joe O'Brien, who finished ninth with Touchdown Hanover, and who drove Freight in the record-breaking California time trial, said, "ABC Freight is a wonderful colt. I like him a lot." Driver Buddy Gilmour said, "He's the best horse I ever sat behind." And Driver Jimmy Larente said, "He's a perfect colt." Apparently, with better than five months of big-time racing left this season, it is a trifle early to change the name to Lost Freight.
Besides, Freight had a whole clutch of excuses for his poor performance. First, he drew the No. 12 starting position, which meant that he had to leave in the second tier and figure a way to get through the traffic. Second, he hadn't had a "tightening" race before this one, The Beacon Course, which became most attractive to horsemen when the original $40,000 purse was jacked to $100,000. Third, and most crucial, Freight had a fever for three weeks, shaking it only 10 days before the race. As Galbraith confessed, "Fighting it off took a real toll on him." Consideration had been given to scratching him but Galbraith had said no. "You've got to head for the gate sometime," he said.
Galbraith was under heavy pressure, partly because Morton Finder, a friend and adviser of Brown's and the president of a New York breeding farm, was against Freight's risking an unbeaten season, given his condition. "If it were up to me, I wouldn't start him," Finder said. It is his belief that for stud purposes, a brief 3-year-old career is all that is necessary—"just enough to reassure people." Friday night did nothing to reassure anybody, except the opposition.
Suddenly, several of them sensed easier days ahead, especially after news came early the next morning that Freight had a fourth excuse—an inflamed throat that no doubt had contributed to his lethargic performance. A long rest could be in the offing.
Actually, it looked as if Freight had begun his rest while awaiting the race in the paddock. His eyes nearly went shut. "That's a good sign," swore groom Alan Peck, slapping him awake.
After two false starts, the cavalry charge got off and Freight was immediately troubled by Sugarbowl Hanover, who broke stride in front of him; later, Profit Sharing would do the same thing. And although Freight had wormed his way to third at the three-quarter pole, he was in poor racing position. "At the head of the stretch," said Galbraith, "I thought, 'Oh, well, at least we can be an easy fourth.' " At which time, horses started going past him like New York cabbies in the rain.
Freight was out of trot and Galbraith didn't force the issue because "there was no need to punish him." So when it seemed clear that the favorite needed to be in the lane for slow-moving traffic, attention turned to who was doing well. Once again, it was those Haughton fellows—father Billy driving Green Speed and son Peter behind Cold Comfort. Green Speed's winning time over quick-finishing Cold Comfort was a track record for 3-year-olds.
Both horses are trained by the Haughtons, but Green Speed is their main squeeze this year. As a 2-year-old, Speed had a full load of alarming troubles. He broke stride often (Peter estimates about 65% of the time) and put in erratic performances. His mouth is so tender that he would throw his head up on any whim, thus slowing the rest of him down. Still, he earned almost $100,000 last year, winning eight of 15 starts. Earlier this year, some new equipment was tried, but the colt did poorly with it. The old leather was put back on and he improved dramatically.
Billy Haughton, who has won more than $1 million a year for 11 of the last 12 years, said afterward that he "didn't expect too much trouble out there tonight." Very little surfaced. From a start in the ninth position, he moved quickly to the top by the quarter and took over for good before the three-quarter mark. Haughton touched Green Speed with the whip a couple of times "to keep him awake" and won by a length and a quarter.
Billy was as surprised as everyone else by the identity of his company at the finish. When he heard the commotion inspired by an oncoming colt, "I assumed it was ABC Freight." Then he saw it was Peter trying to get in the old man's wallet. Said Peter, "Cold Comfort is a safe, secure horse. He doesn't make mistakes like Green Speed. And if Green Speed fouls up, my colt will beat him. It was a good race for me, considering I was six-deep at the first turn."
So it could be another year of the Haughtons chasing one another. Last season, Billy drove Steve Lobell to wins in the Hambletonian and Yonkers Trot but Peter guided Quick Pay to a victory in the Kentucky Futurity, thus denying his father trotting's Triple Crown. Crowed Billy, "Green Speed and Comfort have fewer problems and can do more than Lobell and Quick Pay could."
The biggest surprise in the race (excluding Freight) was the excellent trip turned in by Bill Herman behind Texas, the longest shot at 65 to 1. He finished a relaxed third after floundering most of the night in 11th position. "Texas is good and easy on himself," said Herman. "He's not the kind of colt who messes around."
The race did establish that Green Speed and Cold Comfort are for the moment this year's 3-year-old trotters to beat, what with Freight's needing time for recovery and his eligibility for only two more important races—the Yonkers Trot and the Dexter Cup, both in New York. A good many of the other big hitters have not yet gotten to racing seriously and there are question marks about them. Stanley Dancer has two top horses, but one of them, Naturally Nevele, developed a low-grade fever while being shipped north from Florida in early May, and that has delayed his development. The other, Kawartha Mon Ami, is just now ready for top-level racing.
Jodevin, just behind Freight in the experimental ratings, is in trouble. He was lame earlier this year and was just making it back when he came down with a 106° fever—enough to kill horses with lesser heart. Joe O'Brien says that when he can finally get the colt to the track again (Jodevin won 19 of 20 starts last year, mostly at Iowa and Illinois fairs where competition is often less than keen), he'll have to begin all over.
Highly regarded Speed In Action, trained and driven by Delvin Miller, is just getting in shape to race after having bone chips removed from both knees. Miller also has Meadow Frank, who finished fifth in the Beacon, but who probably lacks the stuff to challenge the biggies. Profit Sharing gets good marks, although his Friday race was a disaster after he broke stride; he finished 14th.
Predictions are entertaining because they're so often wrong. Last year, for example, experts predicted that if Steve Lobell raced to his potential, he could be the 22nd fastest horse in 1976; he went in 1:56.2, quickest trot of the season.
So where does ABC Freight fit in? Still at the top, most likely. A period of breathing fresh air, eating the grass and lolling in the sun may be tonic enough. As Arthur Brown says, "I'm used to good reports and bad reports. I know what it's like for someone to come in and tell me I've just lost a half-million dollars. O.K., if things don't work out, you do the next best thing. You don't throw the sponge in." Brown says he was offered $1 million for ABC last year; a month ago the offer was $1.5 million. Does this mean he won't sell? "Why shouldn't I have the pleasure of owning him?" replies Brown.
While the look on his face the other evening didn't indicate much pleasure and the bubbly undoubtedly tasted a little flat, Brown thinks the fun will return when ABC Freight rises from the ashes. He could be right. For if you wait long enough for freight, it usually shows up.