It was nearing midnight last Saturday as a young couple walked disconsolately away from the bright lights of Yonkers Raceway into the muggy and foggy dark of a New York evening. "What was the horse that won the Cane Pace?" the woman inquired. "Jade Prince," the man responded dully. "But it doesn't matter. You'll probably never hear of him again." The way they were mindlessly kicking their sneakers at the losing tickets on the ground perhaps indicated that they would have been better off if they had heard of Jade about an hour earlier. And, their feelings of the moment notwithstanding, they very likely will hear of Jade Prince again. A lot of people will. Jade is a colt that can be very, very good or very, very bad, but by winning the Cane, the first race in pacing's Triple Crown, he established himself for the moment as a leader among a crop of 3-year-olds widely considered the best in recent years.
The evening also turned out to be a glorious one for Canada's hotshot father-and-son driving team—Jack Kopas, 48, and John, 23. For while Jade earned $67,614 of the $286,500 purse with Jack in the sulky, John was second with Nat Lobell, for another $38,964 in winnings. Jack analyzed the Kopas' sweep of a field of 14. "The other colts aren't as good," he said. "Which is, you see, why ours are better." Casey Stengel could not have said it more clearly.
The consensus at Yonkers before the first heat of the richest-ever harness race ($286,500) was that several other colts were just as good or better. The emergence of Kopas p√®re et fils could foretoken a fascinating harness season, as they contend with the unusually large number of quality challengers, including four colts (besides Jade) who last year broke the old world juvenile mark of 1:55[4/5]. Jade, in fact, went in 1:54[4/5] in October to become the fastest racing standardbred in history. But up to the Cane, he had been sour this season.
The sentimental money at Yonkers Saturday was on a Cinderella colt named Big Towner. As so often happens, this Cinderella discovered that the shoe didn't fit the hoof. It was close, though. Because of the size of the Cane field, two elimination heats were raced, with the first four horses in each returning for the final.
June 26, 1977
Big Towner drew into the first heat, the tougher one, which included two first-rate colts, Governor Skipper and Lobell. The focus, however, was on Towner, because his early record had been good and because everybody knew that his owners had put up $25,000 early in the week as a supplemental fee to make him eligible for the race. Towner had been purchased as a yearling for $5,700 by three men: a gambler from Falls Church, Va. named Pat Kelly; Gerry Post, a statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau; and the proprietor of a Washington, D.C. area fish market, Richard Bessette. The group's limit had been $6,000. Towner was not beautiful, but he was cheap. And it appeared last year that his racing ability was not gorgeous, either. His best was a leisurely 2:05[4/5] and in June he was excused, in some disgust, from further competition for the year.
Last winter things got worse. The horse developed agonizing intestinal trouble, and at one point tried to commit suicide by banging his head and body against the stall. Tranquilizers every five hours saved him. "Horses are chicken-hearted in pain," said the colt's trainer Lee Broglio. Next Towner developed a fever, which was knocked down after five days by shots that cost $150 a day. Then he went lame, probably from throwing himself around the stall. But in February, Towner began to display that he had a gear beyond fast.
Interest naturally increased in having him race in the Cane, but it would now cost real money, because payments to keep him eligible had been discontinued during the winter of discontent. Broglio advised against it; so did others. Kelly, the main owner, mulled things over and concluded, "It really is ridiculous to supplement him." At which time he came up with the necessary 25 Gs.
All this is the stuff of which dreams are made. Disregarding Towner's unfavorable post position (five) and the problems he might have with Skipper leaving from the third spot and Lobell from the fourth, bettors sent him off at 2-to-1. Earlier in the year, Lobell had been picked by the U.S. Trotting Association as potentially the fastest pacer of the season. Yonkers handicapper Gerry Mastellone admitted the three colts were so close in ability that in making his morning line he simply went by the starting position. "If Towner had gone from the three hole," said Mastellone, "I'd have made him the favorite."
In the first heat, Towner led from the start and marked a fine 1:58[2/5]. Although he won by only a neck over Skipper, the even-money favorite, Skipper's driver, John Chapman, didn't blow any smoke. "I wasn't going to catch him no how," he said. "He is a monster." Which, of course, is what owner Kelly contended all along. And why he had strongly recommended to a friend that he put down a $500 exacta (picking the first and second horses in order) on Towner and Skipper, and another $1,000 to win on Towner. (Rules prevent owners from making exacta bets when their own horses are involved.) The bets were made.
In this heat, Lobell was an uninspired third. Said the disgruntled John Kopas, "At least I made the finals. He'll be better." His voice smacked of bravado.
In the second heat against an easier field, B Gs Bunny turned heads at the pari-mutuel windows. Handicapper Mastellone had listed Jade at 6-to-1 because "he was great as a 2-year-old but has shown nothing this year," having won only three of 10 starts. The bettors finally made him a 12-to-1 choice and he rewarded their skepticism with a ho-hum third-place finish. Said Jack Kopas, "We aren't dead yet. I think I wish we were, but we aren't." Bunny had an easy hop to win in 1:58[3/5].
Meanwhile, the Towner people were jubilant. "The horse can't lose," Kelly chortled. "He's the Rocky of harness horses. I just hope we get the Academy Award." He recommended $700 worth of exactas. The bettors liked Towner best, then Bunny and Skipper. Lobell was the fourth choice at 5-to-1 and Jade was brushed off at 30-to-1.
Early on, it looked as if Towner would get a super trip in the final, tucked in behind Bunny. All he needed to do was wait till late, then win. Which is not even close to what happened. Towner's driver, Lucien Fontaine, says his colt turned rowdy, got the bit in his teeth and, when Candid Camera ranged alongside, Towner had to be yanked back. Later on, when he drifted out, Jade Prince got by him. Lamented Fontaine, who came in for a full measure of second-guessing concerning the horrendous trip, "I was in trouble."
True. Five horses broke stride all over the track (a phenomenally high number in a pace of this caliber), but the two Canadian fellows avoided it all. Easing along in front at the top of the stretch, John Kopas watched Lobell and mused on how the colt "was just learning what going fast is all about." Then along came Daddy and Jade, who prevailed by a half length in 1:59. Towner struggled to third, beaten by 18½ lengths, but still won $56,727 for the evening.
Several days before the race, John asked his father if he wouldn't like to take over driving Lobell, because he appeared to be the best colt and the old man had waited 30 years for a horse like this. Jack declined. "If you win," he said, "it will still be in the family. That's good enough for me."