This is the same thing as winning the Stanley Cup," chortled William Wirtz, president of the Chicago Black Hawks. "It feels just as exciting." Not that Wirtz is much of an authority on what it feels like to win the Stanley Cup, no one with the Black Hawks having experienced the sensation since 1961. But Wirtz could be forgiven for failing to keep his exuberance on ice last Saturday afternoon at The Meadows racetrack near Pittsburgh.
His 3-year-old pacer, Governor Skipper, had just won the prized Adios, putting the colt in the front row of his class. And like any man who has known his share of defeats (the Wirtz family also owns the Chicago Bulls basketball team), the triumph was oh-so-much tastier. Besides, there's something about the human makeup that makes a person delirious when a horse—to which wallet and ego are strapped—wins. "You maybe get a horse like this once in a lifetime," Wirtz said. He owns the colt, a homebred, with his father and brother.
In the first heat, Governor Skipper paced the mile in the world-record time of 1:54[4/5] for 3-year-olds on a‚Öù-mile track. That is 1[1/5] seconds better than the record set at The Meadows last year by Keystone Ore and Armbro Ranger, and [1/5] off the all-age standard set by mighty Albatross in 1972 as a 4-year-old.
In the final, Skipper was headed by Nat Lobell some 50 yards from the finish, then showed the want-to to come back and win, as Wirtz described it, "by a good hair." Or closer. For as Skipper's driver, John Chapman, came under the finish wire in 1:56⅗ he hollered at John Kopas, driving Lobell, "You beat me." Replied Kopas, "I think so, too." The photo showed otherwise.
Skipper had been among the very good ones all year, and he twice was clocked in 1:55[4/5]. Before the Adios, he had earned $132,893 this season and almost $250,000 in two years. Still, he seemed to be making a career of poor racing luck and had too many seconds and thirds that would have, could have or should have been firsts.
When Skipper was posted the winner, the colt's trainer, Buck Norris, broke into tears. Which was approximately what he did several years ago when he first saw Skipper, a tall, gangly animal that stood sort of funny. "Yeah, well, you might say crooked," offers Norris. After Norris recovered from his depression, "I told myself the important thing was not how he stands but how he picks his feet up. He picks his feet up perfectly."
And on Saturday put them down just as nicely, which was glorious stuff for Wirtz the owner and for Wirtz the promoter. As any sports big shot worth his private box knows, the important thing is to win, but if you can't, then dazzle the folks with silliness—with exploding scoreboards and Bat Days. It was in this spirit that Wirtz disclosed not long ago that for every $10,000 Skipper won, he would buy the colt a goat because he "certainly has a way with them." It's folklore around barns that horses like goats. But as money winnings climbed, Skipper collected nearly as many goats as Jehoshaphat. So Wirtz announced that he would get Skipper one only for every $25,000 he won. Wirtz promoted the idea, he says, because "people like stories about goats."
Everybody did like the story. But there were problems at New York's Roosevelt Raceway, Skipper's home, where it was discovered that the horse doesn't like his goats, particularly the females. But Wirtz plans to keep buying the animals, in hopes that Skipper's attitude will change. There are now about 18 in the herd. Each costs 75¢ a day to feed.
Given Skipper's performance in the Adios, the goats are in no danger of starving. In his qualifying division, the colt was the second choice of the bettors at 2-to-1, behind Kawartha Eagle, driven by Stanley Dancer. Eagle had once been thought to be the class of the 3-year-olds, but he suffered bowed tendons while training in Florida, which delayed his development this season.
Leaving from the six hole, Dancer hustled an unruly Eagle to the front and generally kept him there until the stretch, when Skipper paced past easily, followed by Super Clint, a 49-to-1 shot driven by young Kopas. Eagle was third and Jonquil Hanover, driven by George Sholty, was fourth. For Sholty, it was the beginning of a trying day, for he was roughed up during the race by Kopas. Race officials posted an inquiry and ruled that Kopas had interfered. They reordered the finish: Skipper, Eagle, Jonquil and Clint. "I didn't complain," said Sholty, "and I wouldn't have filed an objection. But John did get a little excited and ran underneath me."
Kopas said his colt swerved when Thorpe Messenger, driven by Delvin Miller, hit the rail and scared Super Clint. Miller said he hit the rail when Dancer forced him over there. And so forth. When things go wrong, there's always plenty of blame to go around.
In the second heat, the competition looked keener. The field included Jade Prince and Nat Lobell, colts that finished one-two in the Cane Pace earlier this summer and are trained and raced by the Canadian father-and-son team of Jack and John Kopas. (Super Clint is the third pacer in the Kopas bumper crop.) Then there was Crash, driven by Billy Haughton, who seemed ready to race after a spotty season, and Glen Garnsey's Striking Image. There were plenty of whispers: Jade's always iffy left knee had acted up during the last month and fluid had to be drained off; Nat Lobell had been out 21 times this year, perhaps too much; Striking Image had kicked, off a shoe and put a nail into his foot the day before the race.
Striking Image got to the top by the half-mile pole, overtaking Crash. But as they turned into the homestretch, Crash was back in front. Meanwhile, Nat Lobell had been gliding along in third, and now he brushed up on the outside and forged past his tired rivals, winning in 1:56. Crash finished second, and Jade Prince, who had done most of his racing in the fifth spot, was third, ahead of 82-to-1 shot Inner Circle. Striking Image was a worn-out sixth. Only the top four from each division qualified for the decisive heat.
Skipper drew the No. 1 post, which was a big advantage, and the fans made him the 4-to-5 favorite. Lobell was the second choice. Chapman and Skipper took charge at the start and the race charts show they led wire to wire. They didn't. For in the hard-driving finish, Lobell got his head in front. Seldom does a horse regain first place under these circumstances, the sting having been taken from him, but Skipper did. Both drivers hung around the winner's circle until the finish was flashed. Kopas saluted his rival and Skipper's winnings of about $42,000. Or 1.68 goats.
Jonquil Hanover had fallen at the finish after catching a shoe, hurling Sholty headlong down the track, but neither man nor beast suffered serious injury. The other losers were their usual controlled selves. Haughton said of Crash, "I think we got all we could." Jack Kopas said of Jade Prince, a disappointing sixth, "I have no excuses. We weren't good enough."
The sentimental choice had been Delvin Miller, the founder of The Meadows and creator of the Adios, named after Miller's exemplary pacing sire. Delvin has won everything, just about, except this race he created. But if he couldn't win the race, or even come close—Thorpe Messenger was last in his heat—he could make sure parties were nonstop during the Grand Circuit week that his wife, Mary Lib, calls Grand Circus week.
Yet, Governor Skipper was a popular victor. Trainer Norris, after 25 years in the business, had his first big winner and said, "Boy from I-o-way makes good." Rock Rapids is proud. Driver Chapman, another of the Canadians making it big in harness racing (more than $14 million in winnings, sixth on the alltime list), had his most noteworthy triumph since winning the Roosevelt International in 1974, and his first big success in the Adios. "When I don't get a kick out of winning, I'll quit," says Chapman, who, as a schoolboy, was offered a hockey scholarship in Toronto.
There was talk at The Meadows that Governor Skipper will be sold soon. Says Norris, "Mr. Wirtz gave $3 million for a lame hockey player [Bobby Orr]. Now, do you think he has to sell Skipper?"
Whatever, come next month and the biggest pace of all, the Little Brown Jug, the smart money gives Skipper a lot more than a goats of a chance.