Shortly before the start of the Little Brown Jug, a man walked to the $50 win window at the Delaware (Ohio) County Fair and spoke to the seller, who immediately set the machine to spewing out tickets. A distinguished-looking onlooker could not contain himself.
"Excuse me," he said to the horseplayer. "Do you mind telling me how much you bet?"
"Not at all. It was $10,000 on Governor Skipper to win."
"That's a sucker bet," said the onlooker. "You could win almost as much on a show ticket with far less risk."
October 2, 1977
Replied the bettor, "Risk? You only get a sure-thing horse like this to bet on once in a lifetime. So you bet him to win, see?"
"I still think it's a sucker bet."
"You," said the gambler, "don't know anything about racing."
"Yes, sir, you're probably right."
At which point the onlooker, high-rolling William Wirtz of Chicago, who owns all or part of the Chicago Black Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Chicago Stadium, the Bismarck Hotel, Chicago and Florida banks, a wholesale liquor distributorship, a furniture mart, as well as 47½% of Governor Skipper, the odds-on favorite to win the Jug, turned and headed for his box. The gambler went off in the opposite direction. Both, as it turned out, were on winning paths.
Governor Skipper, who until six weeks ago had just been one among a dozen or so excellent 3-year-old pacers but had then won six of seven starts, blitzed the record book in the next few hours while blowing the sulkies off all 10 of his competitors with two jaunts in which he was never behind. The colt, which enjoys the company of goats and is given one by Wirtz for every $25,000 he wins, set five world records. The most significant was his 1:56[1/5] clocking in the first of two heats (in the Jug, the first colt to win two heats is the victor), a record for 3-year-old pacers on a half-mile track. The old mark of 1:56[2/5] was set by Stanley Dancer's Keystone Ore at Saratoga last year. The Governor also broke the Little Brown Jug record of 1:56[3/5] established by Strike Out in 1972.
The gambler at the $50 window had risked $10,000 on Governor Skipper to make a $5,000 profit. Chancy. A show ticket paid 20¢ for each dollar, which would have earned the gambler $2,000. In the second heat, in which he was bet down even further, a winning ticket paid 30¢ on the dollar, a show ticket 10¢. Bill Wirtz had a payday of his own—the Governor earned $75,750—and he had bet nothing. "Unless they're at least 20-to-1," he said, "why bet?"
Actually, if the horse players among the crowd of 39,949 had known what Governor Skipper had gone through, the odds on Thursday afternoon might have been somewhat different. On Monday night the Governor came down with colic. "It's nothing," said the Governor's groom, Scott Norris. "It's like when you drink a beer too fast." But when a horse gets colic, he wants to lie down and roll around, and he can injure himself severely. The thing to do is keep him on his feet. Dr. Ronald Higginbotham was with the Governor until 2:40 a.m. on Tuesday. The veterinarian figures the colt ate some green hay.
That crisis past, the colt showed up lame at the track Tuesday morning. Although the Governor's aides tried to deny it, the colt's left ankle was indeed bad. Late Tuesday, Higginbotham gave the colt a shot of cortisone. No X rays were taken of the area because, says the vet, "Nobody wants to know for sure what's in there before the race."
By Wednesday night, the eve of the race, things seemed generally in hand, and Scott Norris, the son of the colt's trainer, Bucky Norris, allowed himself a moment of optimism. "This horse has never made a mistake," he said. "It has all been human error."
Jug Day dawned. Norris crawled out of his sleeping bag in front of the Governor's stall and stared at the horse's jaw, which had a swelling on it the size of a golf ball. Higginbotham was summoned again and located a 1½-inch splinter lodged beside the first pre-molar on the lower right, where the bit goes. The guess is that the sliver was in the hay. Higginbotham removed the splinter and then, less than four hours before the race, returned to bathe the spot in ether to ease the Governor's discomfort. "If this colt wins," said Higginbotham, "he deserves a medal for bravery."
But for all the adversity, the Governor clearly got the best of it in the draw for starting positions when he got the two-hole. Inside him was Candid Camera, a colt never accused of speed, and who was subsequently scratched. On his outside was Super Clint, a horse just becoming competitive with the big boys, and beyond him, Nat Lobell, who had become a mystery. After a glorious year in which he had earned more than $330,000 to lead his class, he had not won in six weeks. Then there was Jade Prince, trained and driven by Jack Kopas. But Jade Prince has had knee trouble (fluid is drained regularly from it) and his last fully successful outing had been back in June when he won the Cane Pace at New York's Yonkers Raceway.
The sick call was extensive. Tendon ills finally got the better of Kawartha Eagle; respiratory problems brought down Racy Goods; muscle troubles felled Striking Image; B.G.'s Bunny was hurt in the Meadowlands Pace. And Big Towner, a colt with the speed to go with the Governor, was not eligible.
Which left, essentially, the colt in the No. 6 starting position, Crash, as the one to mount the challenge. Crash had won almost $200,000 this year, but his owners were not sanguine about his chances of getting past the smooth-gaited Governor, who loves the tight turns of half-mile tracks.
In the first heat, driver John Chapman simply rolled the Governor to the front and kept him there. But while the Governor was setting records, an impressive trip also was turned in by Crash, who was forced to race wide the entire way but who showed his grit was true by finishing second, 4½ lengths back. With Billy Haughton driving, Crash just edged the 44-to-1 New Deal, who had tucked in behind the Governor for an easy journey.
Before the final heat, Crash had a little work done on a loose shoe. Everyone else needed attitude adjustments, for as John Kopas conceded, "I don't think any of us have a chance." The only question was whether any of the Governor's ailments—stomach, ankle or mouth—would crop up to disable him. But when the half-mile went in a leisurely :59⅗ the jig was up and the Jug beyond reach for Crash and the rest. The Governor turned it on, winning for fun in 1:56⅖ only a tick slower than in the first heat. Jambooger, another colt with a heretofore lightweight rep, was second. Crash third. In the paddock Chapman said, "I think we spooked everybody that first heat."
The other world marks that fell to the Governor were for fastest first heat, fastest second heat, fastest combined heats for 3-year-olds and for all-age. Fans set the central Ohio record for most beer cans thrown on the ground, bettering the mark set here last year.
Bill Wirtz, who in August said that winning the Adios was as good as winning the Stanley Cup, was ecstatic. Bill's father Arthur, who also owns 47½% of the Governor (the remaining 5% is owned by Bill's brother Mike), was seeing the colt for the first time. Said Bill, "They call Dad 'Bottom Line Arthur' but when this horse won, he cried." The win boosted the Governor's winnings this year to $342,837 and his two-year earnings to $457,992. Which is why Wirtz felt at ease in having sprung for $281 to have 5,000 buttons made that said GOVERNOR SKIPPER FAN CLUB.
As the parties went deep into the night, Wirtz was insisting the reason he had kept the home-bred son of Meadow Skipper, pacing's premier sire these days, rather than selling him was because he saw potential. Others believe it was because the colt was so gangly, stood so funny and toed out so badly, that Wirtz knew he'd bring nothing at auction. "It's like Tony Esposito," said Wirtz, referring to the Black Hawk goalie. "He has never done anything right for us except stop the puck. It doesn't matter how you look."
Then Wirtz was off on another story, this one about the liquor ad he did a few years ago, which included his picture and the words SUCCESS, HOW TO HANDLE IT. Says Wirtz, "You should see the letters I got from our hockey fans; that appeared during a season when the Black Hawks didn't exactly come home like Governor Skipper." Few do.