Rumors had persisted since January that something was wrong—indeed quite wrong—with Speedy Somolli, the 3-year-old trotter who was sold last year for $2 million. That is the most ever paid for any 2-year-old, standardbred or thoroughbred. A figure like that guarantees close attention, with plenty of tongues wagging, clucking and speculating. Why was Speedy not at the races this spring? Was he hurt? Did he have a mystery bug? Or had he simply decided he would prefer a less strenuous life pulling Amish buggies in Pennsylvania? The buyer, New York horse speculator Alan Leavitt, had gambled a ton that Speedy would have a glorious 1978, thus making him worth millions more as a stallion. Was Leavitt's dream about to collapse?
Concern about Speedy heightened when May began slipping by and he still hadn't started. Finally on May 31, the colt showed up for a non-betting, qualifying race in Lexington, Ky., broke stride at the start and finished in 2:05⅖ hardly worthy of a millionaire twice over. Then Speedy disappeared again for a few more weeks while the colt that was expected to be his chief rival—the also well-bred and expensive Brisco Hanover—was racing well and getting into condition for the summer's big events.
Harness fans were understandably anxious because Speedy and Brisco had some ding-dong races in 1977. The best occurred at DuQuoin, Ill., in September, when Speedy went a world record 1:57[2/5] in the first heat of a race, and about an hour later, Brisco went 1:57 in the second heat. Last year, Speedy won 10 times in 16 tries; Brisco won 8 of 16.
But for all the chatter and all the speculation about Speedy, it appears things may have been just as his trainer-driver Howard Beissinger kept insisting. "Nothing is wrong," he said.
Last week Speedy made his first official start of the year at Wolverine Raceway near Detroit in the $43,249 Matron Stakes against Brisco and 12 other horses—and showed that his price tag was not a misprint. Leaving from the second tier, Speedy fought traffic the entire mile, never got to the rail, but finished an explosive and impressive second in 2:00. Brisco, meanwhile, had one of those nights, coming in last 22¾ lengths back. The winner, in a track-record 1:59⅘ was Doublemint, a colt so woeful early last year that trainer Billy Haughton was within a few days of giving up on him as a racehorse. Even now few are speaking of Doublemint in the same breath as Speedy and Brisco.
Bettors were suspicious of Speedy's inactivity, sending him off at 9-to-1, insulting numbers for the winter-book choice to win the Hambletonian. Such odds will not be seen again this year unless Speedy shows up at the gate with a leg in a cast.
Beissinger admits that in late January, Speedy did pop a splint. This is a common ailment in young horses, in which a hard calcium deposit forms on a bone, causing soreness. Thus, February was a lost month for training. Then, says Beissinger, Speedy was further slowed when Beissinger moved his stable to Lexington on May 1, and the colt's training was hampered by rain. So nothing else was wrong with Speedy? "Nope. Besides, what makes anybody think I wanted him ready earlier?" Beissinger asks.
Beissinger, who has trained and driven two Hambletonian winners—Lindy's Pride in 1969 and Speedy Crown in 1971—knows the road to the Hambo. And he is certain he has the transportation in Speedy Somolli. Further, winning in May is no substitute for losing in September. How good is this colt, compared with his two Hambletonian victors? Says Beissinger, "Slightly better." He admits the pressure of dealing with a two-million-dollar colt is bothersome but says, "I'm not going to let any horse drive me crazy."
If any horse drove anybody crazy at Wolverine, it was Brisco Hanover. Before the race, his trainer-driver, Jim Miller, was beaming. "Brisco is like a brand-new Cadillac," he said. "Everything runs smooth." But apparently it wasn't quite that simple. When the horse was loaded onto a plane in New York earlier in the week to fly to Detroit, one of his hind legs slipped out of his shipping stall. According to a groom, the leg went down about two feet. Brisco was unnerved if apparently uninjured. But after his performance at Wolverine, his handlers wondered if the mishap might have had more effect than they had believed.
Miller trains for Mel Barr, a construction and real state man from Ottawa, Canada who says he's a "sewer rat" because of his work involving installation of water mains. Barr got to Wolverine just in time to watch Brisco go down the drain. "He floundered and flailed the entire mile," Miller said. "He could never dig in. It's like he was on ice."
It was clear from the moment the gate swung out of the way that there would be no Speedy-Brisco duel this time. The first hint came when lightly regarded Town Gesture, starting at post position No. 8, trotted right out to the lead; Brisco, No. 10 at the post, trotted right out to be 10th, where he stayed for the first three-quarters of a mile. Speedy wasn't lighting up the skies himself, but he was going evenly, had moved into better racing position, and by the three-quarter pole was seventh.
Doublemint, driven by Peter Haughton, went off at 9-to-2, but the odds were misleading. Although the colt had two wins in three outings this year, the bettors also liked the legendary Haughton name and the fact that they could wind up with a two-horse Haughton Stable entry (Count's Pride, which finished third, was the other half). After having been forced at least six-wide in the first turn and parked way outside the rail until almost the half, Haughton was not having a happy evening. But conditions improved and Doublemint opened up about an eight-length lead around the final turn before any of the other drivers realized what was happening. At the head of the stretch, Brisco broke stride, which put a final dent in his evening. But Speedy rolled on, finishing second by a length and a half after having been fifth at the head of the stretch.
Afterward, Peter Haughton chortled about Doublemint's problems in 1977. "He couldn't even trot a mile downhill in four minutes. All he could do was cross his legs and try to fall down. He was a dud." The colt's owner, John Lavezzo, co-owner of P. J. Clarke's, one of Manhattan's most celebrated saloons, nodded in agreement. Lavezzo, who seems to own two suits—one old, the other older—got into harness racing in the late '50s when he told a man to buy him a horse for $5,000, figuring it likely would turn out to cost $7,000. Instead the buyer only spent $3,000. Says Lavezzo, "I thought, 'This is quite a sport. I'm already $2,000 ahead.' "
He may be substantially more ahead if Doublemint is not a fluke. "This is a fascinating game," Lavezzo said after the race, "if your heart can take it." For his part, Brisco's owner, Barr, was exhibiting a stiff upper lip. "Just think how much fun we're going to have later this year," he said.
And back at Speedy's barn the morning after, assistant trainer Osvaldo Formia was laughing at his horse. "You just think you're great, don't you?" he said. "Well, we'll see." Relaxing nearby, Beissinger agreed and said of Brisco Hanover, "I suspect we'll be at each other all summer." But he had the look of a man who plans to be accepting a lot of congratulations from a lot of runners-up.