At 41, Bill Popfinger is a veteran of 27 years in harness racing, but his name seldom appears in newspapers in anything larger than agate type next to the tire ads. Still, last Friday night, in a saloon on Manhattan's Upper East Side, there was trainer-driver Popfinger explaining to a table of amazed friends just how he had won the Little Brown Jug, pacing's premier prize for 3-year-olds, in Delaware, Ohio the day before. "I had the lights on, the horn honking and the pedal to the metal," he was saying. "I went by those other drivers so fast they got whiplash."
Then Popfinger proposed a toast: "May the Good Lord take a liking to us because we're not all bad." Indeed, because Popfinger's magnificent upset defies logical explanation, perhaps the Good Lord did take a liking to Popfinger in Delaware, and perhaps a sore-footed horse named Happy Escort—a colt thought to have mediocre ability and who generally had confirmed that opinion—wasn't all that bad.
But not all that good, either—he almost certainly was the fourth-best horse in the 13-horse field. But the old maxim inscribed anew in the dust of Delaware was that races don't always go to the swift, that cleverness and luck still count for a lot. Happy Escort, owned by Robert Suslow, the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, did better in the Jug than did the highly regarded Abercrombie, named for the famed old store that recently went bust. Abercrombie, a $9,500 bargain, whose mother was Bergdorf, had 16 wins in 25 starts this year, including eight straight going into the Jug. He also was within $70,105 of the record season earnings for any harness horse, the $584,405 that Green Speed won in 1977. And Escort did better than Falcon Almahurst, who has won more than $300,000 this year and has handsomely justified the $150,000 paid for him by owner Charlie Hill, president of Scioto Downs in Columbus, Ohio. In the saloon, Popfinger was saying, "What you have to understand about racing is that one day you're up, five days you're down and you take Sundays off." On the circuit, Popfinger is known as "Show Biz" because of the phrase he uses in the face of a disappointment: "That's show biz." And Bill Popfinger has suffered more disappointment this year than anyone should have to say grace over.
When 1978 dawned, he had two 3-year-old pacing colts, Say Hello and Spicy Charlie, in his Florida barn. They were expected to be two of the top three in the nation this year. To have one great one is a dream; two is outright hallucinating. Then in February, Spicy Charlie bowed a tendon, and he hasn't raced yet this year. Come May, Say Hello, fastest of the 2-year-old crop in 1977, seemed dull. Tests ultimately showed he was hemorrhaging in the lungs under stress, which ended his racing career. He was syndicated as a stud for $1.5 million; a few months earlier, the offer had been $3.5 million.
Then Popfinger's 2-year-old pacer, Escape Artist—purchased for $260,000, the most ever for a yearling—developed trouble in his left knee. No more racing for him this year. He could be worth $300,000 or so as a stud, a pittance compared with what he might have brought. "That's show biz," said Popfinger. "If everything is good, it's no fun." Then, in August, Popfinger had a disagreement with one of his main owners, Leon Machiz of Kings Point, N.Y., who had bought Say Hello and Escape Artist, among others. As a result, Popfinger quit as trainer of eight Machiz horses. "That's show biz," he said. "We were all disappointed."
Popfinger bought Escort for a ho-hum $21,000 because "I thought he was kind of a racy-looking horse." At the auction, few others shared that view. Going into the Jug, Escort had won $94,212 this year, though none of it in a race involving Abercrombie or Falcon; indeed, Escort had never raced against either, on eminently sensible grounds. "He's not as good," said Popfinger, who sent the colt to the Jug with no great enthusiasm. Once in Delaware, Escort suffered a quarter crack in the heel of his right fore—equivalent to a split nail in a human, but producing pain equivalent to that of an ingrown toenail. Popfinger made an emergency trip to the scene, looked over the colt, ordered him put in new shoes, and 15 minutes before the $2,000 starting fee had to be paid decided to go ahead with it.
With 13 entries, the Jug field was split into two divisions. As the luck of the draw would have it, Abercrombie, Falcon Almahurst and the Joe O'Brien-trained Flight Director—the big three—all were in the second division. Escort was in the first division with all the donkeys and he won hee-hawing in a ho-hum 1:57[2/5]. But the action—and the eventual winner—surely would come from the other division.
In that one, Falcon, driven by Billy Haughton, got the inside post position in the field of six while Abercrombie left from the three hole. When Falcon ripped off a 27[4/5] first quarter, the crowd was electrified. Glen Garnsey, driving Abercrombie, was content to race along outside Falcon much of the way because of his supreme confidence in his colt's come-from-behind ability. At breakfast before the race Garnsey had mused, "It's an awful thing to say but I think I can be parked the entire mile and still win." However, hampered in part by the short homestretch at Delaware, Abercrombie couldn't get it done, losing by a length and a quarter. But even Haughton, who had driven Falcon to a world half-mile track record 1:55⅖ conceded afterward, "If Abercrombie had had the rail, I'd've been in trouble."
Next, the first four finishers in each division lined up to test one another. Grumped O'Brien, "I tried all summer to find a way to beat Abercrombie and I couldn't. Flight Director and I both feel good enough but we can't go enough." Once again Falcon was inside Abercrombie, and this time Garnsey decided he would go at Falcon from the start rather than waiting until the end, but Falcon wouldn't give up the lead. The two fought and scratched; their sulkies cracked together once. Most of all, they wore each other out—enough so that, at last, Flight Director had a win. At 20 to 1. Abercrombie, who deserved better, was a thoroughly thrashed last. Happy Escort had a safe trip and finished fourth. But nobody noticed. Typical.
And now, because no horse had yet won twice, came the race-off—heat winners Falcon Almahurst and Flight Director and—oh, yes—Happy Escort. Under harness rules, Flight Director got the highly advantageous inside post position because he had won the most recent heat; Falcon was in the middle, with Happy Escort on the outside. Sizing up the competition, Popfinger asked Haughton, "What am I doing here? I might as well go home."
Which would it be, Falcon or Flight Director? The duel began with Flight Director taking the lead. With all three nearing the quarter-mile marker, Popfinger put the pedal to the metal, moved outside and swept past the two startled biggies. Admitted O'Brien, "I didn't intend to let him go, but he outpaced me." Said Haughton, "I heard him coming and I couldn't believe it." Haughton said he thinks he should have taken off after Escort right then, but he didn't. "That's where I blew it," he said.
Pacing easily and heading home at the three-quarters pole, Popfinger recalls thinking, "Man, I'm going to be tough to beat." Escort beat Flight Director by three-quarters of a length in an unimpressive 2:00⅘ but nobody was counting. Popfinger tossed his $12 whip to a security guard as a souvenir.
For his effort, Escort won $49,491.40 of the record $186,760 purse. Not bad for a colt that frequently raced for purses of $12,000 this summer. The crowd also was a record—40,896 beer-drinking, sit-on-the-hay-bales-in-pickup-trucks folks.
"Coming into the race-off," says Popfinger in the saloon, "I was like a football player whose team is behind 30-0 in the last quarter but who still thinks something might happen and his team can still win." What prompted him to make his daring move? "Any time you're in a two-or three-horse field, the only strategy is to be on top," he said. The lights were on, the horns were honking and Show Biz was reflecting on his good fortune. "Wheew, if this is the worst it ever gets, I'm in good shape," he said. But in truth, nobody knows better than Bill Popfinger how bad things can get. Or how good.