What you have to understand," one of the owners of a 3-year-old harness horse named Niatross was saying, "is that he may turn out to be the greatest colt that ever raced." What you also have to understand, of course, is that he may not; indeed, the odds being what they are, he probably won't. Still, a horseman without hopes in the spring is a horseman with no hopes at all. And in the case of the undefeated pacer Niatross—who is valued at a record $12 million—the hopes are sky high.
If they are realized, 100 years from now people who have no knowledge of standardbreds will know about Niatross (pronounced nigh-a-tross), much as people who are ignorant of thoroughbreds know about Man o' War. Mark him down. Niatross—"Nia" for Niagara Acres near Buffalo, where one of his owners, Mrs. Elsie Berger, 71, lives; "tross" for the third syllable of his famous father's name, Albatross.
In the 173-year history of standard-bred racing there have been only a few certified legends. One was the pacer Dan Patch in the early 1900s. Men smoked Dan Patch cigars, women washed clothes in Dan Patch washing machines and Dan traveled in his own private railroad car. He finally retired in 1909 after 10 undefeated seasons (he lost two heats but never a race) and nine world records. Another was the great gray trotter Greyhound, whose record of 1:55¼ for the mile, set in 1938, lasted 31 years. A third was the pacer Bret Hanover, who won a record 35 races in a row in 1964 and 1965. Niatross could be the fourth and foremost.
"I'm not overly high on Niatross," insists one of the owners, Lou Guida, of Trenton, N.J., "because I don't want to be overly disappointed. But I have to confess he has the potential to be a storybook horse."
Last year as a 2-year-old Niatross won 13 of 13 starts, a feat approaching Bret Hanover's 24 for 24 as a 2-year-old 16 years ago. Niatross won $604,900 in 1979, far more than any 2-year-old standardbred—or thoroughbred—ever did. A conservative guess as to what his winnings might come to this year is more than $1 million, which would surpass the record $826,542 won by Hot Hitter in 1979. Despite Hot Hitter's haul, Niatross was named horse of the year, an honor almost always reserved for older animals.
Niatross didn't just beat his opponents, he devastated them. In a sport in which photo finishes are commonplace, Niatross has never won by less than three-quarters of a length. Nor has he ever had a whip put to him by Clint Galbraith, who trains him, drives him and owns one-quarter of him—unless you count the time at Louisville Downs last year when Galbraith flicked him a couple of times on the saddle pad because "he was getting a little dozy."
In his most impressive race, the $862,750 Woodrow Wilson Memorial at The Meadowlands in August, Niatross defeated a classy field in a sizzling 1:55.4.
"If you were constructing a horse," says Robert Boni, a vice-president of New York's Pine Hollow Stud Farm, "there is very, very little that he has that you wouldn't use. He's sound, big, strong, with great breeding, manners, speed and gait. He has the license to be good." Veteran trainer-driver Billy Haughton told Guida, "Niatross is flawless." Yet, in this iffy, iffy business, disaster has a habit of lying just one step ahead. "Whatever happens, we will take it in stride," says Mrs. Berger, who has 25% of the horse.
The ownership of Niatross seems appropriate. Mrs. Berger, who describes herself as a "simple little woman," has been in the horse business for years—some successful, some not. Galbraith has been her trainer for 22 years. Two years ago she gave Galbraith half ownership in a pregnant mare named Niagara Dream. Thus, he also had half ownership of the resulting foal, who was Niatross. Over the years, they have shared in many horse deals, which can be a hodgepodge involving breeding rights, training fees, stakes payments, stud payments, board, general upkeep. Sometimes money changes hands, sometimes not.
"Why wouldn't I give away part of the horses?" says Mrs. Berger. "I knew Clint's father and now his family. We're all like family, and families take care of their own. Besides, I'm getting older. But in my mature years, this is exciting."
Not least to the tracks where Niatross might appear after his 3-year-old debut at Vernon Downs near Syracuse, N.Y. on May 17. Buffalo Raceway is counting on him for late June. General Manager Gaston Valiquette says that to promote the appearance of the colt, he has ordered 25,000 color photos of Niatross—and 50,000 16-ounce plastic beer cups bearing a likeness of the horse's head. Valiquette says, "Everyone wants to be able to say, 'I was there.' "
Galbraith, the man charged with being there every step of the way, sat on the hood of a car the other day at the Ben White training track in Orlando, Fla., where Niatross spent the winter, watching the colt being washed off. "He has filled out quite a bit since last year," Galbraith said, "especially in his hindquarters, and he should be a more powerful horse this year. When I drive him, I feel like the Angel Gabriel on a chariot. You sit behind him and you know the difference between a pro and an amateur. He has that extra something. Frankly, I think he's at the point where people don't want to see him get beat. There are going to be a lot of anxious moments. And a lot of thrills."
When the days get hotter and the purses bigger, it may turn out to be an advantage that Niatross raced only 13 times last year. Guida admits to only one serious reservation about the colt, that "he hasn't been required to make a speed performance when he was really up against the wall. I'm sure when it happens, he'll come through good."
Others are not so sanguine. Tom Crouch, an owner-breeder from Oak Brook, Ill., says, "Somebody can come out of the pack and beat this colt. Great horses dominate, don't they? Well, I don't think Niatross can. But I also know there are a lot of people who say if he's worth so much money, he must be terrific."
There are other caveats. For example, can Niatross win when he's having an off day? At Hanover Shoe Farms, where Albatross stands, public relations director Murray Brown says, "Every horse has a bottom. We'll have to see what his is and how good he is." There have been rumors that Niatross has had knee problems, but Galbraith sniffs, "With a horse like this, there are always a lot of people talking when it's none of their business. Nothing's wrong with Niatross." And horsemen whisper that while Galbraith is a thorough, professional driver, he's not a veteran of the Grand Circuit. "You watch me," says Galbraith. "I'm not going to drive this turkey all over the track."
More than anyone else, Lou Guida hopes not. After all, the 46-year-old Merrill Lynch executive (he's in charge of the Trenton, Toms River and Princeton offices) and harness horse wheeler-dealer spent $4 million last summer for a half interest in Niatross, when the colt had only raced six times. The deal to buy Niatross was classic Guida. At that time Galbraith and Mrs. Berger each owned 50%. She says, "We really didn't want to sell, but Mr. Guida was so insistent. Very insistent. My, was he ever insistent." Guida found himself locked in a desperate bidding war with another of the sport's big spenders, Alan Leavitt. At $4 million, neither showed signs of blinking. Then Guida got an idea.
He called Galbraith one night and said that in addition to the $4 million (half to Clint, half to Elsie), he would give Galbraith the following incentive bonuses: if Niatross is undefeated through his 3-year-old year, $500,000; if he wins the Triple Crown, $250,000; if he breaks the alltime mile record (a time-trial 1:52 by Steady Star in 1971), $250,000; if he breaks the race record (1:53 by Abercrombie in 1979), $250,000. Total: $1,250,000. "And let me tell you," said Guida to Galbraith, "if this horse isn't good enough to do most of these things, then I'm grossly overpaying at $4 million." Said Galbraith, "It's a deal."
Whereupon Guida spent $1,200 to charter a plane from Trenton to Rochester to get Galbraith's signature. "I was glad Alan was bidding on the horse," says Guida, "because if I'm the only bidder, I feel twice as apprehensive." Said Leavitt later, "I would have paid $7½ million." But Guida had him foxed and boxed. For Guida told Galbraith that not only would he have to agree to the offer at that moment, but he also could neither accept nor make any more telephone calls that night.
So why did Galbraith and Mrs. Berger sell? Says Galbraith, "Well, for the $4 million, maybe more. That gives us a little security." But while they collect their millions (over 10 years) from Guida, is the horse worth millions? Elsie says, "That remains to be seen."
For Guida, it had better be seen, lest his visions of grandeur be blurred. In this year's crop of 3-year-old trotters, Guida is half owner of Rodney's Best, also thought to be the class of his class. That cost him $1.5 million, mention of which prompts Guida to give a cavalier wave of his hand. "I'm not looking to save," he says. "I'm looking to spend. What I really would like is to be so big that on some huge horse deal, if a guy showed up an hour late, I could say, 'You're late. Deal's off.' I'm not that big. The important thing is that Rodney's Best looks like a shoo-in to win the Hambletonian."
That is spoken like a true novice. But Guida is a true believer in Guida. His favorite maxim: "Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve."
Guida owns all or part of 85 broodmares and 22 racehorses. His goal is to own a piece of the eight or 10 best stallions, while retaining controlling say-so in their management. "It's a business of dreams," says Guida, "but it's so easy. I buy racehorses and opportunities."
Guida has long been able to take advantage of opportunity. He shined shoes in Jersey City until he realized a way to make more money was to get other shoe-shine boys to work for him. He got a job as a typist for a pencil company for $28 a week—and saved most of it. He went to TV repair school. At one point he opened a car wash in Morrisville, Pa. "and started making very serious money." By age 30, he had $400,000 in cash "and I was going to own the world."
One night, Ed Moriarity, then manager of the Trenton Merrill Lynch office, showed up at the car wash and drove his new green Cadillac convertible onto the belt. Guida was so proud. The car started through but, inexplicably, the car behind the Caddie got loose and crashed into it. Guida was dumbstruck. He raced into the car wash to prevent further damage, yelling to his one employee—who couldn't speak English—to shut off the power. The power stayed on. Guida's foot got caught in the conveyor belt.
He was dragged through the jet wax, dragged through the rinse, and has a vivid recollection of glimpsing the sign: YOU ARE NOW PASSING THROUGH THE MOST POWERFUL BLOW DRYER IN THE WORLD. Finally, the machine was shut off. "Lou," Moriarity said, "you don't need this. Why don't you come to work for Merrill Lynch?" Says Guida, "He caught me at a weak moment."
In 1974, after going to the Liberty Bell track in Philadelphia with a friend, Guida took his first plunge into the buying of harness horses. He got involved with poor trainers and cheap horses and spent a lot of time wandering around the barns looking for a guy named Clem. "I was blinded," he admits. "I wanted to be taken. I was going to buck the odds and be a hero. Look at me, a big, tough businessman, and I'm telling some person I barely know to go spend whatever he wants on a horse. I'd never run my business that way. Why did I do it? Well, why do middle-aged men leave their wives for 18-year-old girls? It's thoughts of glamour. I bought every piece of junk that came down the road."
By the end of 1974 Guida had lost $300,000. One of his friends, a Floridian named Jack Sisto, says, "Thank God for wealthy guys on ego trips or this business would fall apart. How else would someone spend $90,000 or more on a yearling, never get him to the races, and come back next year for more?"
In the years since '74, Guida has kept coming back, but not for cheap horses, and not without some thought to his financial hide. "I'm not greedy," he says. "I'm quick to spread the risk."
Proof is that while he bought half of Niatross, he has already sold 37½% of the colt at what he estimates will be a $1.5 million profit over 10 years. This leaves Guida with 12½% ownership, his favorite percentage, and as syndicate manager, a strong say in Niatross' future. "I think Niatross is a great horse," says the canny Guida, "But if I knew he was that great, would I be selling?"