Lou Guida, who controls 50% of the ownership of the most valuable harness horse in history—the $10-million, 3-year-old pacer Niatross—smiled faintly the other day at the sign in his Trenton, N.J., stockbroker's office: TACT IS TELLING SOMEBODY TO GO TO HELL AND THEY CAN'T WAIT TO GET THERE.
Last week Niatross was at the center of a very public dispute, rare in the sport, that set the colt's three principal owners against one another in various bitter combinations. Words like "idiot" and "jerk" were two of the more genteel terms bandied about as the controversy reached a crescendo. In the days preceding last Friday's $1,011,000 pace for 3-year-olds at New Jersey's Meadowlands, everyone seemed to be telling everyone else to go to hell, nobody was anxious to get there. Tact never reared its comely head.
On one such occasion Guida asked plaintively, "Why is it that tragic things always happen with great horses and great women?"
Until a few weeks ago, tragedy was not a word one would associate with Niatross. He was rolling along, en route to amassing a 19-0 career record and $829,878 in purses. And although certain questions—notably where Niatross would eventually stand at stud—remained unresolved, the people around the horse seemed, on the whole, serene.
July 27, 1980
Then, on July 5, discord; the reason, not surprisingly, was the money—perhaps $50 million or more—that Niatross could earn in winnings and stud fees. That night at Saratoga the colt raced like a $10,000 claimer. He struggled along, perhaps 10 to 15 lengths off his form, and was being soundly thrashed when driver Clint Galbraith stung him with the whip four times. Niatross jumped the hub rail and crashed in a horrifying tangle in the infield. The colt escaped with bruises and scrapes and Galbraith wasn't hurt, but the horse and his driver each found his reputation damaged.
What had gone wrong?
Sure, the track was soft, but not that difficult. The word "drugs" was heard, but in the confusion after the crash, a test wasn't taken to detect if any illegal substances had been given Niatross. There was also talk that perhaps Niatross was sick. Another driver, Jim Miller, says, "All that happened up there was Niatross didn't feel that good, so Clint had to hit him with a whip, which he'd never done before, and Niatross took it as an insult."
Six nights later, after much recrimination among Niatross' owners, he went off as the favorite in a qualifier for last Friday's Meadowlands Pace. This time Niatross' hocks hit the sulky, an extremely unusual occurrence. He broke stride and was fortunate to get back on gait and finish as the fourth and final qualifier in his heat. Some horsemen say Galbraith did a superb job to get the horse to the finish as quickly as he did; others give him a lower mark.
So for the second week in a row, there were big questions about Niatross' performance. And in the ensuing days, his owners took to blaming everything and everyone—except themselves—for the colt's failures. Meet the leading players in this soap opera:
Guida. Last year, after Niatross had raced only seven times, Guida, 46, spent $4 million to buy half-interest in the homebred from Galbraith, a veteran trainer-driver, and one of Galbraith's longtime patrons, Elsie Berger, 71, of Grand Island, N.Y. Each of them now owns 25% of Niatross. Four months later Guida syndicated his share among 23 other horsemen—but retained total voting control—and made, he says, a $1 million profit. But he estimates he will make the serious money, somewhere between $2 million and $10 million, when Niatross goes to stud. Conservative estimates are that when he is retired at the end of this year—or sooner—he will have a stud fee of $20,000. By producing 100 live foals, Niatross will make $2 million a year. And should he prove to be a great sire, his stud fee will go up. It will work this way only if Niatross doesn't cheapen or otherwise humiliate himself on the racetrack this summer. This possibility worried Guida a lot as he sought to explain the two bad races. "The pressure obviously has got to Clint, and I feel sorry for him," he said. "When the horse got beat at Meadowlands, Clint made a suicidal drive. He used the horse needlessly hard early in the race. He wasn't cool-headed. He gets livid, violent, threatening and makes silly statements like he's going to punch me in the mouth." Guida conceded that Galbraith has the authority to make all decisions relating to the colt's racing career while maintaining that he, Guida, controls Niatross' career as a stallion.
Galbraith. "Guida wants to make a quick buck," he says, "and he's a liar." Galbraith, 43, isn't accustomed to the limelight. The book on him is that he is an extraordinary trainer and developer of young horses—among the best, in fact—but only a journeyman driver. He has rarely had a top horse to work with. An expert close to the situation believes that Galbraith "is simply overmatched by this horse, and he passes along his nervousness to him." Further, Galbraith has chafed privately that when Berger talks incessantly about having given half of Niatross to him when the colt was a weanling, she "makes it sound like I'm a gigolo."
Berger. "Here I'm 71 years old," she says, "and I have to run into a man like Mr. Guida. He used this horse as a commodity. He's money hungry. Maybe I'm just ignorant blind, but I expected him to keep his word. He said he wouldn't sell his shares in the horse. I'm not happy. Say a little prayer for us."
Guida resents that. "Money hungry?" he asks. "Do you think I spent $4 million for a horse to have my picture taken? Of course I'm in it to make money. Why do people go to work every day? I made an investment and I hit oil. Why is everybody mad at me?"
Bit Players. Noted trainer-driver Bill Popfinger views the dispute and allows as how "training horses is easy. What's hard is training owners." And Dr. John Steele, a leading veterinarian who examined Niatross after both losses, was not at all pleased at Guida's suggestion that the horse be sent to a university for a thorough checkup after the defeats. "I think that everyone involved ought to be muzzled and put on Valium," said Steele.
Against this decidedly untranquil backdrop, Niatross arrived at the Meadowlands last Friday night to race for the winner's share of $505,500 out of the largest purse ever for a thoroughbred or harness race. On a gorgeous summer evening, a track-record crowd of 42,612 wagered a record one-night U.S. harness handle of $4,004,246, a lot of it on Niatross, who went off at 2 to 5. The colt rewarded those bettors with a return of $2.80 by pacing to victory in 1:53⅕ the fastest mile ever by a 3-year-old pacer and only one-fifth of a second off the record for pacers of any age. Niatross won by 4¼ lengths over Storm Damage, driven by Billy ("I thought I had a chance until the race started") Haughton, and by another 2½ lengths over Tyler B, driven by Bill Herman.
So Niatross clearly was O.K. again. Which smoothed things over and made all the owners happy? Of course not. Guida says he may have to sue Galbraith and Berger; Galbraith and Berger have retained harness owner-lawyer Ed Freidberg to represent their interests, and he promises fireworks.
Still festering is the issue of where Niatross will stand as a stallion. The answer could mean tens of millions of dollars to someone, because whatever farm Niatross goes to will instantaneously become famous and very much in demand.
The sticking point is Rodney Farms, in Scottsville, N.Y., which Galbraith's wife, Barbara, inherited from her father. Early in the negotiations to buy a share of Niatross, Guida thought he had a deal to purchase the farm. But then, Guida says, Barbara withdrew from the sale because of "estate problems," and now the Galbraiths want Niatross to stand there.
Guida insists that a kingly fellow like Niatross would be better off at a spread called, say, Niatross Acres. And even Berger has said privately she doesn't like the idea of the colt going to Rodney Farms, "because it's not prestigious enough. Besides, I gave him the horse. Haven't I done enough for him?"
But a sticky legal point may be a letter Guida wrote to the Galbraiths on Sept. 14, 1979 when Guida was dickering for Rodney Farms: "However, if I do not purchase Rodney Farms, it is understood that Niatross will stand stud at Rodney Farms...." Guida throws up his hands and says, "Clint asked me to write that. I was trying to buy the farm. I did everything they asked. I never dreamed she would withdraw her offer to sell." Which is why all parties keep snorting, "I'll see you in court."
Meanwhile, the star of the show says nothing.