The Messenger Stakes at Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway is contested each year by the best 3-year-olds in the nation as the final leg of pacing's Triple Crown. In most years the triple is not accomplished, but this year was different. The Messenger wasn't merely a race, it was a coronation. The idea on Saturday night was not really to see who would win. Barring bolts from above, everybody knew in advance—which is why a $2 bet on the winner returned only $2.20.
The idea last weekend was to bestow formally the crown of All-Time Greatness on Niatross, certifying him absolutely, undeniably and incontrovertibly as the best standardbred in the 174-year history of the sport in America. "Draw a picture of the perfect horse, then describe him," says one horseman. "What you'll have is Niatross."
It was his Messenger triumph that finally confirmed this perfect horse as better than Dan Patch of the early 1900s, better than Greyhound in the '30s, better than Bret Hanover, who won 35 races in a row in the middle '60s. Veteran trainer-driver Billy Haughton insists, "To say Niatross is the greatest ever takes nothing away from the others."
Indeed, in a sport in which it is impossible to get a consensus on anything, including whether the sun is shining, there is now no dispute—save from a very few oldtimers who defend past greats with increasing vigor as the bar bill grows—that Niatross represents the very best the sport has ever produced.
October 19, 1980
To celebrate this greatness, Roosevelt shot off a fireworks display while the colt, whose syndication for stud makes him worth an estimated $20 million, stood in the winner's circle. The flashes and the noise spooked him. He jumped, and when he came down on his left front hoof, he sprung his shoe. That didn't hurt anything, but it was a little like Miss America showing up with a run in her panty hose. Besides, Niatross was covered with mud from the soft track. Elsie Berger, who is a vigorous 71 and owns a quarter of Niatross, was oblivious to petty defects and could only gasp, "Isn't he a regal-looking colt?"
He is, and no amount of mud can hide his class. He holds five world records. On five occasions he broke his own world marks. He has done the fastest race mile ever in harness history, a 1:52[4/5] clocking in Syracuse, in August. This year he has won $1,220,657, more than any standardbred, and $102,867 more than Spectacular Bid, the king of the thoroughbreds. Niatross' career winnings are $1,825,556, tops for a North American harness horse, surpassing Rambling Willie, who took eight years to earn his loot.
Said Lou Guida, who heads a syndicate that owns one-half of the horse, "He is the elite of the elite. There is no contest between Niatross and any other horse that has ever lived. Just look at him. See, he knows he's godly, he knows he's majestic."
Earlier this month in Lexington, Ky., Niatross negotiated a time-trial mile in 1:49⅕ smashing the mark of 1:52 set by Steady Star in 1971. Grown men cried when he did it. And this in a sport where going one-fifth of a second faster than another horse is a big deal. Ed Freidberg, a prominent harness owner, says, "This horse skipped a couple of generations. He might go 1:45. For all he has done, we still don't know his ultimate potential." Delvin Miller, one of the sport's patriarchs, says, "I watch him and he looks like a rocket. He doesn't even act like he's pacing fast when he is flying. Look, you just don't break records by three seconds." Right, it was by only 2[4/5].
In winning the Messenger, Niatross had the lead by the eighth pole, stayed six feet and more away from the rail, where the muck was the worst, and got home laughing, two easy lengths ahead of Tyler B, in 1:59[3/5]. None of the winner's six competitors had a chance in what amounted to just another day at the office for Niatross. Clint Galbraith, the trainer-driver who owns the final 25% of Niatross, said, "I thought the race was over once I got to the top. You have proved over and over you're the best, you think you're the best, but something could happen. Hell, anything can happen." But on the night of the coronation, nothing did.
So how did this superstar arrive on harness racing's doorstep? Elsie Berger thinks it was her prayers that did it. Galbraith is more inclined to credit breeding and good training. The colt's sire is Albatross, and his grandsire is Meadow Skipper, both top racehorses and now superlative sires.
But on the female side, things are not nearly as starry. Mostly, there was a lot of luck. In the 1950s, Berger was keeping a mare named Scoot. Scoot was owned by Berger's next-door neighbor, George Begole. Because of personal problems, Begole lost interest in the sport. It is Berger's recollection that he had not been paying his monthly bills for several years and that he ultimately told her to just take the horse and call things even. It is Begole's recollection that he had been paying all the bills and that he sold Scoot to Berger for $1,000. That, he says today, "was not such a very great deal, seeing as I paid $8,000 for her."
Whatever, Scoot soon foaled Niagara Dream, who seemed to have other things on her mind besides racing, judging by her best time of 2:07[2/5]. But she foaled Niatross, and best estimates put Niagara Dream's present worth at $200,000. "I pray a lot," says Berger.
Along the way, she gave a half interest in Niatross to Galbraith, who had been her trainer for 22 years, and last year—in the middle of the horse's undefeated 2-year-old season—the two of them sold a 50% interest to Guida for $2.5 million plus performance bonuses that may add up to $1.5 million. Guida then created a 20-share syndicate—each share is now worth approximately $500,000—that becomes operative when Niatross goes to stud, where his fee may be as high as $40,000. The plan is to book Niatross to about 140 mares, which should produce about 100 live foals, and that would produce $4 million. Freidberg, a friend of Galbraith's and Berger's, says he has been besieged by callers anxious to get breedings to Niatross at, seemingly, any price.
Yet in what should have been a year of enormous fun there is nothing but acrimony among those involved with Niatross. Almost everyone is mad, in varying degrees, at almost everyone else. And it's getting worse. For example, Berger now refers to Guida, the syndicator, as a "vicious man." In the winner's circle after the Messenger, Barbara Galbraith, Clint's wife, stopped Morton Finder, the co-manager of the syndicate, and whispered in his ear, "May you rot in hell."
The core of the controversy is where Niatross will stand as a stallion. Millions of dollars are at stake. Galbraith wants him at Rodney Farms, a modest operation he and his wife own in upstate New York. Guida wants to send the horse to a classier stud in Kentucky next year to start his career as a sire; Galbraith wants to race him. In truth, racing him would be best for the sport. Invariably, 4-year-olds go even better than they did at three, and so the Niatross mystique would grow, and fans all over the country would have a chance to share in the good times. Understandably, however, the investors would not be thrilled to see their gold mine race for perhaps $500,000 in total purses next year when his stud income would be far greater. Also, the horse might hurt himself.
Last week a New Jersey judge ruled that Niatross should be turned over to Guida by the end of the year. The Galbraith/Berger interests will appeal the decision. "If you tell the truth," says Galbraith, "you always win, don't you?" For her part, Elsie Berger sounds determined. "God gives us breath," she says. "From then on it's a fight from the cradle to the grave—and I will fight." On the other side, William B. Lawless, Guida's lawyer, mused the other day, "A horse divided against itself cannot stand at stud."
True, and it is not inconceivable that things could get so muddled that Niatross could end up not racing and not standing at stud next year. That, of course, would be folly, and there is hope within the industry that maybe—just maybe—Galbraith, Berger and Guida will sit down and work it all out.
Ah, but Niatross. All's fine in his world. He's disgustingly healthy (his resting pulse is 29; 35 to 40 is normal) and apparently destined soon for some California racing. Watching him in the paddock, another top trainer-driver, Bill Popfinger, said, "There's no doubt he's the closest thing to perfection we've ever had in the harness business." Indeed. The crown definitely fits.