The New York sharpies with their silver tongues and satchels of greenbacks arrived by executive jet and limousine last week in the community of Delaware, Ohio, which is noted for its cotton candy and Ferris wheel. Then they fleeced the suckers and broke a lot of hearts. Ain't no more room for hayseeds in harness racing, you might say.
Well, times change. The Hambletonian nowadays is staged in the shadow of New Jersey's oil refineries. Syndicates of horse owners throw money around like Bendix or Martin Marietta. There are million-dollar purses. But, gosh, the Little Brown Jug in Delaware always was the cozy sort of event at which tradition seemed safe. Now people from the Bronx win it.
Last week the Jug—the top race for 3-year-old pacers—was won by Merger, a horse whose principal owner could not have told one end of a sulky from the other a few months back. "This is the ultimate day of my life in racing," said Bill Mulderig, a Suffern, N.Y. attorney and a guy who appreciates appreciation, of the capital variety. His life in racing began last spring when he became Merger's owner. On the morning of the race, Mulderig had a piece of an $8.25 million asset. By nightfall, after Merger had cruised through the Jug field before 46,144 fans at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, Mulderig figured his animal now was worth $11 million.
Mulderig, a native of the Bronx, was introduced to Merger by Morton Finder of Manhattan and Louis Guida of New Jersey. Both of them are very big in harness racing and seem to be in on every major deal, including the biggest stud syndication of them all—of Niatross for $10 million in 1979. In January Finder and Guida had bought 75% of Merger from a Canadian group, and in March they sold that interest to Mulderig and his syndicate for $6.187 million. Before all that happened, the closest Mulderig had come to the harness was when he parked cars at Yonkers Raceway 25 years ago. He learned, he says, a valuable lesson: Don't bet your tips on other people's tips.
On the Monday before the Jug, Mulderig's mentor, Finder, now the manager of the Merger syndicate, sat on the terrace of his 38th-floor penthouse office on Fifth Avenue and doped out the field, which had a record 25 entries. Up there amidst the lawn furniture and potted evergreens and flowers, Finder had Manhattan at his feet, a public relations man at his side and a secretary who was confirming the limo and the jet airplane.
Finder was very happy, especially because he had visited Delaware only a few days before and had seen Merger pace a 1:57 mile, including a 27.5 last quarter, in training. For Merger, sired by Albatross—as was the great Niatross—and the fastest 2-year-old in history, 1982 had been a spotty year. Now the horse's stock was rising again.
Meanwhile, there in Delaware, Jeanne Thomson, part owner of another Jug entrant, McKinzie Almahurst, was feeling confident about her chances. The winner of nine of 11 races last season and the 2-year-old championship, McKinzie was the people's choice at least partly because Jeanne Thomson is the wife of Hank Thomson, the co-founder of the Jug 37 years ago. Hank's great-grandpappy, Abram, was a postmaster under Abraham Lincoln, a fact solidly attested to by a plaque on the front of The Delaware Gazette, the family newspaper whose offices are next door to City Hall.
Mrs. Thomson owns 25% of McKinzie Almahurst in a partnership—Five Guys & Me—that includes none other than Finder's roly-poly associate, Guida, in this deal acting on his own. It is an unlikely alliance, but it makes sense from a financial viewpoint.
There's no question that the '80s are witnessing a transition in harness racing. The old breed was on hand at the Jug last week, people like Billy Haughton, the driver of McKinzie Almahurst, and Joe O'Brien, racing a horse named Irish Jimmy. Haughton and O'Brien made their well-deserved reputations over the years on the Grand Circuit, the grand old country fair league, which, because of all the fresh money coming in, may go the way of vaudeville.
Most of the big loot is paid out at the big eastern tracks, like the Meadowlands, where young men like John Campbell—Merger's driver—churn out huge chunks of earnings. This season Campbell, a transplanted Canadian, has won close to $4 million. He epitomizes the new drivers. Like common stocks in the '60s, they have a go-go style, meaning they drive hard from start to finish. The result: excitement, world records and no more room for the Ferris wheel.
Because of the size of the Jug field, it was split into three divisions, with the top three finishers from each returning for a fourth race. If none of the division winners won that one, the four winners would return for a fifth race just about the time the sun would be setting over the cornfields to the west.
Hank Thomson, 75, was visibly nervous as the start of the day's proceedings approached. He got down off the judge's stand and walked over to the backstretch and closed himself off in the log cabin that serves as the track's office. If McKinzie Almahurst could win the Jug, well, Thomson could say his life had pretty near been perfect.
In the Jug's first heat, against only a middling field, Merger had an easy drive, moving into high gear when Campbell asked for it at about the ‚Öúths pole and rolling to a smooth 2¾-length win in 1:55[3/5] Mulderig breathed a little easier. Since he invested all that money in Merger, the colt had been performing erratically. Campbell, Merger's trainer as well as his driver, had an extra reason to care how the horse did. He had been one of Merger's original owners and still held a 25% interest in the colt. In Campbell's first try at the Jug, last year, a horse broke in front of him on the backstretch, causing him to crash and tumble to the track. The accident occurred almost in front of Paula, his wife. On this Jug day, Paula was on hand again—nervous, but looking good. She was wearing a bright purple suede vest and a new purple straw hat that had purple feathers sticking from it. The vest was a good-luck charm, she explained, adding, "I'm just hopin' he doesn't go down." She brightened when someone asked what she was doing with her husband's winnings. "Spending it," she replied with an appropriate smile. "Got this hat today."
The Jug's second division was considered strongest because of the presence of McKinzie Almahurst, Irish Jimmy—the winner of his last three starts—and No Nukes, a speed horse that had won six races and half a million dollars this season. Early in the race, Irish Jimmy broke and was out it. Haughton eased McKinzie Almahurst to the lead by the half-mile mark and won by a length in 1:56[1/5].
The third division provided the day's biggest surprise as Temujin, a small colt driven by Billy O'Donnell, another Canadian, had a perfect trip and raced to a record clocking for a half-mile track—1:54[3/5]. Unhappily, while Temujin was coming up long on speed, he had come up short on time. As the call for the Jug final approached, 45 minutes later, he still was panting in the paddock. The bettors made the favorite the entry of Merger and McKinzie Almahurst (joined because Finder and Guida were partners in other syndications), and the bettors were right. In the final, Temujin never did catch a second wind, and just after completing his first trip around the track McKinzie Almahurst broke stride.
Meanwhile, Merger was in perfect position, on the outside and tucked in. At the three-quarter pole, Campbell let Merger go and the horse surged ahead, coming home in 1:56⅗ three lengths ahead of Icarus Lobell. For the day, Merger collected $99,492.
Paula Campbell dabbed at tears of joy, and Mulderig explained to the press why harness horses were a better investment than oil. The question came up whether Merger should challenge Cam Fella, the year's other top pacer, who was not eligible for the Jug. "We'll race for half a million," said Finder. "Winner take all." Twenty minutes later, a huffing, puffing Vincent Vinci came storming up to confront the Merger camp. Vinci is the 71-year-old part owner of No Nukes. He also has the ample body of a pizza parlor owner. Plus, he's talkative, as in nonstop, and very flamboyant, given to pulling thousands of dollars out of his pocket on small pretext. Naturally he's from New York. "Listen," he yelled, pushing up front. "You can't leave me out. You can't leave me out. I'll put up $300,000 and race both of you."
Put off by this intrusion, Mulderig sniffed. "I don't feel like a challenge today," he said.
"Listen to 'em," said Vinci, shaking like jelly as the Merger group turned and walked away. "I want to be part of this challenge. You're afraid, you're...." Vinci stood there taunting. "I'll have the money in 24 hours," he yelled. "You won today. Big deal. I'll race...."
Yes, harness racing is changing. No more country fair. These days, it's more like a circus.