On an insufferably hot and humid afternoon five days before last Friday's $902,500 Meadowlands Pace, 30-year-old trainer/driver Mark O'Mara sat outside Jate Lobell's stall at Gaitway Farm in Manalapan, N.J., talking about his pacer, the favorite for the big race. The 3-year-old bay colt had won 23 of 25 races—including a stretch of 18 in a row—and $1,662,344 in his brief career, and he was being hailed as a superstar standardbred. "He's the best horse I've ever driven," O'Mara said. "He's been compared with Niatross and Nihilator." Then, ever cautious, he added, "But I don't get too worked up, because they'll break your heart, you know."
In the Meadowlands the horse the press had dubbed Jate the Great did just that. At the top of the stretch, Frugal Gourmet, the 6-1 fourth choice, had a 2½-length lead on the other 11 horses, and though Laag, a rare gray, made a monster move on the leader as they sped to the wire, Gourmet held on to win by a neck in a brisk 1:52.
Way back in seventh place was Jate the Late. "I have no excuses," O'Mara said afterward. "He just didn't have it tonight, but it was partly my fault. I should have been closer, more in contention. I was too far out of the race."
This was to have been the race in which Jate, last year's 2-year-old pacing champion, would avenge the two defeats of his career. He had finished second by 1½ lengths to Run the Table on May 22 and second by a neck to Frugal Gourmet in his July 10 elimination race for the Meadowlands. (The first four horses in each of the three eliminations qualified for the Pace.)
There were legitimate reasons for both losses. Run the Table's time in the New Jersey Sire Stakes, 1:51, was the fastest mile of the season. And Jate, who had led since the start, stayed right there with the Table, eyeball to eyeball, from the top of the stretch to just inside the eighth pole, where he got caught. No disgrace there. In the elimination race, Jate came up with a bruised foot while warming up and lost in a close finish. No disgrace there, either. Which is why the bettors made him the 4-5 favorite for the Meadowlands Pace.
But en route to the track on race day, O'Mara was caught in a New Jersey Turnpike traffic jam behind an overturned tractor-trailer, which left Jate standing in his trailer inhaling carbon monoxide for more than half an hour. When O'Mara tried to get by the mess by driving on the paved shoulder, a cop nailed him with a ticket. Although they didn't reach the Meadowlands until after the evening's second race, Mark and his father, Frank, also a trainer, were still confident about Jate's upcoming performance. "You might see a new record tonight," said Frank.
In the end, what decided the outcome were the street smarts of Frugal Gourmet's driver, Trevor Ritchie. Because it was a bulky field of 12, the horses had to start in two tiers, 10 in the front row, two in the back. Everybody expected the start to be a cavalry charge, with every driver trying to get out of traffic and into the lead. Instead, most held back, waiting for someone else to move in front.
That someone else turned out to be Montrachet, a 44-1 shot, who zipped to the lead with Burning Chance, 172-1, tucked in behind him. "I kind of half-dropped into the three hole halfway into the first turn," Ritchie said later. "When Montrachet started to relax, I just let Frugal drift around into the front, and the rest was history. I was surprised no one came at me earlier."
He wasn't the only one. The Meadowlands Pace featured the top four 3-year-old pacers in the country. All had had sub-1:52 miles this year, but at the top of the stretch, three of them—Run the Table, Laag and Jate—were in fourth, seventh and ninth place, respectively. When O'Mara tried to pass Laag, the gray just pulled away and left Jate floundering up the track. At the wire, it was Frugal Gourmet by a neck over Laag, who was a head in front of Run the Table. Jate finished more than four lengths behind the winner. "He just didn't fire," said O'Mara later. "I have no excuses. The only thing is, it's been a long season. Maybe it's all catching up with him. I don't know if he's race-weary or if there's something that's physically wrong with him."
As for the winner, Frugal Gourmet gave notice that there's more than one pacing star on the continent. Toronto lawyer Robert Burgess and his four partners paid only $15,000 for the small bay colt at the 1985 Kentucky Standardbred Sale. When Burgess got his purchase back to Canada, he had a homegrown trainer ready and waiting for the yearling: his 25-year-old son, Blair.
Frugal Gourmet got off to a slow start as a 2-year-old, winning only five of 14 races. He was so unimpressive the Burgesses didn't bother to nominate him to the Breeders Crown, one of pacing's top events. "He's lazy, very lazy," Blair said of his horse before the Meadowlands Pace. "He doesn't show any flash. That's why he's a surprise colt. He's also a moody horse. One moment he's very calm, the next he's rambunctious. I'm very happy when he's dull and ordinary because that's his best personality."
Gourmet looked to be a fairly ordinary dish as a 3-year-old, too, until the $1 million North America Cup at Toronto's Greenwood Raceway on June 20. He lost that race, but by only a nose, to Jate Lobell. "That's when I thought I might have a special horse," said Burgess, the trainer of last year's 3-year-old pacing champion, Amity Chef. "Coming so close to Jate, I thought he must be something."
In spite of Friday night's victory, Burgess wasn't ready to declare his horse the top 3-year-old pacer for '87. "You have to be on top for an extended period," said Robert. "You don't say Boris Becker is Bjorn Borg. This may be a strange thing to say, but I don't think it was necessarily Frugal's best race. He was a little bit more tired in the late stretch than I've seen him." Declared driver Ritchie, "The tank was empty."
So what, if anything, did the Meadowlands Pace prove? Will Jate be Great again? Is Frugal Gourmet only an appetizer, or the main course? According to Stan Bergstein, the executive vice-president of Harness Tracks of America, confusion may arise because this is such an excellent group of 3-year-old pacers, in depth and strength. "The fact that so many of them have beaten 1:52 makes it appear that this is the best crop in history," said Bergstein. "But August, September and October's races will determine whether it's a truly exceptional crop. You don't throw out Jate Lobell. I think he either needs a rest or there's something bothering him. That was not Jate Lobell you saw on Friday night." Says O'Mara, "He's always rebounded in the past. It's tough at the top, because there's only one place to go. But he'll fight another day."