There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. Last week's $50,000 Temple Gwathmey, the world's richest steeplechase, which is run over two and one half miles and 13 fences, was a perfect illustration of this.
People who are seldom seen at Belmont Park went out to see Neji, the greatest steeplechase horse in the world, carry 176 pounds in defense of his Gwathmey success of a year ago, when he won under 173 pounds.
No horse had ever tried to carry 176 pounds in competition over a major track, and, as his groom suggested, Neji was trying to "carry more weight successfully than any other horse in the history of the Temple Gwathmey since hisself." It was also to be the last run for Neji on American soil, his owner, Mrs. Ogden Phipps, having decided that this supreme horse should be sent to England, France and Ireland next spring to try their finest jumpers. Since buying him in May of 1953 for $16,500 Mrs. Phipps has watched the son of Hunters Moon IV—Accra become the greatest money-winning jumper ever, with earnings of $267,664.
Forty-five minutes before the race, as Neji was led from his barn to the saddling shed, coteries followed on each side of him. Twice when he halted everyone halted. Both times he looked around, lifting his huge head into the dank mist. Then, as he started walking again, it was as if some strange blithe drummer were banging away and his followers picked up step and followed him. "Make way," his groom said, "make way for the horse what am!"
Upon reaching his stall he stood stoically while Mrs. Phipps quietly confided to her trainer, 29-year-old Mike Smith wick, "He's redder today than I've ever seen him before. Usually he's more chestnut but today he's a beautiful red, Mike. He seems just full of himself." Mike's brother, Pat, Neji's 31-year-old rider and the top jump jockey in the country, hooded Neji in old-rose blinkers and walked to the paddock.
Later, when Neji reached the track, people applauded him, perhaps for his outstanding record, perhaps for his remarkable durability, perhaps for the verve with which he takes his fences, caring not for the arduous ascents nor the dangerous descents under heavy weights. He walked to the starting barrier directly in front of the stands. Twice there were false starts, and as his seven opponents pranced and shook their heads Neji stood fast. Then, as the tape sprung, every eye seemed to look only at him, to make sure that he got away all right. He took his first fence poorly and at his second he landed poorly. He shuttled between fifth and sixth for a mile and a half but at the top of the backstretch as he started his run one could almost hear him crackle. He sailed over the 11th fence like a swallow and pounded toward the 12th, gaining on the front-runners. He cleared that easily and at the top of the stretch he was on the outside. At the last fence he seemed to know that this would be his last jump in America and he hoisted himself over it and past the leading Benguala.
But Benguala came again along the rail and Neji's legs hit the ground with the heavy strokes of a hammer beating on an anvil. He could maneuver his legs but not really stretch them out. In the last 200 yards the weight got him, and Benguala, with 29 fewer pounds on his back, had the advantage. Benguala beat him a desperate, thrusting head at the winning post.
Mrs. Phipps rose to leave her box, and Ray Woolfe, Benguala's trainer, came to shake her hand before receiving the trophy of victory. Mrs. Phipps nodded thanks and walked alone down under the stands to meet Pat Smithwick as he returned from the track. She grabbed Smithwick by the hand and said, "Pat, it was his greatest race."