On Monday of last week, just five days before the fifth Messenger Stake at Roosevelt Raceway, Delvin Miller, owner, breeder, trainer, driver, waiter, porter and upstairs maid of harness racing, stood on the practice tee of a Long Island golf course slapping balls into long and very straight flight.
At 46, Del Miller is short and balding and partial to checked flannel shirts, cigar stabs and racing purses in excess of $25,000. On first sight he could be mistaken for a square-dance caller at the Grange instead of the compleat horseman that he is. (Within the last 10 years, for instance, he has won every major harness race in America and has accounted for nearly $3 million in purses as a driver and $10 million as a breeder.)
Each time that Miller hit a good golf shot, a large smile would smear his face and he'd whisper softly to himself, "Youuu boy!" When he had finished poking golf balls he stepped back from the tee and directly into a question. "Del, since the Messenger is the richest harness race ever contested [gross value $142,786], just how does it shape up in your mind, and how does it feel to know that four of the five possible favorites are either sired by or directly related to your stallion, Adios?"
Del Miller's head rolled slowly from side to side. The name Adios causes his brown eyes to grow misty and his ears to hear the pounding of many distant drums. In 1948 he had bought Adios for $21,000, and within seven years, through stud fees and yearling sales, Adios had brought Miller more than $1 million In 1955 he had sold a two-thirds interest in the prize stallion to Lawrence Sheppard's Hanover Shoe Farm for a then record price of $500,000, thoughtfully retaining the one-third interest for himself.
"Well," said Miller, "this Messenger field is big and bulky. There will probably be 10 or 11 starters. The biggest problem is going to be getting away from the gate in a good position. The fight to the first turn is going to be important. I believe that the toughest horses in the race will be Major Goose, Merrie Gesture and Muncy Hanover. They are all good pacing colts and seem to be pointing for this race. My filly, Countess Adios, is a real good filly, but to tell the truth I'd like to have gotten another race into her before the Messenger. I'd say I was proud of Adios, mighty proud, but then I always have been."
Major Goose was well qualified to offer firm opposition to Miller's filly. This year he had started six times and had won four. Muncy Hanover is half ice, half iron; tiny yet durable and totally capable of beating any three-year-old pacer in the land. Merrie Gesture had slowly been approaching the top of his form and, if he had really achieved it, was the equal of any horse in the field.
Countess Adios, of course, would also have to be considered among the best of her generation. Last year she won 17 of 28 races and was in the money on six other occasions. This season she won her first start at Roosevelt Raceway and then finished fourth behind Betting Time in a division of the Messenger Trial two weeks ago. In the draw for post position Countess Adios, the only filly among the 10 starters, won post three. CM. Saunders' Major Goose, the post-time favorite at 2 to 1, drew post nine, right behind post one but in the second tier, and the tiny Muncy Hanover drew number five.
Three days before the race Miller was again talking about Countess Adios and her Messenger potential. "I'm a lucky man," he said, "to have a horse in the Messenger at all. When you consider that more than 1,000 horses were nominated to the race back in 1958, you realize just how heavily the odds are stacked against you. Some people may think that a field of 10 horses is too big for a major race on a half-mile track, but I'd like to say that of all the big races I've ever seen I can't remember seeing a bad horse win a one of them. It will take a good horse to win this Messenger, and there are plenty of good ones in it. I think I have a pretty good chance, probably as good a chance as anyone."
Billy Haughton, who trained the long-shot entry of Devon Goose and Prince Dares for the Messenger, summed the race up perfectly just after Miller had finished speaking. "My horses," said Haughton, "are kind of nice horses, but I don't believe they have too much class. Devon Goose leaves the gate pretty good, but he's liable to get hung up on the outside. Major Goose has way the best post position, but he may never get away from the fence. I've thought this thing over, and Delvin's filly might just be able to handle these colts. She's tough, and you know that if Delvin didn't think he had a real good chance to win, he wouldn't put her in against the colts. You must remember," continued Haughton, "that a good filly can beat good colts, but she's got to be a real good filly." (Haughton had won the first Messenger in 1956 with a fine filly named Belle Acton.)
On Saturday night, before the race, Del Miller stood by his locker in the drivers' room and wiggled into his gold and brown silks. He walked slowly to the paddock and examined his horse. "She's as ready as she'll ever be," he said slowly. As he went onto the track the loudspeaker was pumping out Camptown Races. "Ladies and gentlemen," said the velvety voice of an announcer with the unbelievable name of John Frogge, "The Messenger! The supreme test for 3-year-old pacers."
At the start Burwell Hanover got off to a momentary lead, but Muncy Hanover drove up on the outside and took the front at the quarter, with Countess Adios fourth and on the outside. Miller kept trying to circle horses and take the lead and, finally, after a half in 1:00 3/5, Countess Adios did it.
SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL
At the three-quarter pole, Major Goose, just as Haughton had guessed, was still locked in tight against the fence. Miller gathered his reins in his left hand and gave the Countess two or three slaps with his whip. She responded instantly. As the horses hit the paddock turn, Miller gave her a breather, but at the head of the stretch, with Major Goose starting to get free, Miller shook Countess Adios up once again. The Countess was driving and tired, but she hung on as if she were representing all the world's fillies against this field of colts. She had enough left to win by a length and a quarter, and as Del Miller got a few feet from the finish line, his mouth opened and he shouted, "Youuu boy!"
When he came back to the paddock and dismounted, he shouted, "Youuu boy!" once more, this time to the grooms. "Countess Adios is a rugged filly but not a big one," Miller said. "It took quite a bit out of her to circle horses, but she's as game as they come." Miller went back to the drivers' room once again, receiving congratulations as he went. He picked up the stub of an old cigar, sat on a bench with his driving jacket unbuttoned and his cap off. He looked around the quiet room, then jumped to his feet, clenched his fists, raised them high overhead and gave one last "Youuu boy!"
A JOYFUL MILLER PETS THE COUNTESS