Nothing warms the blood of a horse-player better than a sure thing, and no horseplayers needed warming more than the 24,117 at Roosevelt Raceway last Friday night, when the wind blew and the temperature dropped into the 30s. Better than thermal underwear, 10,000 cups of coffee and who knows how many bottles of booze was the presence of Bret Hanover, the surest sure thing since Eve and her apple.
A bet on the colt is as safe an investment as A.T. & T. He has won all 36 of his starts at pari-mutuel race tracks. Eight times tracks barred him from the betting or declared the race a nonbetting contest. But a $2 wager on Bret's nose the other 28 times would have netted, by now, a $16.90 profit—not much, but more than A.T. & T. would have paid.
When Bret won last week's Messenger Stakes, and with it pacing's Triple Crown, 85% of the money wagered on the race was on the colt. A New York State law requires tracks to pay winning bettors at least 10¢ on every dollar, so when there are too many winners and too few dollars in the mutuel pool the track must ante up the rest. If there is anything more certain than bettors liking sure things, it is racetracks not liking them.
Roosevelt just plain refused to sell $50 and $100 show tickets on the Messenger, but the maneuver did not work. The $100 show bettors put their hundreds on Bret to place, and Roosevelt wound up with the biggest minus pool in history.
Even more remarkable are statistics on Bret's racing career. Now 3, he has won 45 of 48 races. In the past season he won 21. It took Carry Back, Native Dancer and Tom Fool all their racing lives to win that many. This year Bret's schedule was even tougher than his competition. If he'd gone as many miles by ship as he went by truck he could have spent last week in Hong Kong. He won the Cane Futurity, first leg of the Triple Crown, last May, the Little Brown Jug, the second leg, in September, and somehow stayed in good enough condition to take the final leg in the wintry weather at Roosevelt. That, win or lose, is demanding too much of a classic colt.
Harness horses, like trackmen, train off and are not at their fastest or their best in damp, cold weather. It seems foolhardy for Roosevelt to have scheduled its one classic race when the weather was almost certain to be damp and cold. The track sets the date of the Messenger each year at the time it believes it can publicize the race best. In 1964 the stake was held in August, and Publicity Director Joe Goldstein explains, "The International swamped it. You can't promote two races like that at one time." (The crowd at last year's Messenger was 44,637, nearly twice last week's.)
Bret drew the unfavorable outside post position in the field of seven pacers, but he could have started on Old Country Road outside the track gate and still have beaten the others home. He was in front before the field went a quarter of a mile and led all the way to the finish. Little Rivaltime, who is partly owned by big Wilt Chamberlain, and Tuxedo Hanover challenged, but neither menaced. "They're just getting hot and tired," remarked a driver watching the race. Well, working up a little warmth wasn't such a bad idea.
STEAM RISES from Bret Hanover into the frigid air of the winner's circle as Driver Frank Ervin prepares to receive Messenger trophy from Roosevelt Raceway President Alvin Weil.