Joseph Cyril O'Brien of Shafter, Calif. is a small, white-haired man of 54 and just about as good a harness racing driver as this country has ever seen. Down the homestretch in a race, he rocks and rolls in the sulky with such fierce enthusiasm that he has been called Jiggling Jeezus. He is also a notable escape artist when seemingly pinned to the rail by outside horses. "Joe could drive through the eye of a needle," says fellow driver Delvin Miller. But during a long career in which he has won The Hambletonian and nearly every other major American race, Joe O'Brien has been as conservative off the track as he has been daring on it. He has shunned Easter-egg hues in his attire and saved a lot of breath by not using it in speech.
Suddenly last month a new Joe O'Brien appeared on the racing scene. He not only sported threads mod enough to win admiration at a teen rock dance, but he smiled, spoke, even cracked jokes. The occasion for this debut was a two-week spell of concentrated racing at 11 U.S. and Canadian tracks for what the Harness Tracks of America calls the world driving championship. And as the competition among drivers from eight countries came down to the last meeting—Saturday night at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Park—colorful Joe found himself in a rip-roaring race for the title with one Giuseppe Guzzinati of Turin, Italy.
No doubt many Americans have never had occasion to think of Italy as a major trotting country, but it is, and U.S. breeders have filled a few bushel baskets with lire selling racehorses across the Atlantic. Guzzinati, 41, a former professional soccer player of merry eye and robust physique, has with his brother Vittorio a stable of 90 trotters racing at Turin, Milan and Montecatini. As O'Brien got to know Guzzinati on the track and in the bus that wheeled the drivers from point to point like so many minor league baseball players, he slowly formed an opinion. "I'll tell you," O'Brien said, "he's an excellent driver. He always seems to know what kind of a horse he has—whether he can leave from the gate or whether it would be better to hang back a while. Just from his hands, he knows. Also, he is a very aggressive driver, and he never seems to be worried or nervous."
Says Herve Filion, Canada's entry in the championship, which he won in 1970: "Those hands of Giuseppe's! He sure knows how to rate a horse real good."
For his part, Giuseppe—Italian for Joseph—began calling O'Brien "Primo Joe" after the little Californian jiggled away with three straight races on a program at Northfield, Ohio. Guzzinati had scored a win, a second and two thirds at Chicago's May wood Park on opening night, so it was a duel of the Joes before the bussing, flying, whipping and battling had really begun.
Guzzinati and Willi Rode, the West German champion, were the songleaders and gloom-chasers on the endless road. They had become friends during the European championships a few weeks before—"like Siamese twins," Rode said—discovering they both sang well, had played soccer and liked a good time. Language was only a slight barrier since Marisa Guzzinati spoke a little German, and Annette, Rode's wife, could manage some English, while Hermann Gerbaulet, Annette's brother, who was along on this Babel bus, spoke both Italian and English as well as German.
O'Brien was in high spirits day after day. Once he turned to Vic Frost, the Australian entrant, and said, "Did you hear that guy on the far turn? When they announced I was the oldest driver and leading the series, he leans over the fence and yells, 'Hey, O'Brien, you shouldn't try to fool Mother Nature.'"
O'Brien certainly fooled the people who thought he was too busy to get into the series in the first place. At this time of year he normally trains 25 to 30 young horses at his farm, and then drives over two hours down to Los Alamitos near Long Beach for night racing.
O'Brien's wife Eileen caught up with the drivers in Toronto and it turned out hers was the hand behind the duding up of Joe. "I've been after him quite a while to get new clothes," said Mrs. O'Brien, "isn't it just great?"
Back in the U.S. the pace got more hectic. En route to New Jersey's Freehold Raceway the plane to Philadelphia was almost an hour late, a bus driver bustled everybody off toward Atlantic City instead, which was a 40-mile mistake, there was no time for lunch and the celebrated drivers missed post time for the first three of eight races.
Guzzinati summed it up in the Freehold paddock: "No lunch, no sleep, soon we'll have to live on love."
Or maybe love of winning, which is what he and O'Brien kept on doing. By last Saturday night at Liberty Bell, the tour's final stop, Guzzinati led O'Brien for the championship by a mere 25 points. When O'Brien won the first race and 50 points with a typical drive—sitting on the rail in third, then slipping through in the stretch—the situation was reversed. Guzzinati had to settle for fifth, worth only five points. In the next race a second-place finish (25 points) by Guzzinati and fifth for O'Brien put them dead even at 870.
Grim, tight-lipped and not a new Joe at all by now, O'Brien looked over the pacer he had drawn for the final race, a beast called Scottish Dancer, and shook his head, while Guzzinati pointed to the head pole on his horse. High Ace, and conferred with his interpreter. "Mal-e. Mal-e," he said, jerking his head to the left. "Is bad." But not too bad once the race began. Guzzinati passed O'Brien at the half to take the lead, and though O'Brien jiggled and jumped as hard as he could, he could not catch the Italian. Indeed, he was lucky to hang in for third place. The final score after 13 days of racing 920-900.
"Primo Joe," Giuseppe said later, extending his hand. "It is my honor to beat best of all."