Gene Riegle is a soft-spoken, perpetually smiling 44-year-old driver from Ohio who badly wanted to make the $92,000 Adios his first victory in a big-time harness event. But Riegle was no hungrier for a win in this rich race for 3-year-olds than was Canadian Keith Waples, who previously had won big races and big purses driving favored Strike Out. Waples' appetite for victory was whetted because he had almost lost his seat in Strike Out's sulky shortly before the start of the final heat of The Adios. As a result, when the two of them met on the track at The Meadows near Pittsburgh last Saturday night, Riegle and Waples both drove so hard that it was a full eight minutes after they had crossed the finish line before either knew what had happened. As the tote board lights finally flashed, two numbers appeared, one and nine, indicating the first dead heat ever in a classic harness race.
"It's as good as winning it all," said Riegle as officials draped the blanket of orchids over both his Jay Time and the colt from Canada. "We've been trying to beat Strike Out all season."
"I'm glad it turned out like this," said Waples. "It was such a great race and so close all the way, it would have been a shame for either of us to lose."
Losing is something neither colt has been doing much of lately. Strike Out, last year's top 2-year-old pacer, went into The Adios with seven wins and five seconds in 14 outings. He was looking for his fourth straight victory. Jay Time had won four straight before finishing second to Strike Out two weeks ago at Yonkers. But they would not be simply challenging each other in The Adios, for the field was head to head with excellent entries, including Lynden Bye Bye, another Canadian colt, Johnny Simpson Jr.'s Hilarious Way, winner of the Cane Futurity, and Billy Haughton's Cory, who held the fastest time in the record 16-horse field with a 1:56[3/5] at Vernon Downs in July. Due to the long list of challengers the field was split into two divisions, with the top five finishers in each returning for the final. "There are so many good pacers this year, you can't blame them all for wanting to get in," said Del Miller, who owned the famed Adios and inaugurated the race named after him six years ago.
The first heat was a romp for Johnny Simpson and Hilarious Way as they finished 5¼ lengths ahead of 14-to-1 shot Good Bye Columbus. The draw for the heats put most of the toughest horses—Cory, Lynden Bye Bye, Strike Out and Jay Time—in the second race and left the drivers of other pacers wishing they had stayed home. "It was my luck to draw this heat," moaned Canadian Jack Kopas before he took Shadow Star onto the track. "I've got the six post, and it'll be a tough trip. I guess I should have sent my colt back to Canada."
Kopas, who finished last, was right, but another Canadian, banjo-playing Harold McKinley who drove Lynden Bye Bye, had a surprise for both Riegle and Waples. Jay Time took the lead at the half-mile pole with Strike Out sitting fourth and Lynden tucked in behind. McKinley made his move on the final turn and roared up the outside. When the dust on the stretch had cleared, Lynden had beaten Strike Out by a nose and Jay Time by 2¾ lengths.
But it was McKinley's turn to moan as the post positions for the final were drawn. "I've got No. 2, and I'll never make it out of there," he said. "Lynden just doesn't get away from the gate fast enough." Riegle winced as he and Jay Time drew No. 5. "Looks like another rough trip," he said.
Strike Out's outspoken owner, John Hayes, could not have been happier. Strike Out was posted No. 3 with Hilarious Way one and Good Bye Columbus four. "We should do it this time," Hayes said. He then kept Driver Waples in suspense for a little while as he pondered what to do about a driver for Alley Fighter, his other entry who had qualified with a fourth-place finish in the first race.
Waples, a gallant little man who has been driving harness horses in Canada for 35 years but only in the last few has gained prominence in the States, offered to drive Alley Fighter and let Hayes take Strike Out. "Hmmm," said Hayes and went up to the barn to put on his silks. When he came down in his green and pink Bee Jay Stable colors he had already given officials his answer: he would drive Alley Fighter. "I'll just be out there for the ride, anyhow, since Alley Fighter has No. 8. Who in the world would take Keith off of Strike Out now? Certainly not me."
It was 11:45 and the fog was rolling in over the hills of western Pennsylvania when the drivers were at last called to their horses. "Well, here goes," said Riegle. "I'd sure like to win this for Mr. Baas." Jay Time's owner Carl Baas, a 71-year-old fertilizer dealer from Columbus, Ohio, bred the Knight Time colt and assigned Riegle to train him.
"If you see me in trouble, you better try to come get me," Waples said to Hayes. And they were off.
Jay Time broke to the lead, but by the half, Strike Out had taken over. They were speeding along toward the ¾ pole when Haughton drove Cory three wide up the backstretch to challenge the leaders. As they turned into the stretch, it was impossible to determine whether Strike Out, on the rail, or Cory was leading. At the same moment Riegle, who had been sitting in third, sailed Jay Time to the outside and drew up even with Waples' colt. For the last 110 yards Jay Time and Strike Out raced neck and neck with Cory nestled between them. When they hit the wire in 1:59⅖ it was so close that nobody even offered an opinion on the winner. The photo showed two noses directly on the wire with Cory, also timed at 1:59⅖ half a length behind. "The greatest finish ever," said Riegle as he shook hands with Waples back in the paddock. Keith Waples gallantly nodded his head.