John Chapman was puzzled. The little Canadian trainer-driver knew he had the best horse in last Saturday night's $122,732 Messenger Stakes at Roosevelt Raceway. The trouble was, he did not know which one. Was it J. R. Skipper, a speedy son of Meadow Skipper with a record of 17 victories in 27 starts? Or was it Valiant Bret, one of Bret Hanover's fleeter offspring who had got to the finish line first in 10 of 17 starts? "I dunno," said Chapman. "All I know is that it's one of them."
Chapman qualified both 3-year-old colts for the Messenger in separate heats early in the week, and then he rushed for a telephone. "I can't be in two sulkies at the same time," he told Russell Miller, one of the owners of J. R. Skipper. "What do I do?" Miller told him to call Harry Tudor, the chief trainer for Valiant Bret's owner, P.G. and Jere Gray.
"You've got a problem," said Tudor. "Who asked you first?"
"Miller," Chapman said.
"Done," said Tudor, "but since you can't drive Valiant Bret, how about getting Lucien Fontaine?" That, too, was "done."
The action next shifted to the grave of Messenger, which, as all trivia gamesmen know, is in the front lawn of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter N. Frank Jr. in Matinecock, Long Island. The progenitor of all standardbreds (he was a thoroughbred, but let's not go into that) was buried there in 1808. The location is 10 miles from Roosevelt Raceway, and occasionally—with publicity, not sentiment, in mind—the drawing for post positions for this segment of pacing's Triple Crown is held there. "O.K., let's get to it," said John Cashman Sr., one of Roosevelt's judges, as he dropped 10 pills into a small plastic cup.
"Hold it," said Al Winters, an architect and part owner of Steel Byrd, a Billy Haughton-trained colt who had finished sixth in a qualifying heat and thus apparently had been ousted from the final. "I want a pill for my horse."
"You aren't eligible," said the confused Cashman.
"According to the race conditions we are," Winters said. And he proved it. By the book, the top four finishers in each of the two eliminations automatically make up the field for the final. But Race Secretary Larry Mallar can add other horses to make up eight separate betting interests, and since Chapman had his two as an entry and Haughton had two others (Golden Shadrack and Keystone Smartie), spots were open for two additional starters. Mallar had filled these spots by adding the fifth-place finisher from each elimination heat.
"There's another condition," Winters said. "Horses are to be added on the basis of time, not finish." His Steel Byrd had finished in 2:02[4/5]; Otaro Hanover had finished fifth in the other division in 2:03[1/5]. Mallar conceded the point, but that raised yet another problem. Since Steel Byrd joined the Haughton entry, there was still a place for Otaro Hanover—but not enough pills. They had brought but 10. A man was dispatched to Roosevelt to get one more.
When the additional pill arrived Steel Byrd drew No. 8, an unwelcome outside post. "You can't win them all," Winters said. Bret Over Again got the coveted inside post with Valiant Bret No. 3 and J. R. Skipper out in No. 7.
Unfortunately, no pills were drawn for Ricci Reenie Time, Armbro Nesbit or Faraway Bay, who were expected to be among this year's top 3-year-old pacers but who, for a variety of reasons, were not around for Saturday's final. It is said that Ricci Reenie Time is the best of them all but can't handle a half-mile track. Harold Dancer Jr., his trainer, denied this and claimed his star colt just was not yet ready. Faraway Bay escaped from a barn fire that killed six other horses in February, but suffered from smoke inhalation and has been slow to recover. Armbro Nesbit, a tremendously talented animal, is trying to surmount both a throat disorder and some dubious handling by Owner-Trainer-Driver Duncan MacDonald. The colt has raced with a fever, gone a full mile after pacing a solo :57[3/5] half-mile because everyone but MacDonald saw a recall signal, and was parked four wide to finish a gasping eighth in one of last week's eliminations. For his next act he may go blindfolded while pulling a Sherman tank.
No matter. Everyone has problems, and not the least of Chapman's was what to tell Fontaine, the super-substitute. First Chapman told him to have a breakfast of hot cereal, to take some vitamins and get a lot of rest, and that he would send a chauffeur to drive him to the track. Then he told Fontaine that Valiant could win wire to wire in two minutes.
"With his post position," Chapman said, "he's got every right to win. I hope I win, but if I don't I'll be rooting for him. It's a strange situation, but not an unhappy one."
Fontaine himself said, "There isn't much a trainer can tell me. I'm a professional. I do what I think is best in a race. I expect people to respect my ability. I don't like anyone telling me how to drive a race. John said I can put this horse out in front and win from there and that's what I'll be trying to do."
And that's what he did, in 2:00[3/5]. As expected, Bret Over Again, the second choice in the betting, took the early lead from his No. 1 post position, but almost as quickly lost it to Valiant Bret. After that everyone played and lost a game of catch-up. Whatever chance Chapman had was dispatched when he twice got caught up in a tangle with long shot Dana Lobell, once just after the start and again in the backstretch. He did well to finish third by a neck behind Bret Over Again, three-quarters of a length behind his entry mate.
When Fontaine went into the winner's circle to pick up the trophy and the check for the largest purse he had ever won, $61,366.25, the crowd of 28,207, which thought, wrongly, that he had cut off Bret Over Again near the finish, gave him a standing, ah, booing. He was stunned.
"I didn't know whether they were booing me or the guy giving me the trophy," he said with a slight grin. "Maybe they just think I jumped in at the last minute and stole the race. But catch driving is my profession. I'm supposed to jump in and win races."
"Ah, them turkeys," said Del Insko, who had driven Steel Byrd to a fifth-place finish. "They boo and you can never figure out why." For fifth place, by the way, the Messenger paid $6,136.62. That is not a bad payoff for reading the fine print.