One of these times, when the moon is in Saturn and Pluto is descending, Nero is going to wedge himself into a box and pick the wrong door to exit; or he is going to misread the racetrack and break stride; or he will wake up sick or tired or bored. Or something. One of these times.... It has a futile ring to it, like hoping your boss didn't notice how late you were for work.
Last week, however, Nero was his same young spectacular self, edging still closer to the stuff of legend. He captured the $200,000 Cane Pace at New York's Yonkers Raceway Saturday night, doing it with style and dash. In two heats, he won from behind, and he won from in front. And above all, he did it easily, against all but one of the top 3-year-olds, in the first leg of pacing's Triple Crown. Nero now has had 22 races and has won 21, and he is beginning to provide tidbits for non-sports columnists. The latest news about his repertoire of idiosyncrasies is that he adores Country and Western music and nuzzles the radio whenever he hears it.
The only horse ever to beat Nero is Alert Bret, and a world-record time was necessary to earn him the distinction when the two met as 2-year-olds. But Alert Bret was cut from the Cane field early in the week because of a fever and a sore throat. The indisposition may have been opportune, like your son's stomachache the day of the algebra test. When the rivals met a few weeks ago in the Battle of the Brandywine, Nero was the beep-beeping roadrunner, Alert Bret the panting coyote, and Castleton Farm certainly is not anxious to have its colt acquire a defeatist attitude from beating his nose on Nero's rear wheels. At stake is more than just prize money. A $3 million offer was made for Nero last winter. If Alert Bret could somehow figure out how to beat him this year, his value would climb into that happy fiscal range, too.
Actually, Alert Bret's withdrawal produced a paradox for Nero: with his chief opposition home sick, it would be even harder for him to win. Eyeing second money, all sorts of horse owners entered the race, and the 13-horse field was split into two divisions with the top four finishers from each returning for the final. The arrangement would require Nero to race twice the same night, and his trainer, Jim Crane, was unhappy about the unaccustomed extra burden, though not about much else.
After years of handling mediocre racing flesh, Crane is now working with nobility, and he is under a lot of pressure to avoid a rash mistake. There is persistent backstretch talk that Nero's rivals are hoping he will be burned out this summer and they will be able to beat him at the end of the season. "I've heard that, too," says Crane, sounding like a man with a warehouse full of umbrellas who has just been told that storm clouds are developing. Crane points out that Nero will race in only 22 or 23 events this year, which is well below average. "I didn't want to give him too tough a schedule," he says. "We want him to race as a 4-year-old."
Del Miller, the redoubtable owner-trainer-driver, has been around harness tracks so long that he qualifies as a veteran legend, and he once helped Crane get a job training horses for a man in California. He thinks the only thing Nero's trainer is doing wrong is not asking for a bigger cut of the purses. "He's handling him perfectly," says Miller. "The great ones go on and race all year and keep getting better. I don't think he's going to burn himself out. It's like play for him. If I had Nero I'd do the same thing. I'd race him when the money comes up."
This year's Cane was the richest in Yonkers history and with the two divisions it was conceivable that a horse could win his division, finish second in the final and still take home $50,000—not as much as John Newcombe got for finishing second to Jimmy Connors, but still enough for a lot of oats.
With a glance toward the feed bag, Miller entered his filly, Tarport Hap, in the Cane. Miller's lady is no tramp. She and Silk Stockings are this season's top 3-year-old pacing fillies. For reasons that are obscure, the females of the species seem to be handicapped as pacers. Not one is yet listed among the top 25 money-winners, while the three alltime richest trotters are all mares. Still, Tarport Hap is a fine pacer, so well regarded that she and Silk Stockings are considered candidates to challenge Handle With Care as the best pacing filly ever. But Silk Stockings already had been beaten twice by Nero, so her judicious owners skipped the Cane and raced her for a smaller purse at Monticello, N.Y. last week. You could accuse Nero of scare tactics.
The draw put Tarport Hap, Billy Haughton's highly regarded Brets Champ and Nero all in the same division, with Nero receiving the unpromising extreme outside position. Crane has a superstition about never attending the drawing, but lately Nero has been getting the outside post a lot. "Maybe I better start going to them," said Crane.
On Saturday night, Nero went off as the 1-to-9 favorite in the first division, and driver Joe O'Brien quickly pulled him back and down to the rail at the start. Nero's inclination is to race, so O'Brien held him off the starting gate as it swung away, rather than go charging pell-mell into the tight first turn on the half-mile track. (The stewards thought he was too far off the gate and fined him $50). On the first trip by the grandstand, however, O'Brien displayed Nero's class. The normally reticent driver allows that it is difficult to rate Nero because his gait is so smooth that it is hard to tell how fast he is going. This time O'Brien opened him up, and in a stretch of 220 yards Nero rocketed from last to first, passing the others as if they were so much scenery.
"It was unbelievable the way he went by," said Haughton in the paddock after Nero beat Tarport Hap by three lengths in 1:59[3/5]. Brets Champ was third.
Alberts Star equaled Nero's time while winning the second division. Driven by Herve Filion and owned partly by Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player Rod Seiling, Alberts Star made a rush at the wire to beat Momentum by a length.
Nero had the rail for the final, which Yonkers had the good sense to make a non-betting event. The track lost $7,700 in minus place and show pools for the first-division race. With the inside post position, Nero appeared invincible and the opposition was wary. Several weeks ago Haughton had the temerity to urge Brets Champ to pace with Nero, and wound up sixth with a dead-tired horse. "They just don't realize how much speed he's got," says O'Brien.
O'Brien showed them speed right from the start, cutting the first corner so finely that Nero actually nicked the rail. It was to be his closest call. The rest of the field raced for second place, which Alberts Star won by half a length over Tarport Hap. The filly could not hang on after trying to match Nero's blistering first half of 58[3/5]. Nero was first by a length and a half in 1:58⅘ tying the second-fastest time ever for a Cane Pace, and especially notable considering the damp track and unaccustomed exertion of two races. It was also the fifth time in eight starts this season that the horse had cracked the two-minute mark. One of these days, if his wheels come off, O'Brien falls asleep and Crane forgets to turn on the Country and Western music, Nero may lose. But don't bet on it.