Speedy Somolli, a colt that has had more excuses made for him than any animal since the Cowardly Lion, won the Hambletonian last Saturday in Du Quoin, Ill. He not only won two of three heats in textbook style on a perfect summer day but also trotted the first of them in a world-record 1:55.
It's not that Speedy had been all that unspeedy this year. Before the Hambo, he had won six of his 12 starts and earned more than $211,000, tops among 3-year-old trotters. The thing is, so very much was expected of him. Some horsemen were figuring Speedy to so dominate his class this year that he would come to Du Quoin with perhaps 12 wins in 15 starts and maybe earnings of $400,000 or so, and generally display a talent for trotting on water.
This unbridled enthusiasm began a year ago this month when Ann Beissinger of Hamilton, Ohio, half owner of Speedy, heard that people might be willing to pay huge amounts of money to buy the colt. Subsequently, when Speedy went 1:57⅖ a world record for 2-year-olds, $1 million was the talking figure. Ann's husband, veteran trainer and driver Howard Beissinger, was impressed, and the couple talked it over.
"Sounds pretty good," said Howard.
"Naw, I think I'll hold out for $2 million," said Ann.
"I'd be ashamed to ask anybody that much."
Whereupon Alan Leavitt, owner of Lana Lobell Farms, offered $2 million, most ever for any 2-year-old of any breed. Ann's partner in Speedy, Kim Mumma of Harrisburg, Pa., was reluctant to sell the first racehorse she had owned but succumbed to Ann's logic. "Look, we can each be a million-dollar baby," she said. As the deal evolved, Howard Beissinger and Bob Mumma each wanted 10% of Speedy, which they purchased from the women. Leavitt, who didn't care how much he owned as long as he had controlling interest, took 51%. The remaining 29% was purchased by Bill Rosenberg, chairman of the board of Dunkin Donuts, Inc., who when offered the chance to buy part of Speedy could hardly wait to spend the required $585,000. Rosenberg has been involved in many horse deals (he owns $400,000 worth of Green Speed, who last year set the world record Speedy eclipsed) and recalls the time that Delvin Miller failed to win with a favored Rosenberg horse. A gloomy Miller telephoned, but Rosenberg abruptly dismissed the apologies, saying, "No problem, Delvin. We'll just make the holes in the donuts bigger."
So the sheer amount of money involved focused attention on Speedy's 3-year-old campaign. But in view of the colt's success Saturday, he likely was a bargain at $2 million because the win has upped his stud value enormously. That's next year. This year, he's not done racing. With victories in the Yonkers Trot and the Hambletonian, he now points for the Oct. 6 Kentucky Futurity at Lexington's Red Mile, where a victory would make him the first horse to win trotting's Triple Crown since Super Bowl in 1972.
Do the Beissingers or Mummas then regret selling most of Speedy? "Not at all," says Kim Mumma. "After all, when you're talking about any more than $2 million for a horse, isn't that simply greed?" Besides, this isn't the first Hambo winner Beissinger has sold. He had Speedy Crown, Speedy Somolli's sire, judged him "average" and sold him for $20,000. He continued to train him, however, and Speedy Crown went on to win the Hambletonian in 1971. A third Beissinger-trained colt, Lindy's Pride, triumphed in 1969.
But Speedy's price bugged a lot of eyes because of the colt's well-documented history of breaking stride. Last year he had six breaks in 16 starts. This year he has had four. Beissinger kept saying, "He's just too anxious to win."
He broke in a qualifying race in May, but Beissinger says the start was poor and it wasn't Speedy's fault; he broke at the Meadowlands, but Beissinger says he tried to get him in gear too fast and it wasn't Speedy's fault; he broke at Roosevelt, but Beissinger says the track was poor in the turns and it wasn't Speedy's fault; he broke at the Meadows last month, but Beissinger says the starting gate dipped back a bit and it wasn't Speedy's fault. By Hambo time, however, even Beissinger was about fed up. "Frankly, I'm getting tired of making excuses," he said.
All this gave rise to backstretch gossip that as fast as Somolli was, his competitive heart was small. Other horses were going quicker this year, including his chief rivals, Brisco Hanover and Florida Pro, both of whom had trips in 1:56 compared with Speedy's best of 1:57[4/5]. In five meetings with Florida Pro, Speedy lost four times; when Speedy set his world record at age two, Brisco came back the same afternoon and bettered it.
Against this backdrop of skepticism, Speedy and Beissinger went to work at Du Quoin. "I want him to win to eliminate all these doubts about him," said Ann Beissinger. Bob Mumma says that when he was taking a shower the morning of the race, the soap broke and he told his wife, "I hope that's the only break I'm connected with today." But a more substantive omen was Speedy's drawing the No. 1 post position in the field of eight. Critics immediately said that considering the trouble the colt often has at the gate, the inside wouldn't help him. But it did. For Speedy, the 4-to-5 betting choice, wired the first heat in world-record time. Nonetheless, past blunders were clearly on Beissinger's mind when he said after the heat, "He didn't feel like he wanted to make a mistake today."
Like most everything for Speedy, it wasn't easy. He was challenged most of the way after a leisurely 30-second first quarter. And coming home, Brisco had plenty of trot, except that driver Jim Miller, who was to have a frustrating day, was boxed in. For a moment, though, he thought he had enough daylight to squeeze between Beissinger on the rail and Florida Pro, driven by George Sholty, on the outside. Brisco got through but the sulky didn't, failing to clear Beissinger's bike by about an inch and a half. Miller then veered out into Sholty. The judges immediately moved Florida Pro, who had finished third, up to second and Brisco down to third. Miller didn't complain. "If I had made it," he said, "I would have been a hero."
After resting the colts 78 minutes, everyone went back to try again in the second heat. At the Hambo, the first horse to win two heats wins the event, a scheme that can require as many as four races, the last being a race-off if no horse wins two heats. Effective in 1981, there will be a maximum of three heats, with a different format prevailing. In the second heat, several in the field who didn't figure to win or even come close—including 99-to-1 Brilliant Yankee driven by Ben Webster—went out fast. Speedy got the lead at the three-quarter mark, but in the stretch Florida Pro was too tough and won in a photo, equaling Speedy's new world record of 1:55. Once again, Brisco Hanover was pushing hard, and Miller conceded he might have pulled out from behind Florida Pro a trifle early. Chortled Sholty, "Florida Pro has always had a pretty good attitude about going forward."
As time for the third heat approached, the feeling around the paddock was that Speedy Somolli was through. The same feeling swept the betting windows, where fans made Florida Pro first choice, Brisco second and Speedy third. Once again, Brilliant Yankee was an early leader, mixing it up with and confusing the big boys. But by the stretch, everything was sorted out and there was Brisco alongside Speedy on the lead. Beissinger says Jim Miller never got Brisco past him; Miller says he did. The patrol film supported Beissinger. Regardless, they were at each other's throats. Then, 20 feet from the finish—just as it appeared that a dead-tired but dead-game Brisco might come on to win—he broke stride. "You would have expected that Speedy would have been the one to do something like that," said one horseman. For his three miles of hot work on a dusty road, Speedy earned $120,640. Florida Pro was second, Brisco third.
For Beissinger it was an exhilarating day. "I kept telling myself," he said, "that I shouldn't feel any pressure. But I did." That figures. For money is getting big and Leavitt is one of the key men in horse inflation because of his willingness to pay big bucks in sales and syndications. Big results are thus expected.
The result of the Hambo was a big one for Speedy Somolli and he earned every dollar of it. But for Howard Beissinger, the win meant that for once, as he relaxed with well-wishers and a few friends in his mobile home, parked less than 100 yards from Speedy's stall, he didn't have to make any excuses.
On the rail and en route to a second win, Beissinger and Speedy are challenged by Miller and Brisco.