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High-octane shockeroo

In the Cane Pace it was Happy Motoring all the way for driver Bill Popfinger and the wrong day at the pump for the two big favorites, Sonsam and Hot Hitter

Herve Filion, who has won more harness races in his career—almost 7,000—than any other driver, was sitting on a rail at New York's Yonkers Raceway the other evening, tracing lines in the dirt with his whip and saying, "If you brag about your horses or your kids, they'll prove you're a liar."

Two nights later, in the 25th annual Cane Pace, the first leg of pacing's Triple Crown, the 3-year-olds who had been billed as the best in the land—Hot Hitter and Sonsam—both made liars of legions of experts and bettors who had been convinced of their superiority.

Filion drives Hitter, a $21,000 bargain whose star status seemed secure after he had won at Yonkers a week earlier in 1:57⅖ three-fifths of a second off the track record. Filion discarded his own advice just before the Cane, predicting a win for Hitter. "He's the best," Filion said decisively. The other sure thing, Sonsam, has been syndicated and the current market value of the shares is $6.3 million, making him by far the most valuable standardbred ever. The way harness-racing folk had been talking up Sonsam all spring, he had become something of a legend before his time. Still, as a 2-year-old he won 14 of 17 races and $246,648. His syndicator and part owner, Morton Finder, was understandably rhapsodic before the Cane. "I've never seen a horse show any more speed," he said. "He has a chance to go undefeated from here on out and win $1 million."

These mighty words were turned to ashes Saturday night before a crowd of 13,860 by Happy Motoring, a lightly regarded bay colt whose presence in the Cane field was considered of interest mainly by hunch players with a taste for irony, local motorists being decidedly unhappy over the gas shortage. Before the first of two elimination heats, Bill Popfinger, Motoring's driver, wasn't overly excited about the total purse of $336,420, the biggest ever in New York for any kind of horse race. "It's not how much you're going for but how much you get," said Popfinger. As it turned out, he got $79,395. He also earned the respect of skeptical horseplayers who had sent Motoring off at 15 to 1 in his heat (the first four finishers in each of the two heats returned for a final mile) and 10 to 1 in the final.

The draw for the Cane, held at midweek, by chance placed the seven horses with the best records in one heat and the seven with the worst in the other. On Saturday the division of "others" was won by Armbro Ultrasonic, the longest shot in the race at 35 to 1. He was driven by an affable Canadian, Ron MacArthur, and his time was 1:58[2/5].

In the blue-chip second heat Filion, who hasn't won nearly $26 million in 26 years by being anybody's fool, set out to keep things under control. Taking the lead, he managed to back off Sonsam and the rest of the field in a most leisurely :30 quarter. The half went by in a somnambulant 1:00[4/5]. Sonsam was boxed in on the rail and racing roughly, and didn't get a chance to show off his heralded speed until too late. Filion, who picked up the pace in the last half mile, hung on to win by half a length. Sonsam, with George Sholty driving, was an easy second, and nobody much noticed that Happy Motoring, who had a horrible trip, going most of the way in sixth place, was third. The clocking was an unimpressive 1:58[4/5].

One of Sonsam's owners, Barry Epstein of Lexington, Ky., talked with Sholty in the paddock before the finals and then announced jauntily, "We'll win this one." It was anticipated that Hitter, with the inside post position, would try once again to keep Sonsam, in the No. 3 slot, slowed and trapped. Stymied in the early going, Sonsam made a move at Hot Hitter near the half-mile pole. He failed and dropped back. Then Sonsam's behavior became erratic. Nearing the three-quarter pole, he moved out into Most Happy Collins. Then, in the final turn, Sonsam veered wide. Popfinger, who has a deserved reputation for driving brilliantly in big races, dropped Happy Motoring inside and outsped Hot Hitter to the wire by a nose. "When it's that close," he said, "you always think you've won."

For his eccentric trip Sonsam, who got home third, was disqualified and placed last. Most Happy Collins moved up to third. It was obvious that the long-gaited Sonsam couldn't handle the tight turns of Yonkers' half-mile track—this was his first race on a half-miler—though Finder had insisted before the race, "If he loses, it won't be because of the track." Still, it will be surprising if Sonsam is seen on smaller tracks very often this season. And if he doesn't perk up soon, his racing days could be numbered because, as Finder says, "We're not going to let him make a bum out of himself. It's a glamour business, and the idea is not to lose the shine."

Happy Motoring is another talented and durable son of the sire Most Happy Fella. Popfinger has a knack for putting a gloss on average horses and making them look good. He still chortles when he talks of how he "kind of stole" last year's Little Brown Jug with the long-shot Happy Escort. And Happy Motoring looks at least as good as Escort.

One of Motoring's three owners, Secaucus, N.J. businessman Steve Ransom, said he had been ready to get out of the horse business, because "I've been in it since 1966 and had mostly failures." He only reluctantly got in on the purchase of Happy Motoring as a yearling. "When you pay $48,000 for anything, you feel like you overpaid," he said. But the Cane win lifted his spirits so sharply that by late Saturday night he was telling Popfinger he would spend $250,000 on yearlings in 1979.

Popfinger, standing under a sign in the office of Yonkers President Tim Rooney that reads, RELAX, WHY BE THE RICHEST MAN IN THE CEMETERY, took his victory more calmly. "There's no substitute for horsepower," he said.


Motoring mugs with Popfinger, wife Betty (left), groom Karen Bender and Yonkers exec Dan Rooney.