Suddenly, as the 12 horses turned for home on a muggy summer evening at New Jersey's Meadowlands, there occurred one of those rare and magical moments. For the first three-quarters of Friday's prestigious Meadowlands Pace it had been simply a good, competitive race involving the nation's best 3-year-old pacers. Nothing more. Then, in the final quarter mile, the 30,579 fans leaped to their feet, seemingly in unison, in the shared realization they were no longer watching just a horse race; they were watching the birth of a legend.
Nihilator is his name, world-record racing is his game, and make no mistake, he either is, or very soon will be, the greatest harness horse ever—and that will be his fame. All this was made obvious Friday night at the Meadowlands when Nihilator first devastated, then demolished, a first-rate field, winning the one-mile pace by 7¼ lengths. His time of 1:50[3/5] tied the best-ever mark set last year by Colt Fortysix.
To be sure, this is a conservative sport that will declare no horse a legend before its time. Understand that Dan Patch, who turned in 10 undefeated seasons, is pacing's idol—and he raced at the turn of the century. What troubles traditionalists is the fact that it was just yesterday—O.K., so it was in 1979 and '80—that Niatross broke all the records and did everything a great pacer can do. He be-grudgingly was conceded to be the best ever, however tacky it may be to bestow such status without letting a decent period of time go by—say 70 or 80 years. How awful to say that Niatross was better than Dan Patch. And to propose that Nihilator may be better than Niatross.
But there is some consolation in the fact that it's all in the family; Nihilator—courageous, powerful and long-striding—is a son of Niatross.
The principal owner of Nihilator is Lou Guida, who also has a controlling interest in Niatross. Guida is a former Jersey City shoeshine boy and high school dropout who can't walk down the street these days without money sticking to him something awful. An executive with Merrill Lynch, he latched onto a 50% interest in Niatross for $4.2 million and syndicated the colt for $10 million; Niatross now makes $8 million every year in stud fees. Guida bought Nihilator for $100,000 (one of 35 Niatross offspring that Guida owns at least part of) and syndicated him for $19.2 million. Nihilator's worth is now estimated at $30 million, which puts Guida's 29% share of the colt at $8.7 million.
Guida had big pieces of four of the first six finishers in the $1,018,000 Meadowlands Pace, including Chairman of the board, who was second; Primus, fourth; and Pershing Square, sixth. Nihilator, Chairman and Primus earned purse money totaling $844,940. Guida, whose calculator works even faster than his tongue ("Look, when you win, you're supposed to boast and be happy"), says these four colts will produce $120 million over the next 20 years. "To make money in this game," says Guida, "you only have to be enterprising. It's not hard."
As it turned out, it wasn't quite so easy for the Meadowlands to cash in on the big race. Because of Guida's part ownership of four of the horses, plus his indirect involvement with a fifth, Handsome Sum, all five were required under racing rules to be part of one entry. Ultimately, $829,604 was bet on this entry to show, a near certainty in a most uncertain sport. Because the rules also require a minimum payment of $2.10 on each winning $2 bet, a minus pool resulted, and the Meadowlands had to cough up $171,011.15 to cover the deficit. Shed no tears for the track, though. Thanks to a whopping $4.6 million handle for the night, the Meadowlands, which gets about 12.7% of the action, took in approximately $584,000.
But Nihilator's flaming performances transcend money. And it's a hot topic of conversation as to whether Nihilator is already better than Niatross. "Sure he is," says the colt's trainer, Billy Haughton, hardly an unbiased observer. "Yup," says Guida, who does have the decency to note that without Niatross, there would be no Nihilator. Stan Bergstein, executive vice-president of the Harness Tracks of America and a keen observer of the sport, says it's close but that the nod probably goes to Nihilator.
Niatross won the Meadowlands Pace in 1980 by 4½ lengths, Bergstein points out; Nihilator won by 7¼. The time for Niatross was 1:53⅕ 2[3/5] seconds slower than Nihilator. In their 3-year-old seasons through the Meadowlands Pace, Niatross won races by a total of 27 lengths, Nihilator by 36¾. Some also might point out that Niatross won $2,019,213 during his career, while Nihilator already has won $41,771 more than that, but with purses growing every year this comparison may be less meaningful.
In fairness, a case can be made for Niatross, too. He was undefeated as a 2-year-old while Nihilator lost once; Niatross won pacing's Triple Crown and Nihilator can't because he wasn't entered in the first leg, the Messenger. Niatross was horse of the year as a 2-year-old; Nihilator wasn't. It's a photo finish, but unless something awful befalls him in the months ahead, the winner appears to be Nihilator.
Detractors say that Nihilator hasn't raced on the small, half-mile tracks and that his owner is avoiding them. Nope, says Guida, the colt will be on the small ovals, too, as he makes perhaps eight more starts between now and December. No ducking anybody, anywhere. Others are waiting to see. Niatross won 37 of 39 career starts while Nihilator has won 20 of 21. Certainly Guida wants no more losses for Nihilator.
Guida has a mouth that roars and often irritates. "I don't want to be unkind, because I'm rather a gracious guy, but Colt Fortysix was a very ordinary horse," he says. He also says there is no doubt that Nihilator will eventually clock an incredible 1:48, maybe even 1:47, way better than even Niatross's world time-trial record of l:49[1/5]. Haughton is a bit more guarded, saying, "I think he can do that, but until they do it, you don't know for sure."
What was for sure Friday night was that Nihilator is a man among boys. He was passed for a few seconds in the final turn by Anxious Robby, but it was a counterfeit move and that colt finished seventh. Still, Nihilator's driver, Bill O'Donnell, confessed, "That did put a thrill in me."
But when O'Donnell popped his whip against the sulky at the top of the stretch, Nihilator abruptly moved to another level. Perhaps to another world. In a flash he had a four-length lead, then five, then six.... Legendary stuff. Dan Patch and Niatross would understand.
Nihilator's 7-length victory was equally awesome live and on the infield screen.
Guida's five-horse entry cost the track money.
Driver O'Donnell (left) and trainer Haughton may have a pacing legend on their hands.