The music of Glenn Miller filled the air at the Delaware County (Ohio) Fair last week as a three-piece combo played your favorites from the '40s to a record crowd of 47,153 gathered for the 40th Little Brown Jug, the third leg of pacing's Triple Crown. The Jug was the showcase of five days of racing, but there were other contests to be won. Blue ribbons were awarded for everything from pigs to potatoes to pies. And the sheep-shearing contest drew a standing-room-only crowd. It was like stepping back to a time in America when life was sweet and leisurely.
The Battle of the Jug seemed quite clear. There, the super colt Nihilator, the 3-year-old son of super sire Niatross, would meet the best pacers in the land on Delaware's half-mile track. Nihilator had already accomplished extraordinary feats in his brief career: He had won 24 of 26 races and $2,324,250, set the world record for the mile in 1:49[3/5] and been syndicated for a standardbred record of $19.2 million. But he had never raced on a half-mile track, and that bothered some of the experts who wondered if he could win going around eight corners. Veteran driver-trainer Billy Haughton had no doubts. "He's been a great horse almost from the start," Haughton said. "He's the best horse I've ever trained." Track management didn't have any doubts either and barred any betting on Nihilator in his elimination division.
It was a smart move. Nihilator won the heat by a length, then came back in the Jug final, where he was challenged every step of the way, to edge stablemate Pershing Square by a head and silence his detractors.
It was a small miracle that Nihilator raced at all, considering all the flimflam that had gone on. Earlier in the year it was announced that the colt, who had. skipped both the Messenger Stakes and the Cane Pace, the first two legs of the Triple Crown, would definitely race in the Jug. Then, on Sept. 11 came the word that Nihilator was "tired" and would forgo the Jug. This was followed by rumors of "heated discussions" among Haughton, driver Bill O'Donnell and Lou Guida, principal owner and syndicate manager for the Wall Street Stable, which owns the colt. The final decision to go wasn't made until the Friday night before the Jug, when Nihilator clocked a sensational 1:52[2/5] in the Dancer Memorial mile at Garden State Park. Said Guida, "The colt was so sharp and impressive we changed our minds." That was a royal we, of course.
Guida, a vice-president at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, has been getting a lot of heat from the sport's traditionalists, who claim he has manipulated the superb Nihilator as if he were just another speculative stock on the Exchange. Guida has not denied it. "Listen," he said the day before the race, "there may be 50,000 people here tomorrow, but there are eight people who invested with me in Nihilator. Love tradition, love the Jug, but Nihilator's interests come first."
Guida entered five of his pacers to ensure that there would be two elimination heats instead of one. Under the conditions of the race, if only 12 horses enter, there is only one elimination with two rows of starters; Nihilator could draw a bad post position and be stuck in the second tier. Nobody could say Guida wasn't protecting his investors.
By Wednesday, as the RVs and pickup trucks and campers poured onto the grounds, Guida's five-horse entry was being called the incredible shrinking entry. To no one's surprise, two of his horses, Port Stanley and Cruncher, had not even been shipped to Ohio; then Chairman of the board, winner of the Cane Pace, came down with a virus and was scratched. That left Nihilator and Pershing Square, winner of the Messenger Stakes, as the representatives of the Wall Street Stable.
Jug day at the Delaware fairgrounds is the ultimate family outing. The local schools and most businesses close, and this year, because of the mind-boggling 20-race card, the first post was moved to 11 a.m. Which is why people started to arrive at the track at 7 a.m. There was lots of eating and drinking and socializing, and, it seemed, not all that much attention paid to the actual racing. The kids dragged their parents to the Ferris wheel and the other rides; people wandered through the swine and sheep barns; and everyone ate too many corn dogs and Dumbo ears.
The first race that sparked some real excitement from the crowd was the 10th, which was wired by Falcon Seelster in a world record (for a half-mile track) of 1:51 for the mile. Seelster's race brought the crowd to its feet as he won by 20½ lengths. Three races later, Nihilator also led all the way to win his six-horse division of the Little Brown Jug by a length over Dignitarian in 1:53[1/5]. The seven-horse second division was won by Pershing Square, who, like his stablemate, led all the way and crossed the line two lengths ahead of Marauder in 1:52[4/5]. The first four finishers in each division were eligible for the final, and they got a brief breather before the big confrontation in the 17th event of the day.
Everybody paid attention to that race. Nihilator went straight to the lead, with Broadway Express dogging his every step, even putting a nose in front going into the second turn. When Broadway Express started to fade, it was Pershing Square who challenged, charging so hard in the stretch that at the wire most people didn't know who had won. The photo revealed it was Nihilator by a head in 1:52⅕ the fastest final in Jug history. The crowd went wild. Guida was already on his way to the winner's circle before the decision was final, since the first two finishers belonged to him anyway. As a blanket of yellow roses was draped over Nihilator, the press converged on Guida. But it wasn't Nihilator they were asking him about, it was Falcon Seelster. "I don't think we have anything to prove with Seelster," said Guida. "I beat Falcon Seelster twice with Chairman of the board in the last 32 days."
Guida had every reason in the world to be happy. He's the first person to ever win any Triple Crown, standardbred or thoroughbred, with three different horses, and Nihilator's winning Jug purse of $129,770 left the colt only $1,686 short of the alltime standardbred money-winner, the 4-year-old On The Road Again.
After the 20th and final race was over and the RVs and pickup trucks and campers were kicking up clouds of Ohio dust as they exited the fairgrounds, track announcer Roger Huston, his voice as worn and graveled as the road—sounding, in fact, the way most people felt—leaned into the microphone and croaked, "Have a safe trip home and adios."
Until next year, that is.
Nihilator won his division by a length over Dignitarian, then squeaked by in the final.