Owning a colt like Romeo can be an emotional business, but the more emotional the owners got the more taciturn Myer became. Finally this August he was fired in a dispute over another Lucky Star horse. "We could not communicate with him," says Mrs. Goldstein. "We happen to be pretty warm people, and we wanted to talk to someone." The night Myer was fired—after not showing up at a Yonkers diner to talk to Romeo's owners—they hired George Sholty, a popular raceway driver, to take his place. "Romeo is a speed horse," Morton Finder said then, "and Sholty's forte is with speed horses."
The colt has, it is true, almost always been raced on the lead. One trainer says this is "because the owners like to have their horse on exhibit," but a more reasonable explanation is that Romeo is safer out there all alone, and the prospect of his being injured is more than a caterer or a C.P.A. can be expected to bear. Two weeks ago Alan Leavitt, who recently put together the syndication of Noble Victory for $1 million, made a $2 million offer for Romeo. The owners were tempted, but declined the bid—just as Walter Mitty would have—yet one can see why they like George Sholty to race their four-legged fortune out in front.
Not long after Sholty began driving Romeo, word circulated that the colt was showing signs of turning speed-crazy. He was pulling too hard and seemed impossible to rate. Horsemen who once thought he could beat Bret Hanover, the fastest pacer of all time, suddenly no longer did. (A match race between Bret and Romeo would help settle the issue, and Roosevelt Raceway is planning one with a $50,000 purse.)
Coming into the Brown Jug, Romeo had won 13 straight. On a good track he would surely be unbeatable, but mud might make a difference. It rained Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, and by noon of race day most of Delaware, Ohio was mud. But then Ohio sunshine and Track Superintendent Curly Smart took over. Smart scraped off 50 tons of topsoil and the sun evaporated the water that kept oozing out of the track as 35,000 people in galoshes and rain gear packed the fairgrounds. When the grandstand and the rail the whole way around the half-mile track became crowded three deep, someone got a ladder and started charging two bits for a view from a stable roof. Business was good, but his profit was considerably less than that of a ladder operator in former years who charged a quarter to climb up—and then a quarter to get down.
One of the stalls the crowd gathered on top of was Romeo's, and right underneath them George Sholty's father, who retired recently after 37 years as a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Logansport-to-Columbus run, was enjoying the excitement. "George's uncle used to race horses around these fairs," he said. "People would go to watch him drive, like they go to see George now. He gave George a horse when he was 17. George's mother sure didn't want the boy to get into the business."
Mrs. Sholty need not have worried. Her son, in a midnight-blue suit and alligator shoes, had flown in from New York that morning in Stanley Dancer's private plane, harness racing having changed somewhat in a generation.
A little later Morton Finder arrived in pinstripes and a white-on-white tie. "Mazel tov," someone called in greeting, bewildering 100 farmers. Finder looked the track over, then went off to confer with Sholty and a worried Jerry Silverman, who by this time was clenching a bottle of tranquilizers. "Romeo's never raced in mud, worked in mud or stepped in mud," fretted Silverman.
About an hour before post time the rest of Romeo's owners turned up in the paddock. Mrs. Goldstein had a fan letter from The Netherlands asking for a lock of the colt's hair. "I'll send a picture now," she said, "but I don't want to touch him until after the season. Maybe then I'll cut a piece of hair. Right now I might be like Delilah."
Even shorn, Romeo could have handled his competition in the Little Brown Jug. He did not warm up particularly well, but Delvin Miller, who had Meadow Lenco in the race, said, "I don't think the slow track or anything else will matter because Romeo stands over the other colts so much." Billy Haughton agreed. "The only way you can beat him is if he makes a mistake," he said. Even Stanley Dancer, who was driving Bonjour Hanover, the second choice, considered Romeo all but a sure thing.
Romeo had been barred from the betting three times at places like Yonkers and Batavia, but the Delaware County Fair officials announced they would allow betting on the colt, at least in the first heat (as in all traditional harness races, a horse must win two heats to take the Jug). He went to the post as a 2-to-5 favorite and immediately comforted his owners and his backers by bolting for the lead. Once he got it he was never seriously challenged, winning by a length and three-quarters over Good Time Boy.