There wasn't much suspense; at least not over which of the eight 3-year-old trotters on the track was going to win the Founders Gold Cup. The Saturday night crowd at Vernon Downs in upstate New York managed to scrape up $25,166 in betting money, and the bulk of it was plunked down on Nevele Pride (see cover), which was sensible, but at a 5� return on the dollar not all that rewarding. Nevele (rhymes with reveille) Pride vs. the clock was the attraction. After all, wasn't he being touted as the greatest trotter in history? And wasn't he a cinch to win the Hambletonian on August 25? O.K., then, let's see something—like a track record, for instance.
"What is the track record, anyway?" Stanley Dancer, the slender, pleasant millionaire who drives and trains the wonder colt for Nevele Acres and Louis Resnick, asked an hour before the race. A track official reported that the trotting record was 1:59[1/5] for a race, 1:59 for a time trial. "It's much too cool for anything like that," Dancer said. "But there is a lot of speed in the race. Right now I'd say two minutes will do it."
It was late July, but by nightfall the temperature at Vernon Downs was dipping into the low 50s, and Dancer was about to tuck his whip under his left arm and set off in search of a woolen sweater and a warming cup of coffee. Just a few feet away, Nevele Pride, his more docile rivals safely separated from him by two empty stalls in the paddock shed, was trying to gnaw his way through the two thin steel cross-chains holding his head in check. Failing in this, he settled for glaring angrily at the people passing his stall.
"He looks mean as hell," said a horseman, "but if you can just sneak him out of that stall for five minutes, I'll run and get my mare."
Andy Murphy, the groom who should be awarded a battle star for every trip into Nevele Pride's stall, looked up and laughed. "He's not mean," Murphy said. "It's just that he's been up since 10 this morning, and he misses his afternoon nap. He takes a nap every day but race day. When he knows he's going to race—and he knows—he stays up, getting, well, maybe just a little mean. But if you think he looks mean now, just wait until after the race. He looks like he wants to kill somebody. Which he does. But that only lasts for 10 or 15 minutes and then he settles right down."
"That's the only time he's hard to drive," said Dancer. "Going into the winner's circle. You had better get that sulky unhooked in a hurry before he starts kicking. Then you have to keep an eye on him to see he doesn't bite or kick the people around him. He's a terror in that winner's circle. But he's not a vicious horse, just one that's high-strung. He's like a big kid, real frisky, full of energy and spirit."
Andy Murphy rubbed a hand across his mouth, washing away the makings of a grin. On his left forearm, the 43-year-old ex-dairy farmer carries a scar the size and shape of a half-dollar. And while there is no scar on his right hand, there should be. A year ago, while coming in after a workout, the big, frisky kid clamped his teeth into the groom's right thumb and lifted him from the ground. Murphy weighs 170 pounds. "He just held me up there, dangling and cursing. There was another groom with me. He took one look and run off. He told me later that he didn't know what to do, so he left." Murphy shook his head. "When he got ready Pride let me down. He hadn't even broken the skin, except in one little place. But that thumb was swollen for two weeks. Hurt like hell, too."
Murphy is Nevele Pride's third groom. The horse worked his way through the first two in less than six months. "I shuddered the day Stanley called me in and said I was next," Murphy said. "I knew what he had done to the others. But I decided right off that I wasn't going to fight with him. And I haven't. You fight with him, he just fights you back. Of course, every day I give him a good cursing or two. And I got real mad the day he grabbed my $90 wristwatch and crushed it with his teeth. But we get along. I never take my eye off him for a second. You do that, he's got you. And when I raise my voice he knows I'm on the verge of getting a shillelagh and he settles down. Most of the times he grabs you he lets right go. He's just teasing."
Dancer thought again of the sweater and started to leave, but he turned back when John Wood, the 72-year-old ex-jockey who serves as the colt's night watchman, began to edge a training sulky into the stall. Wood worked his way around behind the horse, began leaning the sulky against the rear wall. "John, get out of there," Dancer yelled. "One of these days you're going to do that and he's going to kick you right through the partition. Get out of there."
It is Wood's duty each night to place a cot in front of Nevele Pride's stall door and there to lie until dawn, guarding against whatever evils might seek out a horse that last year won 26 of 29 races and $222,923—record earnings for a 2-year-old—and was the first juvenile ever to be voted Horse of the Year and this year has won eight races worth another $130,000. "I know Stanley thinks I'm old and I can't get out of the way," Wood grumbles. "But if that horse hasn't kicked me by now he's never gonna. He's sure had plenty of chances."