The Big Bird lost the big race. He was shot down on the threshold of his finest moment by Herve Filion, a saucy little French Canadian who makes a specialty of discomfitting the mighty. His most enthusiastic admirers—and the ranks are growing fast—claim Filion is something of a wizard in the sulky. Maybe he is and maybe he is not, but there is no denying what he accomplished in last week's $102,964 Little Brown Jug. He and an ill-regarded colt named Nansemond, who was fresh off the hospital list, defeated Albatross—aka the Big Bird and Superhorse—in the most surprising upset in the 26-year history of the Jug.
Held on the steeply banked half-mile track at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Ohio, hard by an ancient whitewashed grandstand and an old-fashioned country fair, the Jug is one of the more unusual scenes in sport. It combines the pleasures of the rural and the rinky-dink with the pressures of a premier sports event. The Jug is pacing's grandest prize, the race that every breeder, owner, trainer and driver wants above all others.
Albatross, with his almost unblemished record and humbling speed, was a cinch to win in straight heats. Earlier this year a syndicate of horsemen had purchased him for $1,250,000 and put him in the hands of old pro Stanley Dancer. Albatross breezed to 16 straight victories, each of them so impressive that by Jug day Delaware track officials, fearing they would suffer a Bird bath, barred him from the betting. But they reckoned without Filion, whose record—the most wins for four straight years—rivals that of Albatross.
And so on a bright, gala afternoon, some 40,000 fairgoers saw Filion and Nansemond do the improbable. There was curiosity when Albatross beat Nansemond by only a nose in their first heat. There was amazement when Nansemond won his second heat going away in the brilliant time of 1:57[2/5]—a national season's record for 3-year-old pacers on a half-mile track. And finally there was a wild ovation when Herve and Nanse downed the Bird again in the final heat, this time by a solid three-quarters of a length. As Filion guided Nansemond back to the winner's circle, he recalled later, he "almost stood up in the sulky." But he settled instead for a spell of laughing and waving at the crowd.
And what of Dancer and Albatross? "He just wasn't himself today," said Dancer. "I'm not sure what was wrong. He had two races last week, one in the mud, so maybe that hurt him."
The winner, a Tar Heel colt, was bred by two Virginia lumbermen, Fermer Perry of Suffolk and William M. Camp Jr. of Franklin. Just before Nansemond's 2-year-old season, Perry and Camp began looking for someone to drive him. They wanted Filion, and as a lure they offered to sell the driver a one-third interest for $13,000. It was the second largest sum Filion had ever spent on a horse—his Capital Hill Farms Stable consists mainly of inexpensive claimers—but it proved a canny investment on everybody's part. As a 2-year-old Nansemond won nine of 17 starts and $80,217, and by last May Filion was predicting that if anybody could beat Albatross in the Jug this would be the horse.
The boast was dismissed as mere Filion flash, but Herve meant what he said. Everything went well until mid-July, when Nansemond suffered a torn ligament in his right front leg. Oddly enough, the injury occurred in a bumping incident with Albatross.
"Usually this type of injury finishes a horse for the rest of the year," says Veterinarian Kenny Seeber, who attended to Nansemond. "It requires a lot of rest. Maybe that is what did him so much good."
It was not until 12 days before the Jug that Nansemond could make his first start, and he finished a dismal seventh. But with the Jug only six days away, the colt suddenly found himself. With one of Herve's brothers, Yves, in the sulky, he won at Liberty Bell by 1� lengths in the brisk time of 1:59[4/5]. "He was real good," said Yves afterward, adding in the Filion tradition, "He's going to win the Jug."
"Brother," said Herve, "you're nuts."