Everybody knew that it was more than just another horse race. The real problem lay in sorting out the humans and just who was mad at whom. First there came the French, a tightly knit group still boiling because their great 8-year-old champion, Une de Mai, had been expelled from the $125,000 Roosevelt International the week before. Then there was Duncan MacDonald, the Canadian millionaire, and he, too, was angry. MacDonald had accused his driver, Joe O'Brien, of unheavenly deeds after his Fresh Yankee had not showed her usual explosive starting speed and had finished second to Speedy Crown in that rich classic. "I'll drive my own horse from now on, and maybe better," muttered MacDonald. Since O'Brien is as close to sainthood as any harness driver may ever get, that left still another group of racing followers angry. The tempers flared all week right up to last Saturday night's showdown: a three-horse, $150,000 match race.
To flashback briefly to the exciting opening episode, Une de Mai, top money-winner in all harness-racing history, had arrived from France rich in banknotes but, alas, one paper poor in meeting the immigration demands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the oversight, the mare was penalized twice the normal 24 hours in quarantine while the missing document was flown from Paris. Une de Mai came out of the idleness with her hindquarters so tight that her group was set to withdraw her. But, "she has recovered quickly," said French Drive Jean-Ren� Gougeon on the day of the race. The Roosevelt officials decided she could race—but that no one would be allowed to bet on her. Then some of the other drivers, led by Speedy Crown's Howard Beissinger and George Sholty, argued that if the mare was not fit for wagering, she wasn't fit for racing, period. Finally, at the last moment the state racing commission barred the winner of two of the last three Internationals. Some fine Gallic curses were uttered, if not understood.
The race went on without Une de Mai. Beissinger won with Speedy Crown and MacDonald came away frothing at O'Brien. Early next morning the owner and the driver met in the lobby of the Island Inn Motel in Westbury, N.Y.
Recaps MacDonald: "I told him, 'Joe, at any time did you try? You went for second place.' And at no time did he deny that there was something afoot." (MacDonald was alluding to a possible conflict of interest on O'Brien's part. Among others who employ O'Brien as a trainer-driver is a group that owns a piece of Speedy Crown.)
Then, MacDonald said, O'Brien told him to go to hell, that no man questioned his integrity.
Recaps O'Brien: "He never asked me anything. He was waving his arms and raving and saying, 'I know all about it, you never tried.' I never held back a horse in my life and I wasn't going to listen to anyone question my integrity. He was like a madman. She's his mare. He can keep her."
Roosevelt officials, who know a dramatic confrontation when they see it shaping up, offered to match the three horses in a $50,000 race, winner take all. "No," said MacDonald. "Not winner take all."
"No," said Count Pierre de Montesson, the frozen-meat tycoon from Normandy who owns Une de Mai. "The horse is feeling much better, but not better enough for winner take all."
Just as it seemed the match race was disappearing, Alan Leavitt, who heads the group that recently syndicated Speedy Crown, suggested the track put up $75,000, each owner add another $25,000—and that they split the pot $100,000, $30,000 and $20,000. In effect, it meant that the track upped its ante to $75,000, winner take all, with a $5,000 side bet between the second and third horses. All agreed on the compromise.
Once the race was agreed upon, Speedy Crown, last year's Hambletonian winner and 3-year-old trotter of the year, quickly became almost everybody's champion to defend O'Brien's good name by soundly thrashing the MacDonald-driven Fresh Yankee, a 9-year-old who has returned $1,250,502 on MacDonald's original $900 investment. Almost everybody's champion. The French, still angry at being scratched the previous week, were rooting only for themselves.