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John Chapman was puzzled. The little Canadian trainer-driver knew he had the best horse in last Saturday night's $122,732 Messenger Stakes at Roosevelt Raceway. The trouble was, he did not know which one. Was it J. R. Skipper, a speedy son of Meadow Skipper with a record of 17 victories in 27 starts? Or was it Valiant Bret, one of Bret Hanover's fleeter offspring who had got to the finish line first in 10 of 17 starts? "I dunno," said Chapman. "All I know is that it's one of them."
Chapman qualified both 3-year-old colts for the Messenger in separate heats early in the week, and then he rushed for a telephone. "I can't be in two sulkies at the same time," he told Russell Miller, one of the owners of J. R. Skipper. "What do I do?" Miller told him to call Harry Tudor, the chief trainer for Valiant Bret's owner, P.G. and Jere Gray.
"You've got a problem," said Tudor. "Who asked you first?"
"Miller," Chapman said.
"Done," said Tudor, "but since you can't drive Valiant Bret, how about getting Lucien Fontaine?" That, too, was "done."
The action next shifted to the grave of Messenger, which, as all trivia gamesmen know, is in the front lawn of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter N. Frank Jr. in Matinecock, Long Island. The progenitor of all standardbreds (he was a thoroughbred, but let's not go into that) was buried there in 1808. The location is 10 miles from Roosevelt Raceway, and occasionally—with publicity, not sentiment, in mind—the drawing for post positions for this segment of pacing's Triple Crown is held there. "O.K., let's get to it," said John Cashman Sr., one of Roosevelt's judges, as he dropped 10 pills into a small plastic cup.
"Hold it," said Al Winters, an architect and part owner of Steel Byrd, a Billy Haughton-trained colt who had finished sixth in a qualifying heat and thus apparently had been ousted from the final. "I want a pill for my horse."
"You aren't eligible," said the confused Cashman.
"According to the race conditions we are," Winters said. And he proved it. By the book, the top four finishers in each of the two eliminations automatically make up the field for the final. But Race Secretary Larry Mallar can add other horses to make up eight separate betting interests, and since Chapman had his two as an entry and Haughton had two others (Golden Shadrack and Keystone Smartie), spots were open for two additional starters. Mallar had filled these spots by adding the fifth-place finisher from each elimination heat.
"There's another condition," Winters said. "Horses are to be added on the basis of time, not finish." His Steel Byrd had finished in 2:02[4/5]; Otaro Hanover had finished fifth in the other division in 2:03[1/5]. Mallar conceded the point, but that raised yet another problem. Since Steel Byrd joined the Haughton entry, there was still a place for Otaro Hanover—but not enough pills. They had brought but 10. A man was dispatched to Roosevelt to get one more.