The Russians thought they had a new folk hero, one who would rank right there with Valery Borzov and Olga Korbut, with the Olympic basketball team and the baker who invented black bread. They shipped him 4,806 miles from Moscow last week, a 4-year-old chestnut trotter with a pink nose and the unlikely name of Othello, and they smiled a lot when they said he had won 24 races and lost none. And they frowned when they were asked whom he had beaten.
"What does it matter who he has beaten?" asked an honestly puzzled Alexander Georghievich Martinenkov, the chief of horse breeding for the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Agriculture. It was just a few hours before last Saturday night's $150,000 International Trot at Roosevelt Raceway, and Martinenkov was obviously weary of politely defending Othello's impressive but incomplete credentials. In Russia horseplayers wager on win only, and the memory of horses that run second lasts about as long as an empty vodka bottle.
"I don't care if he raced against three-legged pigs," said Lew Barasch, the Roosevelt publicist, who was just happy to have lured any horse out of Russia for the first time since Osman finished last in the United Nations Trot at Yonkers in 1966. Soon after that disaster the Russians retired their top horseman, Yevgeni Dolmatov, and decided to retire their horses from U.S. competition. At least, until they had bred and developed a superhorse.
While losing apparently was bad enough, ex-Comrade Dolmatov was also accused of spending money like a capitalist, and that's when they punched his ticket to the farm. If things had turned out differently in the International, possibly they might have brought him back. In 1960 Dolmatov gave $40,000 of the state's money to Del Miller for Lowe Hanover, now Russia's top stallion and the sire of Othello. The scene for Dolmatov's vindication was set. But they played it the way Shakespeare wrote it. At the wire, it was Miller's Delmonica Hanover followed by eight others, and then Othello—a tragic last.
"My God," Miller shouted, "I don't believe it." Neither did anyone else. Just six days earlier Roosevelt officials had intimated that Delmonica Hanover hadn't even qualified for the race. In the past, the top two finishers in the American Trotting Championship were named as the U.S. representatives in the International, and Delmonica, with John Chapman driving, had finished second behind Billy Haughton's Spartan Hanover. But then Roosevelt officials decided only the winner qualified. Enraged, Miller called George Levy, the track's top executive, who said he thought someone had promised the French that there would be only one U.S. horse. Miller's reply isn't recorded, but after hearing it Levy said he would double-check. The next day the track told Miller to bring his horse.
Earlier Count Pierre de Montesson, the owner of Une de Mai, the great French mare who won the International in 1969 and 1971, had inquired if Delmonica Hanover was for sale and for how much. Miller had said maybe, and for $350,000. Later in the week an Italian group asked him the same question and he said, "Yes, and for $400,000." And by Sunday morning the price had risen to $500,000.
Une de Mai had won only two of her last eight races, and it was said that at the advanced age of nine she was slipping. "Ha," smiled Jean-Ren� Gougeon, the dapper little driver-trainer. "In her last race she easily won at 2� miles. She is still the big money winner. She is as great as ever, but not always."
Taking him at his word, and since no one could figure out the field anyway, Une de Mai was touted as the early favorite. Carosio, the Italian entry of Gina Biasuzzi, was the second choice, but the 6-year-old was nervous and was kept blindfolded until just before the start of the race, and when they uncovered his eyes no one was sure what he would do on a strange track.
"Never mind the horse," warned Soren Landin, a Swedish trainer. "Watch the Italian driver. They are all crazy. If you get in their way, they are just as liable to go over you, or under you, as around you."
The Russians, meanwhile, were having problems. Remembering Dolmatov, they weren't about to lay out a single ruble. Before they would come, Roosevelt had to agree to pick up all expenses, including $16,000 in air fare. When the Russians arrived, the track discovered expenses included two helmets for Driver Yevgeny Mosienkov and other equipment.