The other entries were being treated as if they were hitchhikers, even though they included Billy Haughton's Trooper Chip, with a 1:59[2/5] mark to his credit; Keystone Accent, who had won his last four starts; and Tango Byrd, three for three this season. Their chances were mentioned less than the possibility of Nero setting a new track record on the five-eighths-mile circuit.
The big colt has never been a dull trackside topic. Last year in Indianapolis, just before the Fox Stake, someone injected him with a massive dose of tranquilizer that almost killed him. The vet, Jim Crane, the groom and the owners were up all night walking him around his stall and feeding him liquids. "A horse is like a man," says Benjamin. "Some want to live more than others. Some want to win more than others. Nero has a desire to win, and he had a desire to live. It pulled him through." Now Nero has a 24-hour guard stationed in a portable enclosure next to his stall.
It was when a vet examined him after the drugging that Nero was found to have an abnormally slow heartbeat. He has other odd quirks, including a remarkable ability to rest, even going so far as to nudge his hay into a small pile so that he can eat it while lying down. He wears an elaborate set of dark goggles because his eyesight is so acute that he occasionally jumps over minute things on the racetrack. And when he races, his tongue often flops out the left side of his mouth, an indication to Driver O'Brien that his horse is taking it easy. He also yawns a lot.
Late Friday night, Nero's barn was crowded. Rene Dervaes and his wife Judy were there checking on their annuity. When they purchased Nero, they kept it a secret because they thought the neighbors might snicker. Even Crane was a bit embarrassed. At first, he told people that he had met Dervaes at the racetrack. Now nobody cares. As Dervaes stood in the barn, he kept a discreet distance from Nero, who was munching oats. Crane does not like anyone around when Nero is dining. When Crane speaks to Dervaes, a man schooled in balance sheets but ignorant about horses, his instructions must sound as if they come from heaven, like the dollars raining about all of them.
For his part Crane is chary of flaunting his success, circumspect about appearing a bit too pleased. For years he stood outside the center ring, and now that he has a foot in it, he does not want to offend anyone. He has bought a few more horses, and there are plans to expand further, but for the most part he is deferential rather than jubilant, realistic rather than optimistic. He is a driver himself but as soon as he realized what he had in Nero, he called in O'Brien. "I couldn't compare myself to Joe O'Brien," he says.
The night of the race was raw and blustery, which precluded any chance of a track record. There was talk that Garnsey would not challenge Nero, that there was little need to strain Alert Bret with so much racing ahead of both of them. Nero won the race right away when O'Brien moved him down and by Alert Bret at the start. They raced like that for the remainder of the trip. Midway through the final turn, Nero made a surge that opened a three-length lead, then—inexplicably, tongue out—he slowed just before the finish and O'Brien had to tap him back to reality with a flick of the whip. He beat Alert Bret by 1� lengths in 2:00[3/5]. In the winner's circle, Crane approached O'Brien and said with mock gravity, "What do you mean, hitting my horse?" Everyone laughed—Crane, O'Brien, the owners and their families. There is a lot of laughter around Nero these days, the titter of good fortune, like found money.