Fossel grew up "flatland Norwegian" in Watertown, S. Dak., the son of a hospital administrator. He got a degree in business administration from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., a school not noted for rowdyism. But Fossel thrives on the challenge of driving a sulky in heavy traffic. The horses may be small, but the danger is premium-size. "It's scary out there," he says. "You have to decide instantly which way to move when you're in close quarters. These horses don't steer themselves." That point was impressed on him, literally and painfully, two years ago on Rutland's hard, fast, half-mile track.
"Normally I refuse to drive another man's horse," Fossel says, "but that day I made an exception for a friend. I didn't know the horse was shadow shy, and my friend had forgotten to bring along his shadow roll. Sure enough, the first shadow we hit, the horse broke stride and went down." The sulky shafts, digging into the track, acted like catapults and sent Fossel crashing into a tangle of horse, harness and spinning wheels. His horse was unharmed, but a metal button on the sulky shaft punched a hole in Fossel's forehead; he still has a dull blue pocket above his right eyebrow. "It knocked me cold, and I woke up with a skull fracture, a dislocated jaw and one of my eyes scabbed over with dirt and dried blood," he says. "Rutland hospital patched me up and I drove home that night."
He was lucky. Five years ago a promising young girl driver was killed in Canada when she fell from her sulky and was struck in the head by her horse's hoof. In a recent race at Fairfax, Vt., two pacers went down. One had to be destroyed. The driver of another ended up in the hospital with a few broken ribs.
Pari-mutuel betting is not allowed in trottingbred racing, but competition is keen nevertheless. "The Canadians are especially fierce," Fossel says. "They used to serve liquor at the tracks up there, and some of the drivers, I fear, took on a little Canuck courage before the start. Up in Rochester, N.H. several years back, I heard that the Canadians were planning to gang up on me. I was the only Yank competing. They had arranged to box me in at the start and bang me around some. I was racing a fine horse named Dear Abby in those days, and I let the word leak out that she was hard to control, a rambunctious runaway. In fact, she had been in her early days. Just before the race, we rubbed Abby down with extra-strong liniment so that she jumped around a lot—that stuffs hot. My friends who were helping me harness her pretended to be knocked down. Then, just at the start, I let out a terrific yell as if I were scared stiff and she was running away with me. The Canadians scattered, and I won easily." In 1979, driving behind Chiefs Heather, Fossel became the first American to make the year's fastest time at Quebec's Club Mirabel.
The lack of betting windows and big purses keep trottingbred racing a low-key sport, but at the same time make it accessible to horse lovers who want to race. "A really good standardbred will cost you anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000 these days," Fossel says. "A decent trottingbred costs from $300 to $1,200. Add another thousand or so for a used sulky, harness and horse trailer, and you can go racing for a total of about $2,500, tops. At today's prices, it's a bargain."
One sunny Sunday in June, I accompanied Fossel to Rutland for a bargain day at the races. There were only half a dozen entries. One of the horses is owned by Fossel's best friend and closest competitor in the Rutland area, Ray Messer, 75, a local farmer and retired school teacher and administrator. "Over the past couple of seasons, we've never been more than a horse length apart," Fossel said. "It takes eight feet to register one-fifth of a second difference in time between two horses, and more often than not Ray and I end up with the same clocking." Messer is barely 5'3" but he has the grating deep voice and big, calloused hands of a John Wayne-size cowboy.
Another Rutland regular is Bernard Parker, 69, a shy, slow-spoken logger from Andover, Vt. who Fossel claims can get more out of a horse than any other trainer-driver in the sport. "Bernie buys ponies who can't seem to get out of their own way," he says. "Before you know it, they're going three to five seconds faster than they ever did before. It's magic." Watching him race, you can believe it. As he drives a pony to the wire, Parker's face is bright red with excitement and he snarls and yowls encouragement to the horse.
Fossel, in contrast, talks to Pat as they charge through traffic, but his lips hardly move. Rarely does he even brandish his whip. Yet the words must be effective, for the mare responds gracefully through the corners, putting on speed as the track straightens, then driving into the last turn with her ears alert and purposeful. On this Sunday, Fossel was an easy winner in both of the heats he raced. The times weren't spectacular—1:07 and change—but, as he explained, he didn't want to bring Pat to her peak until mid-August, in time for the big Rutland race weekend. (Pat's rear left leg has since been injured, and she won't race until next summer.)
"You want to take her around?" Fossel asked me as the other horses trailed off to their stables. Why not?
Up to now, I had only driven Pat on the small, sixth-of-a-mile track behind Fossel's home in Rupert. By contrast, the Rutland half mile with its empty, yawning stands looked like Indy's Brickyard. There was a stiff breeze blowing out of the west, and, as I took my seat in the sulky, legs cocked into the stirrups and the reins tucked under my thigh, I saw the flags snap at the McDonald's across the way. Pat eased out onto the hard, dusty surface. I clucked her up with a twitch of the reins, and she broke into her working pace. She stayed close to the rail, responding like a fine-tuned machine to the slightest pressure on the bit. Then we were through the turn and into the stretch, heading at full trot into the west wind. At this speed I could feel every irregularity in the track as the wind rushed past my helmet.