Not least to the tracks where Niatross might appear after his 3-year-old debut at Vernon Downs near Syracuse, N.Y. on May 17. Buffalo Raceway is counting on him for late June. General Manager Gaston Valiquette says that to promote the appearance of the colt, he has ordered 25,000 color photos of Niatross—and 50,000 16-ounce plastic beer cups bearing a likeness of the horse's head. Valiquette says, "Everyone wants to be able to say, 'I was there.' "
Galbraith, the man charged with being there every step of the way, sat on the hood of a car the other day at the Ben White training track in Orlando, Fla., where Niatross spent the winter, watching the colt being washed off. "He has filled out quite a bit since last year," Galbraith said, "especially in his hindquarters, and he should be a more powerful horse this year. When I drive him, I feel like the Angel Gabriel on a chariot. You sit behind him and you know the difference between a pro and an amateur. He has that extra something. Frankly, I think he's at the point where people don't want to see him get beat. There are going to be a lot of anxious moments. And a lot of thrills."
When the days get hotter and the purses bigger, it may turn out to be an advantage that Niatross raced only 13 times last year. Guida admits to only one serious reservation about the colt, that "he hasn't been required to make a speed performance when he was really up against the wall. I'm sure when it happens, he'll come through good."
Others are not so sanguine. Tom Crouch, an owner-breeder from Oak Brook, Ill., says, "Somebody can come out of the pack and beat this colt. Great horses dominate, don't they? Well, I don't think Niatross can. But I also know there are a lot of people who say if he's worth so much money, he must be terrific."
There are other caveats. For example, can Niatross win when he's having an off day? At Hanover Shoe Farms, where Albatross stands, public relations director Murray Brown says, "Every horse has a bottom. We'll have to see what his is and how good he is." There have been rumors that Niatross has had knee problems, but Galbraith sniffs, "With a horse like this, there are always a lot of people talking when it's none of their business. Nothing's wrong with Niatross." And horsemen whisper that while Galbraith is a thorough, professional driver, he's not a veteran of the Grand Circuit. "You watch me," says Galbraith. "I'm not going to drive this turkey all over the track."
More than anyone else, Lou Guida hopes not. After all, the 46-year-old Merrill Lynch executive (he's in charge of the Trenton, Toms River and Princeton offices) and harness horse wheeler-dealer spent $4 million last summer for a half interest in Niatross, when the colt had only raced six times. The deal to buy Niatross was classic Guida. At that time Galbraith and Mrs. Berger each owned 50%. She says, "We really didn't want to sell, but Mr. Guida was so insistent. Very insistent. My, was he ever insistent." Guida found himself locked in a desperate bidding war with another of the sport's big spenders, Alan Leavitt. At $4 million, neither showed signs of blinking. Then Guida got an idea.
He called Galbraith one night and said that in addition to the $4 million (half to Clint, half to Elsie), he would give Galbraith the following incentive bonuses: if Niatross is undefeated through his 3-year-old year, $500,000; if he wins the Triple Crown, $250,000; if he breaks the alltime mile record (a time-trial 1:52 by Steady Star in 1971), $250,000; if he breaks the race record (1:53 by Abercrombie in 1979), $250,000. Total: $1,250,000. "And let me tell you," said Guida to Galbraith, "if this horse isn't good enough to do most of these things, then I'm grossly overpaying at $4 million." Said Galbraith, "It's a deal."
Whereupon Guida spent $1,200 to charter a plane from Trenton to Rochester to get Galbraith's signature. "I was glad Alan was bidding on the horse," says Guida, "because if I'm the only bidder, I feel twice as apprehensive." Said Leavitt later, "I would have paid $7½ million." But Guida had him foxed and boxed. For Guida told Galbraith that not only would he have to agree to the offer at that moment, but he also could neither accept nor make any more telephone calls that night.
So why did Galbraith and Mrs. Berger sell? Says Galbraith, "Well, for the $4 million, maybe more. That gives us a little security." But while they collect their millions (over 10 years) from Guida, is the horse worth millions? Elsie says, "That remains to be seen."
For Guida, it had better be seen, lest his visions of grandeur be blurred. In this year's crop of 3-year-old trotters, Guida is half owner of Rodney's Best, also thought to be the class of his class. That cost him $1.5 million, mention of which prompts Guida to give a cavalier wave of his hand. "I'm not looking to save," he says. "I'm looking to spend. What I really would like is to be so big that on some huge horse deal, if a guy showed up an hour late, I could say, 'You're late. Deal's off.' I'm not that big. The important thing is that Rodney's Best looks like a shoo-in to win the Hambletonian."