In fact, the big race did get a little out of hand financially. When Racing Secretary Joe De Frank first set forth the conditions in 1977, he hoped that maybe, just maybe, it could become a $1 million race. This appeared to be a reasonable prospect when last year's purse reached $862,750. He figured that this time owners of 185 horses would pay the $1,000 nominating fee; 263 did. Then, when the $3,000 May sustaining payment was due, he figured perhaps 90 horses would still be in; 154 were.
Nobody, says De Frank, was twisting any arms, and the truth is, owners who had bought nice yearlings were simply motivated by greed. Like they say, money isn't everything, sometimes it's not even 99%. "I think the guys who are griping are the guys who were eliminated," said De Frank. "I wish the race had been for $3 million."
One of the gripers is also one of the sport's wealthiest owners, Norman Woolworth. He complained that the various payments to keep a horse eligible—a total of $14,500 for each pacer that made the starting field—meant there were "an awful lot of good owners with potentially good horses who just couldn't take that financial risk." Woolworth is co-owner of Stoner Creek Stud in Paris, Ky., where the outstanding Meadow Skipper stands. Skipper's stud fee in 1978 was $20,000; this year it has jumped to $40,000. For that reason Woolworth's theory just doesn't wash, because a man who pays big bucks for a yearling can hardly be expected to flinch at what amounts to pocket change. Lou Guida, syndicate manager of Niatross, spent $76,000 to keep his 2-year-olds eligible for the Woodrow Wilson and not one made it. "I'm not unhappy," he says. "I had a shot at a $2 million purse. That's fair."
Surprisingly, it was some of the winners who felt the queasiest about all the money. Bob Lipman, owner of Slapstick, said, "Of course $2 million is too much money. I earned $100,000 for being fifth. That's crazy." Stephen Lang, a New York lawyer and half owner of the winner, said at a post-race victory party, "It's ridiculous. A race like this destroys the other races. And it takes so much away from the country tradition." Lang recalled that when the Woodrow Wilson was in the offing, the late Peter Haughton—the sport's most promising young driver before he was killed in an auto accident near the Meadowlands last winter—had said, "It's obscene to offer that much money. I sure hope I get the rail." But Lee Broglio, Slapstick's trainer, aghast at the suggestion that the purse was too big, expressed no such ambivalance: "Too much? You're kidding. There's never too much."
The sport is to be lauded for trying to show that it is big league and thus worthy of attracting money from new investors. But are there too many rings on one hand? "It doesn't embarrass me," De Frank says. "The more the merrier." Let Tony Abbatiello, president of the New Jersey Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association have the last lip-smacking word: "The name of the game is that pot of gold. The human being, by nature, is a dreamer and a gambler."