Because of the size of the Jug field, it was split into three divisions, with the top three finishers from each returning for a fourth race. If none of the division winners won that one, the four winners would return for a fifth race just about the time the sun would be setting over the cornfields to the west.
Hank Thomson, 75, was visibly nervous as the start of the day's proceedings approached. He got down off the judge's stand and walked over to the backstretch and closed himself off in the log cabin that serves as the track's office. If McKinzie Almahurst could win the Jug, well, Thomson could say his life had pretty near been perfect.
In the Jug's first heat, against only a middling field, Merger had an easy drive, moving into high gear when Campbell asked for it at about the ?ths pole and rolling to a smooth 2�-length win in 1:55[3/5] Mulderig breathed a little easier. Since he invested all that money in Merger, the colt had been performing erratically. Campbell, Merger's trainer as well as his driver, had an extra reason to care how the horse did. He had been one of Merger's original owners and still held a 25% interest in the colt. In Campbell's first try at the Jug, last year, a horse broke in front of him on the backstretch, causing him to crash and tumble to the track. The accident occurred almost in front of Paula, his wife. On this Jug day, Paula was on hand again—nervous, but looking good. She was wearing a bright purple suede vest and a new purple straw hat that had purple feathers sticking from it. The vest was a good-luck charm, she explained, adding, "I'm just hopin' he doesn't go down." She brightened when someone asked what she was doing with her husband's winnings. "Spending it," she replied with an appropriate smile. "Got this hat today."
The Jug's second division was considered strongest because of the presence of McKinzie Almahurst, Irish Jimmy—the winner of his last three starts—and No Nukes, a speed horse that had won six races and half a million dollars this season. Early in the race, Irish Jimmy broke and was out it. Haughton eased McKinzie Almahurst to the lead by the half-mile mark and won by a length in 1:56[1/5].
The third division provided the day's biggest surprise as Temujin, a small colt driven by Billy O'Donnell, another Canadian, had a perfect trip and raced to a record clocking for a half-mile track—1:54[3/5]. Unhappily, while Temujin was coming up long on speed, he had come up short on time. As the call for the Jug final approached, 45 minutes later, he still was panting in the paddock. The bettors made the favorite the entry of Merger and McKinzie Almahurst (joined because Finder and Guida were partners in other syndications), and the bettors were right. In the final, Temujin never did catch a second wind, and just after completing his first trip around the track McKinzie Almahurst broke stride.
Meanwhile, Merger was in perfect position, on the outside and tucked in. At the three-quarter pole, Campbell let Merger go and the horse surged ahead, coming home in 1:56[3/5], three lengths ahead of Icarus Lobell. For the day, Merger collected $99,492.
Paula Campbell dabbed at tears of joy, and Mulderig explained to the press why harness horses were a better investment than oil. The question came up whether Merger should challenge Cam Fella, the year's other top pacer, who was not eligible for the Jug. "We'll race for half a million," said Finder. "Winner take all." Twenty minutes later, a huffing, puffing Vincent Vinci came storming up to confront the Merger camp. Vinci is the 71-year-old part owner of No Nukes. He also has the ample body of a pizza parlor owner. Plus, he's talkative, as in nonstop, and very flamboyant, given to pulling thousands of dollars out of his pocket on small pretext. Naturally he's from New York. "Listen," he yelled, pushing up front. "You can't leave me out. You can't leave me out. I'll put up $300,000 and race both of you."
Put off by this intrusion, Mulderig sniffed. "I don't feel like a challenge today," he said.
"Listen to 'em," said Vinci, shaking like jelly as the Merger group turned and walked away. "I want to be part of this challenge. You're afraid, you're...." Vinci stood there taunting. "I'll have the money in 24 hours," he yelled. "You won today. Big deal. I'll race...."
Yes, harness racing is changing. No more country fair. These days, it's more like a circus.