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The New York sharpies with their silver tongues and satchels of greenbacks arrived by executive jet and limousine last week in the community of Delaware, Ohio, which is noted for its cotton candy and Ferris wheel. Then they fleeced the suckers and broke a lot of hearts. Ain't no more room for hayseeds in harness racing, you might say.
Well, times change. The Hambletonian nowadays is staged in the shadow of New Jersey's oil refineries. Syndicates of horse owners throw money around like Bendix or Martin Marietta. There are million-dollar purses. But, gosh, the Little Brown Jug in Delaware always was the cozy sort of event at which tradition seemed safe. Now people from the Bronx win it.
Last week the Jug—the top race for 3-year-old pacers—was won by Merger, a horse whose principal owner could not have told one end of a sulky from the other a few months back. "This is the ultimate day of my life in racing," said Bill Mulderig, a Suffern, N.Y. attorney and a guy who appreciates appreciation, of the capital variety. His life in racing began last spring when he became Merger's owner. On the morning of the race, Mulderig had a piece of an $8.25 million asset. By nightfall, after Merger had cruised through the Jug field before 46,144 fans at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, Mulderig figured his animal now was worth $11 million.
Mulderig, a native of the Bronx, was introduced to Merger by Morton Finder of Manhattan and Louis Guida of New Jersey. Both of them are very big in harness racing and seem to be in on every major deal, including the biggest stud syndication of them all—of Niatross for $10 million in 1979. In January Finder and Guida had bought 75% of Merger from a Canadian group, and in March they sold that interest to Mulderig and his syndicate for $6.187 million. Before all that happened, the closest Mulderig had come to the harness was when he parked cars at Yonkers Raceway 25 years ago. He learned, he says, a valuable lesson: Don't bet your tips on other people's tips.
On the Monday before the Jug, Mulderig's mentor, Finder, now the manager of the Merger syndicate, sat on the terrace of his 38th-floor penthouse office on Fifth Avenue and doped out the field, which had a record 25 entries. Up there amidst the lawn furniture and potted evergreens and flowers, Finder had Manhattan at his feet, a public relations man at his side and a secretary who was confirming the limo and the jet airplane.
Finder was very happy, especially because he had visited Delaware only a few days before and had seen Merger pace a 1:57 mile, including a 27.5 last quarter, in training. For Merger, sired by Albatross—as was the great Niatross—and the fastest 2-year-old in history, 1982 had been a spotty year. Now the horse's stock was rising again.
Meanwhile, there in Delaware, Jeanne Thomson, part owner of another Jug entrant, McKinzie Almahurst, was feeling confident about her chances. The winner of nine of 11 races last season and the 2-year-old championship, McKinzie was the people's choice at least partly because Jeanne Thomson is the wife of Hank Thomson, the co-founder of the Jug 37 years ago. Hank's great-grandpappy, Abram, was a postmaster under Abraham Lincoln, a fact solidly attested to by a plaque on the front of The Delaware Gazette, the family newspaper whose offices are next door to City Hall.
Mrs. Thomson owns 25% of McKinzie Almahurst in a partnership—Five Guys & Me—that includes none other than Finder's roly-poly associate, Guida, in this deal acting on his own. It is an unlikely alliance, but it makes sense from a financial viewpoint.
There's no question that the '80s are witnessing a transition in harness racing. The old breed was on hand at the Jug last week, people like Billy Haughton, the driver of McKinzie Almahurst, and Joe O'Brien, racing a horse named Irish Jimmy. Haughton and O'Brien made their well-deserved reputations over the years on the Grand Circuit, the grand old country fair league, which, because of all the fresh money coming in, may go the way of vaudeville.
Most of the big loot is paid out at the big eastern tracks, like the Meadowlands, where young men like John Campbell—Merger's driver—churn out huge chunks of earnings. This season Campbell, a transplanted Canadian, has won close to $4 million. He epitomizes the new drivers. Like common stocks in the '60s, they have a go-go style, meaning they drive hard from start to finish. The result: excitement, world records and no more room for the Ferris wheel.