A chaw of tobacco in the cheek, a piece of straw between the teeth, overalls: harness racing is constantly trying to overcome its rustic image, and never mind all those glossy big-city tracks and the click of their pari-mutuel machines. So last week the sport picked up the pace and trotted out a new cosmopolitan image. Instead of the bucolic backcountry lanes, the racing was over the Yellow Brick Road.
Harness racing may not yet be as sophisticated as the Sport of Kings, but the Monticello- New York City OTB Classic held on Sunday at Monticello Raceway was at least a showy step in that direction. The total purse was $268,521, the largest amount ever offered for standardbreds, and it was payable in solid gold bullion, which is certainly classy enough. The attendant hoopla and publicity generated a satisfactory number of big-city headlines and proved, among other things, that if you give a public-relations man a free rein, he will take you on a stagecoach ride through the streets of Manhattan.
The OTB Classic was a mile pace for 3-year-old New York-bred horses only, which eliminated the season's top pacer, Nero, but included a bunch of worthy contenders, including the fillies Silk Stockings and Tarport Hap—both of them by Most Happy Fella, who is beginning to rival Meadow Skipper as the top pacing sire. The idea was to illustrate that the quality of New York stock has risen dramatically. The race was also intended to show that OTB, New York's off-track betting parlors, was not necessarily ogres siphoning away fans and money from the racetracks. OTB would, it was predicted, contribute enough to the purse to bring it up to $300,000. But shortly before post time the computers decided that because betting had been lighter than expected, OTB's part would be only $20,121. That left the purse at $268,521—still a record, though not as nicely round a figure.
The gold was an inspired touch. In the days before the race an armored car lugged the bullion around the New York area as race organizers held press conferences and Joe Goldstein secretly wished for a hijacking. Goldstein is a New York public-relations man whose rate of speech would knot the fingers of a court reporter. The gold was his idea. Goldstein had a novel plan for transporting the treasure to Monticello, which is 70 miles from Manhattan in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains. His idea was to have the gold picked up at a Manhattan bank vault by stagecoach, with perhaps New York Mayor Abe Beame riding shotgun, and then driven through the city to an East Side heliport where it would be flown to Monticello. But when Lloyds of London, the venerable insurers of the gold, heard about the scheme for moving their $300,000 responsibility through Fun City, they said no. That reduced Goldstein to hoping that Murph the Surf would show up at one of the press conferences as an unindicted guest.
On the Monday before the race the principals and bit players assembled in Ma Bell's, a Manhattan restaurant of the nostalgia genre: white tile floors, slowly rotating overhead fans, potted plants and vintage telephones on each table. Goldstein was resplendent in a white suit, purple striped shirt and tie and white shoes. The faces of the women present were almost incandescent as they awaited the arrival of the gold.
Outside, in the morning heat of Times Square, mounted policemen stood patient vigil. Inside, New York City detective James Smith, a 15-year veteran, commanded a force of four detectives augmented by five OTB security men.
"There's always the chance of trouble," Smith said somberly. "It could come internal. It could come external."
"There are 18 gold bars," a man was saying to the gathering. "Approximately 1,800 ounces, or 112.5 pounds worth $300,000. It was purchased Thursday, July 17 at the second London fixing and has been stored at the Iron Mountain Depository in Lower Manhattan." Bob Lip-man, who handles advertising for Monticello Raceway, had purchased the gold. He confided to an onlooker that the firm from which he had acquired it did not want its name used, for fear someone might try to break into the bank.
Then a Brinks truck pulled up and three guards walked in carrying a small wooden crate. They set it on the bar and began clawing at the top, trying to get the box opened.
"Got a screwdriver?" one of them asked the girl tending bar.