Lou Guida, who controls 50% of the ownership of the most valuable harness horse in history—the $10-million, 3-year-old pacer Niatross—smiled faintly the other day at the sign in his Trenton, N.J., stockbroker's office: TACT IS TELLING SOMEBODY TO GO TO HELL AND THEY CAN'T WAIT TO GET THERE.
Last week Niatross was at the center of a very public dispute, rare in the sport, that set the colt's three principal owners against one another in various bitter combinations. Words like "idiot" and "jerk" were two of the more genteel terms bandied about as the controversy reached a crescendo. In the days preceding last Friday's $1,011,000 pace for 3-year-olds at New Jersey's Meadowlands, everyone seemed to be telling everyone else to go to hell, nobody was anxious to get there. Tact never reared its comely head.
On one such occasion Guida asked plaintively, "Why is it that tragic things always happen with great horses and great women?"
Until a few weeks ago, tragedy was not a word one would associate with Niatross. He was rolling along, en route to amassing a 19-0 career record and $829,878 in purses. And although certain questions—notably where Niatross would eventually stand at stud—remained unresolved, the people around the horse seemed, on the whole, serene.
Then, on July 5, discord; the reason, not surprisingly, was the money—perhaps $50 million or more—that Niatross could earn in winnings and stud fees. That night at Saratoga the colt raced like a $10,000 claimer. He struggled along, perhaps 10 to 15 lengths off his form, and was being soundly thrashed when driver Clint Galbraith stung him with the whip four times. Niatross jumped the hub rail and crashed in a horrifying tangle in the infield. The colt escaped with bruises and scrapes and Galbraith wasn't hurt, but the horse and his driver each found his reputation damaged.
What had gone wrong?
Sure, the track was soft, but not that difficult. The word "drugs" was heard, but in the confusion after the crash, a test wasn't taken to detect if any illegal substances had been given Niatross. There was also talk that perhaps Niatross was sick. Another driver, Jim Miller, says, "All that happened up there was Niatross didn't feel that good, so Clint had to hit him with a whip, which he'd never done before, and Niatross took it as an insult."
Six nights later, after much recrimination among Niatross' owners, he went off as the favorite in a qualifier for last Friday's Meadowlands Pace. This time Niatross' hocks hit the sulky, an extremely unusual occurrence. He broke stride and was fortunate to get back on gait and finish as the fourth and final qualifier in his heat. Some horsemen say Galbraith did a superb job to get the horse to the finish as quickly as he did; others give him a lower mark.
So for the second week in a row, there were big questions about Niatross' performance. And in the ensuing days, his owners took to blaming everything and everyone—except themselves—for the colt's failures. Meet the leading players in this soap opera:
Guida. Last year, after Niatross had raced only seven times, Guida, 46, spent $4 million to buy half-interest in the homebred from Galbraith, a veteran trainer-driver, and one of Galbraith's longtime patrons, Elsie Berger, 71, of Grand Island, N.Y. Each of them now owns 25% of Niatross. Four months later Guida syndicated his share among 23 other horsemen—but retained total voting control—and made, he says, a $1 million profit. But he estimates he will make the serious money, somewhere between $2 million and $10 million, when Niatross goes to stud. Conservative estimates are that when he is retired at the end of this year—or sooner—he will have a stud fee of $20,000. By producing 100 live foals, Niatross will make $2 million a year. And should he prove to be a great sire, his stud fee will go up. It will work this way only if Niatross doesn't cheapen or otherwise humiliate himself on the racetrack this summer. This possibility worried Guida a lot as he sought to explain the two bad races. "The pressure obviously has got to Clint, and I feel sorry for him," he said. "When the horse got beat at Meadowlands, Clint made a suicidal drive. He used the horse needlessly hard early in the race. He wasn't cool-headed. He gets livid, violent, threatening and makes silly statements like he's going to punch me in the mouth." Guida conceded that Galbraith has the authority to make all decisions relating to the colt's racing career while maintaining that he, Guida, controls Niatross' career as a stallion.