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Burning from the Start


Buck Jones yawned and looked at his watch. It was funny how time went late at night. He had started his shift at midnight, relieving Louis Otero, and all he had done since then was pace up and down the shedrow or lean against the wall and sip coffee from his thermos. Yet it was already half past three.

He didn't even have a radio. This was Frank Whiteley's barn, and Whiteley didn't allow radios. Buck could understand that. He'd been a horseman himself for almost twenty years. The boss wasn't paying him to listen to music. Horse watching was a job. Especially in a case like this. The President, the Pope, and the Queen of England all rolled into one couldn't have gotten more attention than this filly had been getting the last few weeks, ever since they had announced the Match.

Buck looked over at her. She was awake now, alert in her stall, ears pricked forward.

"You'll get your breakfast soon enough." Buck smiled and tugged at the belt of his uniform. He was a big man, and he'd put on a few more pounds since becoming a Pinkerton. He could appreciate the filly's appetite.


She wasn't fidgeting or fussing, though. She never did. But there was something about her—-Buck had been trying to figure it out all week. He had watched her before, when she raced, but only from the paddock or the stands, like everyone else. Up close, these past few nights, he'd begun to realize what it was: She had the uncanny ability to seem calm and excited at the same time. Perfectly at ease, and yet—-eager, intense, wired. He had never seen that in a horse before. Or, for that matter, in a person, either.


The filly stretched out her neck to catch the summer breezes drifting over from the track. Buck thought of the crowds that cheered her every time she ran. If only they could see her now. She was a towering filly, and had always looked magnificent on those bright afternoons when she raced, her near-black coat flashing spears of sunlight as she paraded to the post. But at night, with moonlight filtering down on her, she was even more striking. Silvery, shining, radiant, like something in a dream. Only she wasn't a dream. She was real.


That was hard to believe sometimes, especially if you opened up the paper and studied her form. It wasn't just that she was undefeated: She was perfect. At every point of call, in every race, she had been in front. She didn't always break well, but within a step or two she invariably gained the lead. Five times as a two-year- old, and five times again so far at three. What was even more amazing, she had done it at every distance from a sprint to a mile and a half. Always first. Always on the lead. Perfect.


At the other end of the barn Whiteley's regular night watchman, Hamp Beaufort, was busy getting ready for the four a.m. meal. He muttered softly to himself as he walked through the barn pouring oats into the feed tubs. One by one all the horses poked their heads out of their stalls, nickering and coming to life. Breakfast, they said up and down the line. Morning. Another day. They knew.

Whiteley's assistant, Mike Bell, shifted on his narrow cot and woke up. Although he had an apartment nearby in Elmont, he had long ago formed the habit of sleeping at the barn for several nights before each of the filly's races. When Hamp started back down the row, hooking the tubs inside each stall, Mike squinted up at him, half waved, and turned over, hoping to squeeze in a few more minutes' sleep.

While the horses buried their noses in their oats, snuffling with pleasure, Buck listened to the rumblings in his own stomach. He was looking forward to Red the Baker and his coffee wagon; he needed some of those fresh, homemade rolls to fortify himself. Night was the easy part, watching out for strangers. It was the coming morning that was going to be hard. That's when he'd have to fend off the reporters and photographers and television crews—people who had flown in from all over the country, from all over the world—the same ones who'd been besieging the barn all week. Sure, Mike would be there, and Dan Williams, too—the guy who rubbed her—but they'd be busy with all the horses. It might be the biggest event at Belmont since Secretariat clinched the Triple Crown, but on the backside it was still another day at the track: Every single horse had to be fed and exercised and hosed down and cooled out. And though all the horses were treated equally, the filly was the focus of attention. Before long, every person who had managed to beg, borrow, or steal a press pass would be trying to get close to her, crawling all over Buck and the stablehands, asking questions, snapping pictures, trying to push in front.


Buck needn't have worried about handling them alone. Long before it was light, long before the first bleary-eyed reporter even thought about aiming a fist at his alarm clock, Frank Whiteley would show up at the barn. Not that there was a damn thing for him to do at four o'clock in the morning. He just wanted to be with the filly.

Getting up early was nothing new for Frank Whiteley. He'd been getting up early all his life. Everybody got up early on a farm, and he'd been born on one, outside Centreville, Maryland, in 1915, on the strip of the Eastern Shore separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay. Frank had always helped out with the milking, the barn chores, and later on, the tilling of the fields. In addition to the cows, his parents grew feed corn and sweet corn and wheat. Nobody had tractors then; they worked the land with mules and horses, so as far back as Frank could remember, horses had been a part of his life. Not the thoroughbreds, though. The thoroughbreds had come later: first, the broken-down claimers; then the reasonable allowance stock; then, after many years, the champions.


His father gave him his very first horse—a Shetland pony—when Frank was five years old, and he had loved that pony with all his heart. The pony, unfortunately, had not reciprocated the emotion; in fact she hadn't cared for Frank at all. She was cranky and stubborn, and he had to beat on her constantly just to make her move. Once she was actually moving, her primary ambition was getting rid of the irksome boy on her back. The two of them battled it out for a couple of years; eventually, the pony won.


At the age of ten Frank got a real horse. Eighteen dollars! It seemed like a fortune at the time, and when his father handed the money over to a neighboring farmer for the yearling, Frank was thrilled. He broke the horse on his own, figuring out little by little how to introduce the bridle and the saddle and his own weight on the colt's back. He didn't read any books on the subject and he didn't have anybody to teach him. He learned about this horse—as he would insist he learned about each of his future horses—by "fooling around with him" over a period of time. From then on he just kept getting one horse after another, trading or buying up, always learning something new.


Apart from the horses, Frank had only one other passion as a child. That was running. The track and field competitions were the best part of the whole school year to him. Frank was small and quick, and every year from the fifth through the eighth grades he won the 50-yard dash at the county meet. That last victory earned him a trip to Baltimore to attend the state meet, and that meant a ride on the ferry boat and an overnight stay at the YMCA. A trip like that was more traveling than most farm boys had ever done or would ever do for a long time to come. But when he started high school, running got him into trouble.


In the ninth grade, Frank had to compete against upperclassmen. That was okay with him; he was happy to move up from the 50- to the 100-yard dash. He was confident he could beat anyone they threw at him. But the coach wanted one of his graduating seniors in that event, and, fearing that Frank would beat the older boy in the preliminary, qualifying heats, he placed him in the relay instead. "You can do the 110-yard leg, same difference," he told Frank.

Frank frowned at him. It didn't seem fair, but there was nothing he could do about it. At the county meet that spring, he ran the last leg of the relay as hard as he could, but the competing school had opened up a big early lead, and Frank could cut it down only so much. He crossed the finish line bitterly disappointed.

The coach stood there laughing at him. "What happened, Whiteley? I thought you could beat anyone in the county!"

Frank whirled around, eyes stinging with tears, and hurled the baton at the coach's head. "You baldheaded son of a bitch!" he screamed.

The other boys backed away. The coach grabbed Frank and hollered at the officials, "Disqualify this boy! I want this boy disqualified immediately!"

"I don't give a damn if you do disqualify me! I don't care! You just cost me my trip to Baltimore, goddamn you!" Frank wriggled free and ran off, and this time he just kept running—away from the coach, away from the track meet, and away from school forever.

Frank washed his face, ran a comb through his graying hair, pulled on clean khakis, boots, and a short-sleeved cotton shirt. No one else was awake in the house. He sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, but gulped them down so quickly he didn't taste a thing. Before he left, he patted his pockets, checking for cigarettes and Gelusil. He lifted his hat off its hook, pulled it down low over his forehead, and shut the door behind him. When he stepped outside, it was still pitch-dark.

His first cigarette was lit before he'd pulled out of the driveway. The streets in his Long Island neighborhood were empty, and Frank pressed down on the accelerator a little harder than usual. Although he stared straight ahead, his blue eyes clear and sharp behind his dark-rimmed glasses, he wasn't concentrating on the road. He was doing what he always did on the way to the barn: thinking about his horses. He worried about every one of them, especially on the days they raced.

That afternoon he had two big horses entered. Honorable Miss was facing a field of colts in the Nassau County Handicap,and Ruffian was facing one single colt in the Match. It was just an odd coincidence the way that had worked out, the two fillies going against colts in back-to-back races. Odder still that both Ruffian and Honorable Miss were the morning-line favorites.


The guard at the stable gate touched his hat, and Frank nodded at him as he drove past and into the backstretch.He wanted to get Honorable Miss out early; she got so wound up on race days that if she was left inside the stall, she'd start bouncing off the walls and hurt herself. Although she was a five-year-old mare, she still acted like a kid at the circus. Her excitement was contagious, and the people who worked around her always had a lot of fun.

The filly was different. Everyone around the filly worried. They tried not to show it, but it had been that way ever since her first race. It didn't matter if it was morning or afternoon, if she was out galloping or in the heat of competition. They could never watch the filly run without feeling just a little bit afraid.

It had started off as the "Race of Champions," and Ruffian wasn't even included. The New York Racing association wanted to pit the three winners of the individual Triple Crown events against each other in one special race, tentatively scheduled for the end of June.

The media protested. What would it prove to throw these three colts up against each other once again? They had butted horns all spring, and on different days, when it counted most, each had proved himself superior. Foolish Pleasure had captured the Kentucky Derby, the single most prestigious race in the country; Master Derby had won the Preakness; and Avatar the Belmont Stakes. But they had never tested themselves against the undefeated black filly in Frank Whiteley's barn.


"Until these colts are measured against Ruffian, none of them has much of a claim on the title of 3-year-old champion, wrote The Blood-Horse in its weekly editorial. "Right now we do not believe that--even to escape a swarm of Brazil's hybrid African honeybees--any of these could catch up with the Stuart Janneys' big filly."


As a result of the outcry, NYRA officials discussed changing the race to involve the three classic winners plus Ruffian. That generated much more excitement. Four horses made up an almost-respectable field, in terms of size, and they were certainly the best of the three-year-old crop. But just as this idea was heating up, Avatar's trainer, Tommy Doyle, took his horse back to California, explaining that the colt was simply not up to such a race at that time.


While NYRA considered what to try next, Philip Iselin, president of Monmouth Park in New Jersey, made a stunningly simple proposal. He offered a purse of $400,000 for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. Believing it to be a promoter's dream, he had suggested such a race earlier. Ruffian's enormous appeal was capable of attracting nonracing fans in huge numbers, and the boy vs. girl angle was guaranteed to stir up interest; it was one confrontation that never got old. In fact, it had intensified the last few years, as the media covered the rise of the women's movement. It sold papers, and that was the name of the game.


But it didn't matter how astute Iselin was, or how persuasive his arguments, or even how much money he offered. He didn't have a chance in the world of bringing off such a race in New Jersey. No one said it in so many words, but the reason was simple: Iselin wasn't related to Stuart and Barbara Janney, Ruffian's owners, and Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, vice chairman of the board of trustees of the New York Racing Association, was. His father, Ogden Phipps, was Barbara Janney's brother. If Ruffian was going to be involved in a special race--a race certain to generate nationwide interest and lots of good publicity for the sponsoring track--that race was going to be held in New York.

Confident of this result, NYRA modified its plan and came up with a three-horse "Race of Champions": Foolish Pleasure, Master Derby, and Ruffian. Before another press conference could be called to announce this latest development, LeRoy Jolley, the trainer of Foolish Pleasure, objected. "I just can't bring myself to run in a three-horse race with that great filly," he said. His logic was understandable. In such a race, he would be forced to send Foolish Pleasure after Ruffian right away, to keep a close check on the speedball filly; that could wear them both out, setting it up for the third horse to run away with the race. He was willing to face the filly on her own and see who tired first in a mile and a quarter, but he wouldn't give the race away to someone else.


Mrs. Robert Lehmann, owner of Master Derby, had, over the last few dizzying days, staunchly supported NYRA in all its efforts to create a special event which would depend in part on her participation. The purse for this event had continued to escalate. How could NYRA now tell her, however politely, to get lost?


And yet, they had to. The idea of a true match race--one on one, the filly against the colt--was simply too good to give up. Especially when there were rumors, soon to be confirmed by an AP news release, that Monmouth was ready to up the ante to an unprecedented half a million dollars to stage what it was convinced would be the sporting event of the year.


On Friday, June 13, Jack Dreyfus, chairman of the board of NYRA, accompanied by Dinny Phipps, made the final announcement. To the assembled crowd in the Belmont press box, he confirmed that he had received commitments from the owners of Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian to allow those two to compete in a mile and a quarter match race to be held at Belmont Park on July 6. The Association had allocated $400,000 in purse money for the race. That was the largest purse ever put up by any racetrack operator for a single event in the history of American thoroughbred racing.


Fifty thousand dollars was immediately skimmed off the top and given to Mrs. Lehmann "as a testimony for her support," which, ironically, she had demonstrated by agreeing to withdraw her horse from the race. That unusual move prompted the snide observation that NYRA could solve much more serious problems, like overpopulation, if it would just extend its offer and pay everybody $50,000 for pulling out.


The remaining $350,000 would be divided between the two entrants: $225,000 to the first-place finisher, $125,000 to the horse that came in second. This meant that the winner of the Match would earn $15,000 more than the winner of that year's Kentucky Derby--and, more astonishing, the loser of the July 6 race would take home almost $9,000 more than the winner of the Belmont Stakes had received on June 7.

The Match would be held at scale weights: The colt would carry 126 pounds, the filly, 121. It would be run at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter.


Other questions remained to be settled: whether or not there would be betting on the race; whether it would be one of the nine regular daily events or an added tenth race (for which they would need the permission of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board); whether or not there would be national television coverage of the contest; and, finally, at what point on Belmont's mile and a half oval the race would start.


Mile and a quarter races at Belmont were rare. When they were held, they usually started from the chute on the far side of the track, near the parking lot. That was so distant from the stands that many spectators--particularly those less familiar with the sport--might find it difficult to follow the early part of the race. Wanting to accommodate those fans, who would be out in droves for such a special event, Dreyfus said he didn't think it would be too difficult to start the match race on the Clubhouse turn, where the action would be more visible.


Frank Whiteley kept his mouth shut. He knew the race was not going to start on the turn. He didn't particularly like the idea of starting it from the chute either, but at least that was a straightaway. There were always risks when you ran a horse, but there were two different kinds: acceptable risks, which you took every time you sent a horse to the gate, and unacceptable risks. One of his jobs as a trainer was drawing the line between them. You didn't start a horse with speed like Ruffian's from the middle of a turn. But this was not the time or place for him to sound off. Let them say whatever they wanted. It was only a press conference.


Frank didn't have to consult with Mr. and Mrs. Janney. He didn't have to get anybody's approval. He didn't have to take into account the fans, the officials, the public relations department, or the position of the television cameras. He had only one thing to consider, and that was his horse. And he knew with absolute certainty that the match race was not going to start on the turn, because if it did, his horse wasn't going to be in it.

One other issue remained to be discussed.
"Mr. Whiteley," a reporter asked, "will Jacinto be riding your filly in the race or Jolley's colt?"
The room grew quiet.
"You'll have to ask Jacinto that," Whiteley replied. "He's gonna have to make a choice."