'Nick' quick out of gate on road to Jug

September 26, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

This is a horse racing story that begins about as inauspiciously as one can get: with a horse taking his first breaths in, of all places, the back of a trailer motoring down a two-lane road near the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.

Three years later, that same horse is writing history in all sorts of places.

Welcome to the improbable story of Nick's Fantasy, a standardbred sired and foaled (barely) in Maryland, who last week won the 50th running of the Little Brown Jug, a $600,000 race for 3-year-old standardbred pacers that amounts to that sport's Kentucky Derby.

Nick's Fantasy is the result of an obscure 1991 breeding session at Pin Oak Lane Farm, a 400-acre commercial horse farm straddling the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, about 45 miles north of the Inner Harbor. The sire was a locally successful standardbred stallion named Tyler's Mark, who dominates Maryland pacing. The mare, Saratan, was a no-name who later sold for the princely sum of $800.

When Saratan was ready to deliver in the spring of 1992, her owner had her shipped from her home base at The Meadows, a harness track near Pittsburgh, to be foaled at Pin Oak Lane. There was just one problem: The owner waited too long to send her, apparently trying to shave a few days and dollars off his board bill.

Saratan went into labor when the trailer was still on the road, a few miles from Pin Oak Lane Farm.

"About two miles from the farm, the driver heard some noise and stopped to look. He got back there and saw a baby just born," said Caroline Lyon, who trained Nick's Fantasy last week at the Little Brown Jug.

Dr. William Solomon, a veterinarian who owns and operates Pin Oak Lane, laughed at the memory the other day.

"You bet we remember it," he said. "We foal 100 horses a year around here and we've been doing it a lot of years, but that's the only one that came up the driveway in the back of a truck. I guess no one else is stupid enough to cut it so close shipping a pregnant mare."

When the driver of the trailer reached the farm, he put the foal in a wheelbarrow and ran for help. The farm's foaling attendants transferred the foal to the breeding shed.

"He was very fortunate, very lucky, that he didn't hit his head or get crushed," Caroline Lyon said.

Nick's Fantasy was registered as the owner had intended, as a Maryland-bred, although the trailer probably was in Pennsylvania when Saratan delivered.

In any case, upon surviving his traumatic beginning, Nick's Fantasy faced a racing future that, while not dim, certainly didn't suggest greatness. His sire was just a regional star. No son of a Maryland-based sire had ever won the Little Brown Jug, the final leg of pacing's Triple Crown, run every year in front of huge crowds at the Delaware County Fair, in Delaware, Ohio.

But Nick's Fantasy, who was gelded as a young horse, developed into a runner who won numerous stakes on the East Coast circuit. His owner decided to run him in the Jug.

Thirty entrants were separated into three qualifying heats, with the top three from each heat advancing to the final. Nick's Fantasy won his heat, and then, with 53,000 fans cheering last Thursday, won the Jug in the record time of 1:51 2/5, breaking the stakes record of 1:52 set two years ago.

History? It was present in many forms.

The time was a world record for a 3-year-old gelding pacer on a half-mile track.

Caroline Lyon was the first woman to train a Jug winner.

Nick's Fantasy was the first Jug winner who had been sired by a Maryland-based stallion and also foaled in Maryland, in the back of a truck or anywhere else.

"It's just a huge story, for Maryland as well as for us here," said Solomon.

Pin Oak Lane has, oddly enough. It is at Solomon's bucolic farm, just off I-83, where history resonates most powerfully in the wake of Nick's Fantasy's big win.

Six years ago, a trotter named Park Avenue Joe, foaled at Pin Oak Lane, won the Hambletonian, the biggest race in trotting. Three years ago, Lil E. Tee, a thoroughbred foaled at Pin Oak Lane, won the Kentucky Derby, in one of the biggest surprises in Derby history. (His sire's stud fee was $5,000, a breeding pittance.)

Now that Nick's Fantasy has won the Jug, Pin Oak Lane has become the first farm to produce winners of the biggest races in each of the three forms of American horse racing: thoroughbred, trotting and pacing.

"And Nick's Fantasy is just like Lil E. Tee, a total Cinderella story," Solomon said.

Only this time Cinderella arrived in the back of a truck instead of a glistening coach.

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