by Dean Hoffman
Was he coming? Or wasn’t he?
That was the question that perplexed many racing fans as the 1985 Little Brown Jug approached.
The “he” in question was none other than Nihilator, the supersonic pacer that had spent two seasons dazzling everyone in harness racing. He won the $2 million Woodrow Wilson as a 2-year-old in record time – and then bounced back and won the Meadowlands Pace the following summer in a record 1:50.3.
He’d lost only one race in his career until August of his sophomore season—that being as a 2-year-old in the Breeders Crown final against the upstart Dragon’s Lair.
Many people simple assumed that if you had the top 3-year-old pacer you set your sights on winning the Little Brown Jug. But Nihilator was so valuable that he was managed carefully by his handlers. His long-stride wasn’t ideal for the tight turns of a half-mile track, so there was never any intention of racing him in the Cane Pace or Messenger Stake in 1985. His big gait was simply not suited to half-mile track racing, his connections said. No Jug for the superhorse.
It was a crushing disappointment to racing fans and certainly to racing officials at the Delaware Country Fair which counted on Nihilator to draw a substantial crowd. There was an outcry of criticism from many people who felt Nihilator was “ducking” the race.
But after Nihilator won the Dancer Memorial at Garden State Park in early September, driver Bill O’Donnell was asked if he thought Nihilator might get around the well-banked turns at Delaware. O’Donnell was anxious to go to the Jug and he said yes. Now the Jug was in his crosshairs.
There were enough entries to require two elimination heats and Nihilator took his qualifier in a swift 1:53.1 for O’Donnell. Stablemate Pershing Square, a steadfast understudy to Nihilator for two seasons, won the second elimination heat for O’Donnell in 1:53.4.
Nihilator drew post one in the second heat with John Campbell picking up the drive behind Pershing Square. The field also included the cat-quick Marauder and the solid Dignitarian.
O’Donnell put Nihilator in high gear at the start and he set a rapid pace with longshot Broadway Express parked outside and Pershing Square snug on the pacesetter’s back. When Broadway Express predictably tired, Campbell came out with Pershing Square and driver Buddy Gilmour roused Dignitarian for the stretch drive.
It was the three-horse photo at the wire: Nihilalator held of Pershing Square by a head with Dignitarian a neck back in third. The time was a stakes record 1:52.1.
Conspiracy theorists questioned if John Campbell truly tried to win the Jug with Pershing Square, wondering if he was “under orders” not to beat the superstar Nihilator. Anyone who knew Campbell’s fierce will to win dismissed that outlandish notion. Winning driver Bill O’Donnell laughed off the idea by saying, “What? Do they think that John doesn’t have a bank account, too.”
This year’s 69th Annual Little Brown Jug is brought to you by Fazoli’s