'I like to put my hand on Niatross and feel he's warm and alive,' says Elsie

In 1954 Elsie Berger, the feisty owner of a Buffalo, N.Y. dry cleaning plant, moved in with Harold "Pappy" Graham, a wealthy auto dealer. Together they realized Elsie's lifelong dream of owning a racing stable. Then, in 1969, Pappy, 70, died unexpectedly, forcing Elsie to sell the horses. She kept one, a mare named Niagara Dream, to breed. It was a splendid choice, for three years ago the mare foaled a frisky colt, Niatross, who has become the fastest harness racer of all time. Going into last weekend's Messenger Stakes, the third leg of pacing's triple crown (he romped in the first two), the big brown colt had won 29 of 31 races. In his 17-month career, Niatross has accumulated nearly $1.8 million in purses and shattered six world records. Two weeks ago he paced the fastest mile ever, lowering the record by an astounding two and four-fifths seconds, during a time trial in Lexington, Ky.

All of the colt's accomplishments pale, of course, compared to his potential value at stud: Even untried he is worth an estimated $20 million. That expected bonanza is the source of a controversy now raging around Niatross. Shortly after he was born, Elsie, now 71, gave half-interest in Niatross to Clint Galbraith, 43, the longtime trainer-driver of her stable. Last fall they sold 50 percent of him for $2.5 million, plus bonuses, to a New Jersey stockbroker, Lou Guida, 46. Now Elsie and Galbraith have filed a suit to void the contract. They claim Guida deceived them, never explaining he was going to syndicate his share of Niatross. But he quickly found 23 investors and netted $1 million.

Elsie and Guida also are squabbling about where Niatross will stand at stud. Guida wants the colt to retire in blue-grass country, a prospect that has Elsie Berger spitting nails. "I feel I've been blessed with this colt in return for working all my life," explains the Ontario-born Elsie, who dropped out of school to work at 13. "I'd sooner shoot him than see him go to Kentucky." Her preference: Galbraith's wife's farm in upstate New York. (Guida says it isn't fancy enough.)

Injury to the horse is what Guida fears most. He says that if Elsie and Galbraith continue to race Niatross until the end of the year, as they are entitled by their contract to do, the pacer's career as a sire could be jeopardized. "Racing is a trauma for a horse," Guida complains. "It sometimes renders them infertile for a while, and the risk of injury is always there." Last July, for no apparent reason, Niatross suddenly veered off the track at Saratoga and crashed over the rail into the infield. Neither the horse nor driver Galbraith was hurt. Guida immediately suggested that the colt be retired. Elsie and Galbraith refused. Niatross has won 10 races and $910,000 since, and established all of his world records. "What do syndicate guys know about racing," snapped Galbraith. "They are just in it to make a quick buck."

That is one of the few points on which he and Guida agree. "Certainly I bought the horse for the financial aspects," says Guida. "That doesn't mean I love him, it doesn't mean I don't. I just want the best possible home for him." As for Galbraith, Guida says, "Clint got anxious. Maybe he had people come up to him and say about our deal, 'You dummy, you could have made $15 million on the horse.' "

Elsie remains bitter toward Guida. "He's shot off his mouth," she claims. "He's told a lot of lies to hurt us." While the legal maneuvering goes on, Guida is worried that his fellow owners may take Niatross to California. Elsie hasn't ruled out racing him there. ("He couldn't do a damn thing about it.") "Niatross is the people's horse," she declares with a twinkle of malice, "and I'm not going to let those bastards get him."