When he was 25 and just another young man in a county-fair sport fast becoming citified, Billy Haughton—spread out behind a 12-to-1 horse named Chris Spencer—was "searching for daylight" at the end of the first quarter in the 1949 Golden West Trot at Hollywood Park. Fifty thousand dollars was the prize, and along with it was a big step toward the front of the line. Haughton would not have a chance unless he could start his horse moving. Suddenly the driver next to him, who must have thought he was Walter Brennan in Home in Indiana, swerved a fraction to the side and yelled: "Now, boy! Go on by, boy! Ya got the best horse anyway." Haughton won the race, thanked Walter Brennan—or whoever he was—and that night he drank champagne and danced with June Allyson at the Cocoanut Grove. He has kept going by everyone and everything except the bank ever since, and now at the age of 40 he stands at the top in a flourishing sport that just a few decades ago was identified exclusively with carnival midways and men who chewed on long strands of straw and talked of whisky, weather and women.
From Roosevelt Raceway to Santa Anita, from Paris to Du Quoin, Ill., the name Haughton in harness racing means "empire": an almost flawless combination of human and horse that ranks as one of the finest single achievements in American sports. It means money, one gauge-though inadequate—of success in the union of horses and men: earnings in excess of $8 million since 1949, earnings of more than $1 million in 1958, 1959, 1962 and 1963. It means Haughton has been the top individual money earner in trotting from 1952 through 1959 and in 1963, and tops in winning drives for six straight seasons, 1953-1958. For Haughton himself—a onetime $7-a-week stableboy from Fultonville, N.Y.—it is the good life: an elegant split-level home in Old Brookville on Long Island, a wife who always looks as if she just stepped out of Town & Country, five handsome children, two riding horses, two ponies, two cars and an estimated annual income well over $100,000.
Haughton is a slight, wiry man, intelligent and pleasant, and he always seems to have a smile on his face and laughter ringing out of his throat. He is generally placid; when he does become angry it is not obvious. Because he is so well liked and respected by fellow horsemen it is possible to conclude from their estimates of him that Haughton is a kind of middle-aged boy scout. Grooms say: "If you can't work for Haughton, you can't work." Track management looks upon him as some sort of totem. Diligent search will uncover a few instances of the petty jealousy and innuendo that always seem to stalk success, but nearly all of it is dismissed by responsible observers.
Haughton is socially gregarious when he wants to be and has time to be, but he has only a handful of close friends. Friends demand too much time, time that Billy Haughton does not have to give. Like his stable, Haughton is a machine that purrs a long day every day of the year. It starts at 6 a.m. and usually ends about midnight, with Haughton, exhaustion lining his face and his eyelids drooping, munching on a peanut-butter-and-lettuce sandwich and sipping tea under a dim light in his kitchen.
June 14, 1964
The Haughton stable opened in 1947 with two horses. It now consists of 104 horses, six assistant trainers, 58 grooms and an operating expenditure of a quarter of a million dollars each year. It is the largest, most productive and most efficient operation in the history of horse racing. Haughton brought no family background or influence in the sport to the building of this empire—a task that required as much skill in human relations and executive ability as superior horsemanship. (There are 48 different owners represented in Haughton's stable this year—the number is fairly constant—and they have to be handled as delicately as any of their horses.) What Haughton did bring was a robust ambition and a quiet yet volcanic desire to compete. "You knew right away," says that shrewd veteran, Del Miller, "that Billy was something special."
The special thing about Billy Haughton is his attitude toward harness racing. Certainly there are few among those who make their living in this highly competitive game who look upon it as some frivolous diversion or just a job. But for Haughton it is strikingly evident that harness racing is life. It is a life with the sweet-sour smell of a barn at dawn, a life dominated by tedious routine and quick decision. A life in front of men who hang around a track rail and have been heard to yell: "I hope ya get cancer. I hope ya whole family gets cancer." A frenetic life that Haughton speeds through with an electric energy that crackles every minute of every day. If there were no barn, no 18-hour day, Haughton would be like a big balloon soon after being pricked with a pin. "Once," says Henry King Jr., an official at Yonkers Raceway, "I asked him if he ever gets tired—you know, of being around horses and that murderous routine of his. He just looked at me kind of quizzically, as if he really didn't understand how I could ask the question in the first place."
On a recent drive between racetracks Haughton defined his attitude toward racing. "The horse," he said, tooling along an empty ribbon of road, "has got to want to win—to be the best—or else it's all for nothing. It's that something extra that they've got to have. Most of the great ones always have it." So does Billy Haughton.
"I admire him for it," says fellow horseman Stanley Dancer. "He has remarkable stamina. I couldn't train over a hundred head and be comfortable. I don't have the temperament for it. I just hope he doesn't overextend himself. You know, it's just like an engine. It can only go so far, and then it has to be retuned. I hope that doesn't happen to him. Just all those owners alone could drive you to a breaking point."
Haughton is at the track about 7 every morning and trains his horses until noon. In the afternoon there is the office routine: the billing for feed, shoeing and harness, payments for stake races, consultations with veterinarians, arrangements for shipping horses for races at other tracks. He then goes home for a late lunch and returns to the track by 7 p.m. to start warming up his entries for the night's races. On an average night at the start of the season he drives in about four or five events. However, as the season progresses, his schedule becomes much more complicated: five races at Goshen, say, in the afternoon, five races at Roosevelt or Yonkers at night, then back to Goshen the next afternoon. Frequently, after racing in the afternoon, he will fly to a stakes race in Chicago or some other place that night. On Sundays he is off, but this is the time the 48 owners usually choose to inquire about their investments. Come late September the machine starts to sputter. "I wonder sometimes," says his wife Dorothy, "how he can make it another day."
During the winter Haughton trains his horses in Winter Park, Fla., but even there it is a full day's work before he relaxes over a Brave Bull, a drink he fancies that is a mixture of tequila and Drambuie. Still, it is not difficult to see how Haughton remains equal to this pace. He thrives on movement and speed—fast cars, fast horses action of all kinds. Every day of his life has to have this rhythm of speed humming through it.
"Haughton runs this stable," says one of his aides. "It doesn't run itself. The guy makes the decisions. Not tomorrow. Not an hour from now. But now. Right on the spot. That kind of confidence can be felt all over the barn." Rival Owner Norman Woolworth, who calls Haughton "the complete horseman, the complete professional," says, "As an administrator Haughton is simply above the crowd. He's always looking for ways to improve himself and his barn. There are a lot of people in this business who live in their own little world, only interested in their own horses. Not Haughton. He wants to know everything that's going on. In Europe last fall he spent a lot of time checking the way they do things even though their ways are quite antiquated compared to ours. And he's always watching the Thoroughbreds, looking for small things that he can adapt to our way of training. Bill's operation has modern equipment, modern ideas. Some of the best personnel around. But he is the most phenomenal part of it all. I don't know how he can keep up with it without ending up in a booby hatch."
The training of a harness horse, at times an exasperating ritual, is a delicate process involving shoeing, balance, pace, gait and a complete knowledge of the physiology of the horse. It is trial and error. It is patience and study and, in the end, judgment by which a trainer stands or falls. (It is not theory, because when there are 104 horses to be trained there could be twice as many theories.) But chiefly it is a sense of horses that is as much a part of a man as his senses of smell and hearing and taste. And it comes to a man who has worked hard for a long time at every little, dirty detail connected with horses and a racing stable.
There is no recognizable Haughton method in training. Some people point to his extensive knowledge of shoeing (he spent most of his youth hanging around blacksmiths). Others cite his use of the blood count, a regular practice around his barn that tests a horse's fitness by the number of red and white corpuscles in his blood. If Haughton was not the first to introduce the blood count to harness racing, he was the first to exploit it thoroughly. He relies on it to tell him, besides general condition, just "how hard he can use a horse." And he uses horses hard, he says. Haughton is not sentimental about horses. He rarely becomes angry at them, but he will spout passionately about one who has ability but "lacks heart."
Watching Haughton work his horses can be a befuddling experience and a study in motion. His eyes are always wandering over a horse's anatomy, his body forever hopping in and out of a sulky, his voice continuously popping commands. At such a time it is almost impossible to talk with him. Haughton can concentrate on more than one thing at a time, but anything not connected with horses when he is thinking horses does not find room in his mind. Once he was picked up for speeding on the same turnpike three times by the same policeman. "What are ya—some kind of nut?" the policeman asked. "No, I had my mind on something else," Haughton said in his most sincere voice. He failed to tell the policeman that he was driving a horse while he was driving the car. Three different horses.
It is this detachment from everything around him that has led some opposing drivers to think of him as aloof and insensitive. He rarely congratulates another driver after a particularly fine drive, they point out. "True, he is completely unemotional and apart," says Norman Woolworth. "He's the same in a big race as he is in a smaller one. And he drives the same. He doesn't have time to be emotional or fraternal. It's just one race after another. Win or lose, he never looks back. He doesn't gloat and he doesn't moan." Says Stanley Dancer: "We were in the Reading Futurity some years ago. Billy had the top two horses in the race, Bachelor Hanover and Belle Acton. He asked me to drive Bachelor Hanover. He won the first heat with Belle Acton. My horse took the second. Before the third heat I asked him if he wanted me to drive Bachelor Hanover in any special way. He turned and said, 'Just drive any way you can beat me.' Bachelor Hanover won."
Haughton the driver, even to the uneducated eye, is beyond the conventional. He is bold, calculating and brilliantly decisive. With fans clamoring for him to make a move, Haughton, lost in the third tier, say, or doggedly hugging the rail in the third spot at the top of the stretch, will hang in position for an aggravating period of time. Then he will suddenly sweep past the field like a flash of summer lightning. Many times it was not this final, spectacular move that won the race. It was won by Haughton's early moves. The struggle for position and the improving of that position without wasting the horse's energy made the difference. "Haughton behind just an average horse," says one driver, "is a tough man to beat. He forces you to drive his kind of race. He not only drives his horse, but he drives in his mind all the other horses in the race. You have to beat more than just a horse when you're up against him."
Billy Haughton's hands are like little chunks of rock. He has a fine, sensitive "touch" when driving, and a facility for adjusting to situations in a split second. An illustrative example was the sudden pileup at Roosevelt in 1953 when Haughton went flying out of his seat and turned a full somersault in the air. He landed on his feet and jumped back into his sulky. Naturally, he did not win the race, but one railbird was heard to remark: "I wouldn't bet against Haughton—not even when he was spinning through the air."
In winning 2,104 races, Haughton has turned in many noteworthy drives, but none that particularly pleased him above all others. "I remember a recent season at Yonkers," says Al Thomas, Haughton's chief lieutenant. "I was watching him closely as I always do, because even Billy can fall into a driving pattern, and someone who is watching can detect it. Well, anyway, there were something like 130 races in which he didn't make a mistake. Not one mistake in driving. It was a great exhibition."
If Haughton adheres religiously to one rule as a driver, it is his policy of never betting on himself. A driver who bets on himself, he believes, is incapable of a good performance. "Too often," he says, "they are worrying more about winning the bet than the race. It has to ruin your concentration."
Harness racing fans, mighty truculent at times, do not disturb Haughton, though occasionally they will offer to pay his plane fare back to Florida. There are some drivers on whom the regulars always bet, and there are others who, they feel, would get lost with a note pinned on them. Haughton, behind a field horse, is often bet down to 2 to 1, a phenomenon that always puzzles him.
It is a measure of Haughton's stature in the sport that last June 5 at Roosevelt—significantly, about five months before the spectacular riot there—he was honored with that overworked sporting ceremony, the "special night." The official program was perfunctory, heavy with superlatives, gifts and so forth, but it remained for the fans to raise the evening to a point beyond the pedestrian. In a rare display of affection, they swarmed around him at the end of the presentations. He signed autographs for an hour, a scene that must have moved some veteran horseplayers to blush. "You know," says his wife, "we thought about it a long time before we decided to bring the children that night. We were worried about how the people would react. They even booed Adios Butler the night he was retired, and when Eddie Arcaro retired, the Thoroughbred crowd booed him. The way they acted toward Billy was really a surprise. It was one of the finest moments in his career."
When Haughton is home, he relaxes by shooting baskets with his sons, riding a horse (in any kind of weather) or working with his Thoroughbred, Spring Sun ("not even Kelso gets better treatment than that horse," his wife says). But usually he is immersed in The Daily Racing Form. "The house could be burning down," says Dorothy, "but Bill wouldn't know it unless the paper started to burn." Haughton reads the Racing Form, primarily a Thoroughbred publication, because of his interest in everything that touches on horses, because he is always looking for horses to claim and, finally, because he enjoys the stories, which, he feels, submerge the element of big business in racing. "The accent," he says, "is on human interest. No twin doubles or betting. They give you a different look at racing. If they can't say anything good, they don't say it. I wish we had a publication like it. It would certainly help the image of trotting quite a bit."
The "image" of his sport bothers Haughton. Despite its huge mutuel handles and climbing prosperity, harness racing has never been able to quite rid itself of the nagging skepticism and sometimes blatant distrust of metropolitan fans. To a number of them, trotting is the ultimate in chicanery. To a small body of the press, it is viewed as just a shade above the extravagant folly of, say, Gorilla Monsoon and Killer Kowalski pretending that each is a devil incarnate. The improvement of the image is mainly a matter of education, Haughton believes, and as an educator for harness racing he is without peer. He will spend an hour on the phone with a brooding and interrogating player—whom he does not know—explaining the subtleties of the sport. At the end the guy does not retrieve the money he blew on Haughton's 1-to-4 favorite, but he does come away with a better understanding of harness racing.
Says Haughton, "So many people just bet. They don't know anything about the starting system or why a horse will break. They don't know how easy it is for even the best drivers to get pinned in a bad position. You can see everything at the harness tracks. It's not like the Thoroughbred tracks, which are much larger. You really can't see much of a race there. For instance, at Roosevelt a horse is moving along fine, say, in the middle of the race, and all of a sudden he starts to come apart. You have to pull up on him. At Aqueduct, at a similar point of the race, you can't see a jockey pull his mount up. At Roosevelt you can, and right away the bettor thinks there's something crooked about the sport. One thing I'd like to see done. I'd like to see the paddock moved closer to the people like they have at the running tracks. Then people could see the horses and see the drivers, and they wouldn't react like the repairman who came to my house one day. He said to my wife, 'I saw your father race last night at Roosevelt.' So many fans think we're old men, or farmers or hicks. This is a young man's sport now. It's grown a lot, but there's so much more to do."
Haughton has taken most of the top prizes in harness racing—the Messenger Stake, Little Brown Jug, Cane Futurity, Fox Stake and others—but The Hambletonian, trotting's Derby, has always eluded him. This year, however, there is silent optimism around the Haughton barn. It is generally conceded that Haughton has "the top hand on the table right now" in a pair of colts named Speedy Count and Smart Rodney. Speedy Count, by the same sire as last year's champion Speedy Scot, is big and swift, and he is the winter-book favorite for trotting's Triple Crown—the Yonkers Futurity, The Hambletonian and the Kentucky Futurity. He set a 2-year-old two-heat world mark of 4:00[4/5] for colts at Lexington, Ky. last season, won 21 of 27 starts, and was voted Trotter of the Year in his division. Smart Rodney, second in the balloting, won the Excelsior, Reading Futurity, Ohio Standardbred and The Horseman Stake. In addition, Haughton has in his barn one of the favorites for this year's Little Brown Jug, Vicar Hanover.
A victory in The Hambletonian would crown Haughton's career. The next day there would be more races and more stable problems, but he just might go out and drink champagne and dance the whole night through once again.