A state fair is like a picnic without ants in the baked beans. You swill some barbecue sauce and chomp on a plateful of tacos and corn dogs, have the shimmy taken out of your twisted frame on one of those vibrating lounge chairs, obtain a personal interview with the world's largest spider monkey, and get dust on your shoes and not have a worry in the world because you won a pink stuffed tiger in the ring toss.
The Du Quoin State Fair is all of that and more: right out in the backyard the Hambletonian harness race for 3-year-old trotters takes place, which is like holding the Indianapolis 500 at the local drag strip or having Jack Nicklaus tee up for the U.S. Open on rubber mats at the corner driving range. If you want to find Du Quoin, Ill., just go to the middle of nowhere and park your car.
Despite its insularity, Du Quoin comes alive for the Hambletonian as limousines and pickup trucks nuzzle together at the rustic fairgrounds. It is a return to the roots of a sport that grew out of just such territory—the fairground circuit with no pari-mutuel wagering and only man, horse and sulky against each other. And what took place there last week can be described as a double-barreled miracle. First it rained and then Billy Haughton won the race.
All summer long the area had suffered severe drought; in the fields surrounding Du Quoin the corn stood wilted, brown, ruined. But Billy Haughton's personal dry spell with respect to the Hambo stretched for much longer than one season. Although his winnings amount to a record $20 million (give or take a few thousand) since he first began driving seriously in 1949 and although he has captured nearly every other major harness-racing fixture—most of them more than once—Haughton had never won the Hambletonian. Then last Friday he twice came thundering down the stretch behind Christopher T., a colt with more heart than style.
It was only the fourth victory of the season for Christopher T., who has trouble getting out of the way of his own feet and has had a series of injuries aggravated by his awkward gait. At one point Haughton questioned entering the colt in the Hambletonian but Owner John Thro, a pharmacist from Mankato, Minn., talked him into it. Haughton changed the horse's shoes, removed his toe weights and hoped he would heal between heats.
The winner of the Hambletonian must win two heats over the mile track. This year a record field of 22 horses was entered and, rather than steal a scene from Ben Hur, race officials split the mob into two 11-horse divisions. Nevele Diamond, offspring of the great Nevele Pride, driven by Stanley Dancer, won the first in 2:00⅖ no surprise since Diamond was one of the favorites. But in the second division most people figured Christopher T. would need crutches. In the absence of a tote board, the knowledgeable had installed him at something like 12 to 1. Nevertheless, Christopher T. and Haughton sizzled to a 1:59⅘ handily beating the prerace favorite Golden Sovereign.
The top five horses from each division returned for a third heat, with both Christopher T. and Nevele Diamond having a chance to wrap it up and eliminate the need for yet a fourth race. Diamond had the lead at the halfway mark but Dancer's colt faded badly after the three-quarter pole. Christopher T. turned a 1:58[3/5] clocking and finished a length and a half ahead of second-place Stock Split.
Under the best of circumstances the Hambletonian is an excruciating event, and this year the tension was heightened by a two-day postponement. A deluge hit the track mid-Wednesday while the horses were warming up, washing out the race program. When the rains continued into the night, the race was also scrubbed for Thursday. "Du Quoin isn't a bad place to be marooned for four or five days if the leftovers from the Ma Barker gang don't get you," chuckled veteran horseman Del Miller. He was in a state of considerable shock after discovering that somebody had been siphoning off vodka from his liquor supply and replacing it with water.
The sudden superabundance of water also raised the possibility that if the race could not be staged on Friday, it might have to be rescheduled at another track later in the year. For the weekend, Du Quoin was committed to spark plugs instead of racing plugs—a highly profitable auto-race program. The prospect was especially doleful since Du Quoin almost lost the Hambletonian last October when officials voted to move it to Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where the pot could be sweetened with pari-mutuel betting money. The move was never carried out, however, and the Hambletonian Society announced last week that Du Quoin would host the race "indefinitely" and that pari-mutuel betting and an all-weather track would be added in time for next year's race.
As trotting's most prestigious event by far, the Hambletonian inspires a certain awe in first-time participants—never mind that any reverence is likely to be tempered by the fact that the race is an adjunct to the fair: a driver is liable to discover the trained bear Gentle Ben sharing his motel swimming pool some morning, or wind up eating breakfast next to a performing orangutan. Duncan MacDonald, the gruff Canadian owner-driver-trainer of Armbro Ouzo, is not often associated with sentimentality, but he was so impressed by the fact that he was making his first try at the Hambletonian that he went out and bought a whip and inscribed it HAMBLETONIAN 1974 as a memento.
Another man making his first pilgrimage to Du Quoin was Dick Richardson Jr., whose colt Golden Sovereign had come from preseason obscurity to prominence. In 13 starts this year the handsome chestnut had won eight times and finished second on four occasions. Richardson was happy enough with Sovereign that he skipped a final tuneup at the punishing Indiana state fair track and headed straight for Du Quoin, where he had some flashy workouts. Ned Bower, the trainer of Anvil, put the stopwatch on one of those exhibitions and announced that the horse had turned a 1:57 mile. "I heard he went that fast," sniffed Richardson, attempting to temper enthusiasm. "If he turned a 57, he'll go in 53 in the Hambletonian." But Richardson's confidence ebbed with the delay, and on Wednesday and Thursday he could be seen glumly searching the sky for signs of sunshine while Golden Sovereign stood idly in his stall, his nose pressed against the cage of an electric fan.
Meanwhile Haughton went around like a man in charge of a 12-to-l shot that might win, but only if a lot of other horses got sick. He talked about how the Hambletonian had never been kind to him. In his first go at it 25 years ago, a bridle snapped just as the starting gate pulled away. His luck had not been much better since. This year he showed up with another typical tale of woe. His trip to Du Quoin started badly in Long Island with a well-meaning assistant locking the keys to his car in the trunk. It ended seven hours later with his motel reservations being lost. In between there were missed and delayed airplane flights, arguments with clerks and general aggravations.
But luck changes. Christopher T. won the second division in impressive style from the eighth post as Golden Sovereign tired in the stretch and just managed to hold on to second place.
In the finale Anvil took the lead at the quarter pole but Dancer quickly urged Nevele Diamond to the front. Going down the backstretch Golden Sovereign was parked in seventh place and never would be a threat while Christopher T. was sitting fourth. They stayed that way until the three-quarter pole when Diamond gave up the ghost and Sing Away Herbert edged briefly into the lead. Halfway through the stretch, Haughton eased his colt on top and no one around him had any fight left. The old pro surveyed the situation on each side of him, leaned back in the sulky and gave a look that said, "Well, boys, it's Billy's day today."
It just proves that everyone likes a fair, only it takes some people longer to find out.