Peter Haughton follows in the sulky tracks of his dad, a harness-racing legend named Billy. But sometimes he does take the lead, and the two have been known to tangle in the stretch
March 08, 1976

One day this winter Billy Haughton and his son Peter were having a bite of lunch at a restaurant near southern Florida's Pompano Park. As they got up to leave, the elder Haughton noticed that the waitress, a fetching creature, was giving his bachelor son a big smile. Outside, he told his son conspiratorially, "If you don't make a move toward that, you're crazy."

Billy Haughton obviously has high expectations for his boy, but then Billy himself is something of an overachiever, being merely the most successful trainer-driver in harness racing history. At 52 Haughton gets by on four or five hours sleep a night and still thinks nothing of shuttling between racetracks half a continent apart the way other people go to the corner grocery. During the last quarter century he has hustled his horses into the winner's circle, his name into the record books and his sculptured likeness into the Hall of Fame of the Trotter in Goshen, N.Y. At the end of last year his lifetime earnings were $22.1 million.

At 21 Peter Haughton does so well off the track that the buffs around Pompano say his stable consists of blondes, redheads and brunettes. But in the past two years he has begun to prove himself as a solid racing driver as well. So there are two Haughtons in the business now. Not long ago, for example, Billy asked Peter to drop whatever he was doing and go to Windsor Raceway in Ontario and drive the splendid pacing mare Handle With Care in a $24,000 race. The elder Haughton originally had been scheduled to go, but at the last moment decided to send Peter, instead.

It was the sort of whirlwind mission that Haughton père is famous for, and the way Haughton fils pulled it off suggests that bloodlines apply to people as well as horses. Peter flew up from Pompano in the morning, drove Handle With Care to a half-length victory in the afternoon and caught a return flight home that evening. Back at work on the track next morning, he shrugged and said, "My father sure gives you a lot of notice, right?"

Nor is that Peter's only such triumph. Indeed, young Haughton has contributed so much that practically overnight the pair has become harness racing's top father-and-son team. The sport abounds in family pairings—brother combinations, stepfathers and stepsons and, in the case of Neva and Joyce Burright, who used to campaign on the Midwest county-fair circuit, even a mother-and-daughter team. There are Inskos galore, Filions aplenty and so many Dancers—seven at last count—that until he retired four years ago Charles Dancer, Stanley's brother, seemed a family outcast; instead of a sulky he drove a city bus in Trenton, N.J.

But in typical Haughton fashion, Billy and Peter have developed into something above and beyond the rest. Traditionalists used to insist that no trainer could successfully handle more than a couple of dozen horses. Yet the Haughtons operate the world's biggest racing stable, with nearly 200 trotters and pacers in training. The payroll for 10 assistant trainers, 90-odd grooms and a small army of accountants and secretaries is $15,000 a week. And Billy Haughton refuses even to consider the possibility of slowing down. "You can't have too many good young horses," he says. "You never know which of them is going to come through."

Peter Haughton is the second eldest of Billy and Dottie Haughton's five children. He was named after Peter Campbell, a trotter his parents once owned. ("I'd rather be named for a horse than a lot of people I know," Peter says.) As a youngster he shunned the company of other children in order to listen to his father and other horsemen talking shop. "I didn't have what you'd call a normal childhood," he says. "I was interested only in horses."

Peter was just 16 when he first donned his father's green-and-white racing silks and only 19 when he stunned nearly everybody by winning his first $100,000 race. "I've never seen a kid as good with a horse as Peter," Billy Haughton says. "I'd say it even if he weren't my boy." Then he hastily adds, "But he's got a lot to learn."

Peter agrees with the last. Slightly built, like his dad, but with blond hair instead of Billy's gunmetal gray, he is a serious, articulate young man who downplays his triumphs in the sulky. Instead he talks of becoming "an all-around horseman," a phrase he utters with great solemnity. "To be a good driver, you need good horses," he says. "To have good horses, you've got to be a good trainer. My goal is to be a good trainer and driver."

He has been pursuing that objective most recently at Pompano, a small gem of a track that is something of a winter capital for harness racing. Beneath its towering palms many leading trainers prepare their young trotters and pacers for the Grand Circuit, the touring series of prestige races primarily for 2- and 3-year-olds that gets into full swing in mid-June in places like Detroit, Lexington, Ky. and Saratoga, N.Y. Pompano is analogous to baseball's spring training camps: you get the athletes into shape in the South, then send them North for the regular season.

A typical Haughton day at Pompano begins at 6:45 a.m. with father and son out on the training track, rumbling through the lifting darkness behind jogging carts. It is likely to end 18 hours later with either or both of them driving in the night's pari-mutuel races, relaxing afterward in a clubhouse decorated with prints by that other noted one-two combination, Currier and Ives. In between the Haughtons might play tennis or take their 31-foot Bertram for a spin on the Intracoastal Waterway.

The relationship between the two is close and, for the most part, comfortable. "We're like brothers, really," Billy says. Indeed, the self-assured son seems to act as his father's alter ego—within limits. Talking one day to the owner of a 2-year-old pacer plagued by skittishness, Peter suggested rigging the animal with a head pole, a piece of equipment that is supposed to keep the horse's head from bobbing.

"But your father said no head pole," the owner objected.

"That's O.K.," said Peter. "I'd like to try it." With equal aplomb Peter announced the next day, "I've decided my father was right. I'm forgetting the head pole."

With his son, as with his other assistant trainers, the elder Haughton is an indulgent boss. "When you have this many horses, people have to be free to try their own ideas," Billy says. "Just as long as they don't do anything detrimental. The business is pretty much trial and error, anyway."

Judging by Haughton's own career, the business must involve something more than that. As a driver he was the No. 1 money-winner a dozen times in the '50s and '60s, including one stretch of eight straight years. As a trainer he came up in 1967 with Rum Customer, the first U.S.-bred pacer to win $1 million. He has had other champions, such as Laverne Hanover and Spartan Hanover, and he remains far ahead of everybody in lifetime driving winnings.

Today Haughton concentrates on the younger, costlier horses that vie on the Grand Circuit. He drives in fewer races than many of his peers. He enters mostly feature races, but at as many as seven tracks in a single week. Nor can he drive every good horse he enters, since he has the personally ostentatious habit of routinely entering three or four horses in prestige events like the Little Brown Jug. His system of mixing quality and quantity is audacious and enormously challenging.

As he keeps up with his far-flung stable, Haughton is sometimes frantic, sometimes serene. "I've got so much on my mind that I'm always forgetting things," he admits, yet he is able to dispense with most problems with a cheerful gap-toothed grin. Confronted by owners who think they know everything about horses—usually those who have just bought their first yearling—he lets them go right on thinking so. "They're paying the bills," he says, a philosophy that amazes a trainer-driver like Stanley Dancer, who has thrown such types out of his barn, only to have them find happiness with Haughton.

"I like to think we've got the same sort of horsemanship," says Dancer, whose $17.9 million in lifetime driving winnings puts him second to Haughton. "What makes Billy special, though, is that personality of his. He's just as patient with people as he is with horses. I don't know how he does it, but he takes things in stride."

In keeping with his low-keyed manner, Haughton carefully avoided pressuring his children to go into the horse business. "I wouldn't discourage 'em, but I wouldn't push 'em, either," he says. At the family's 22-room house on Long Island the activities are as diverse as those in any well-off suburban New York household. Billy Jr., 23, the eldest son, is a budding insurance salesman and a weekend golfer. Tommy, 19, a high school quarterback, is weighing scholarship offers from North Carolina and Villanova. Cammie, 16, is absorbed by his trail bike. And Holley, 15, is a partygoer and nonstop telephone talker.

Somehow the horses became Peter's. He had his first experience in the sulky during summer vacations from Oyster Bay High and from his father's alma mater, Cobleskill College near Albany, N.Y. In 1971, the first summer Peter drove seriously, he went onto the Pennsylvania county-fair circuit with four horses. Two belonged to the Haughtons, two to close friends, so that, as Billy says, "We wouldn't be pushing him onto any owners." Peter won $11,000 that season, $12,000 in 1972 and $83,000 in 1973.

Peter was still driving mostly in lesser races when, in August 1974, the $150,000 Prix d'Été rolled around at Blue Bonnets in Montreal. Billy Haughton qualified four horses and in the paddock before the race decided to drive the favorite, Handle With Care, himself. He found drivers for two of the others and asked Del Miller, another harness racing Hall of Famer, to take the fourth, Armbro Omaha. As it happens, Miller has a special relationship with Peter—"a second father," the younger Haughton says of Miller—and he balked. "Looky there," he said to Billy, pointing at Peter. "Why don't you let the boy drive?"

Billy hesitated. "Maybe I should ask the owner," he said. Finally he decided to let Peter drive. Peter patiently tucked Armbro Omaha in along the rail, then sent him into the clear at the top of the stretch to win the race. "You mean the owner didn't know I was driving?" Peter asked later in disbelief. Billy Haughton and Handle With Care finished third.

Peter won two more $100,000 races in 1974, taking the Colonial at Liberty Bell with lightly regarded Keystone Gabriel and the American Racing Classic at Hollywood behind Keystone Smartie. And at Hollywood he drove Handle With Care to a 1:54[4/5] mile, one-fifth of a second off Albatross' alltime record. Billy Haughton was meanwhile enjoying his best year ever, winning the Adios, Little Brown Jug, Messenger and Shapiro, as well as driving Christopher T. to an upset victory in the Hambletonian, the only major race he had not captured. All told the Haughtons won eight of the 12 $100,000 races they entered that year, a blitz that the U.S. Trotting Association commemorated in a movie The Great Green Wave, a title inspired by the Haughton stable's colors.

With father and son whipsawing rivals again in 1975, Haughton-trained horses won $2.85 million. Billy Haughton was in the sulky himself for $1,359,394 of that amount (Carmine Abbatiello, the year's top driver, won $2,275,093). Peter Haughton, in what amounted to his first full year, won $630,000 to raise his career total to nearly $1.2 million, impressive enough, considering that his father did not win any substantial amount of money until he was 25. Says Bob Hackett, editor of The Horseman and Fair World, "Nobody his age has ever come close to doing what Peter has these past two years."

Charges of nepotism are familiar in harness racing, but because of Peter's extraordinary success, the Haughtons have been largely spared. A woman groom in the stable refers to Peter behind his back as "Baby Haughton," but does so with affection. And there are owners who would as soon have the boss' son drive their horses as the No. 1 man himself. One of these is Irving Liverman, the Montreal businessman who owns Handle With Care. "Peter's got more daring as a driver than Billy," Liverman says. "If there's an opening on the track, he goes for it."

What Peter Haughton may still have to learn is the sort of self-control his father is celebrated for. In the paddock at upstate New York's Vernon Downs last summer, after a race in which both lost, bystanders were startled to hear Peter angrily accuse his father of costing him the race. "What the hell were you doing out there?" the son demanded. "You cut me off." He stormed away, leaving Billy speechless.

It was an incident father and son later would speak of in similar terms. "I probably did get in his road a little," Billy said, "but Peter lets himself get too upset over losses." And Peter said, "People tell me I sulk over defeats, and I guess they're right. But I hate to lose."

The elder Haughton has few other complaints about his son, unless you count the time in the Pompano clubhouse that he leaned forward and confided, "You know, Peter's inclined to be a nickel's worth lazy." Since Haughton's breakneck pace would make a battalion of beavers seem slothful, this should be taken no more seriously than a lot of things people whisper to you at racetracks. "I don't have the same energy he does," Peter admits. But Peter bristles over the time his father gently scolded him for sauntering into the training track at the indecently late hour of 8 a.m.

"He's come in at eight o'clock once or twice himself," the son says, setting the record straight.

One who would like to see Billy Haughton slow down is his wife Dottie, who goodnaturedly suffers her husband's prolonged periods of racetrack hopping—but suffers them just the same. Recently the two of them were spending a rare evening at home on Long Island, relaxing in front of the fireplace. The calm was interrupted by two nuns from St. Dominic's Catholic Church, who appeared at the front door soliciting contributions to a building fund.

As Billy went off to talk to them, Dottie Haughton smiled. "The last time the sisters asked for money, Billy promised to give them $500 if he won a certain race at Yonkers," she said. "I think they lit candles. They also must have had a pipeline to the track. Billy won the race and they called at four in the morning to congratulate him."

Haughton came back into the room—his pledge to the sisters this time was unconditional—and the conversation turned to a 95-acre farm the Haughtons had recently bought in New Hampshire, a remote place, said Dottie wistfully, "where I'm going to drag Billy, and nobody will find him." Billy nodded pleasantly, but soon was talking animatedly about the upcoming racing season. Established stars like Handle With Care, Keystone Smartie, Glasgow and Bret's Champ would be back. An illness to Trainer John Chapman had resulted in Haughton's taking over Savoir, the 1975 harness Horse of the Year. But it was his new crop of young horses that most enthused Haughton.

"You can never tell for sure, but they look real good," he said. "They could be the best I've ever had."

If it sounds like a lot to handle, don't forget there is help at the ready. "Peter could take over the stable right now," says Del Miller. "He truly knows the business. But the best thing about him is that he doesn't think he knows it all. He's always trying to learn more."

And generally succeeding at it. One evening at Pompano, Peter drove a 2-year-old pacer named Gold Customer, who was making his first start. The horse, green and nervous, went off gait and failed to finish. Afterward one of the owners, a Palm Beach restaurateur named Marcello Florentino, bellowed theatrically, "Peter! Next time your father drives!" It was gallows humor, and Billy Haughton laughed. But Peter said softly, "Next time he'll do better, Marcello." There are times when the things people say to you at racetracks should be taken seriously. In Gold Customer's next start, Peter Haughton drove him to a strong second-place finish. Marcello Florentino was jubilant.

ILLUSTRATION ILLUSTRATIONPeter: "You just cut me off out there." ILLUSTRATIONBilly: "Maybe I did get in his road a little."