GAMBLING WITH RAMBLING

He was lazy, ugly, ill-bred and hadn't paced so good, but the Farringtons took a flyer on Rambling Willie—and he's won $1.1 million
July 02, 1978

A block up from the stoplight in Rushsylvania, Ohio, the Rev. C. L. Harris, 85, is holding forth on a variety of subjects as he relaxes at home alongside his rolltop desk, the one he bought for $5 in 1926 and which people have been trying to slicker him out of in recent years. He's talking about how he retired from the ministry 15 years ago "because I was tired of people calling me up to tell me somebody was dead." But retirement stopped neither death nor phone calls, so two weeks later, figuring he might as well get paid for dealing with grief, Harris took on another preaching job at nearby West Mansfield Church of Christ.

But most of all, he's talking of a miracle salve he makes and sells—four ounces for $5—which its users swear by. Among the ingredients are red cedar oil, sassafras oil, linseed oil, beeswax and resin. Harris' disciples say it works wonders on poison ivy, arthritis, warts, corns, beestings, burns, ulcers, ingrown toenails, shortness of breath, bad breath, high blood pressure, impetigo and the heartbreak of psoriasis. "My children all knew it did them good," says Harris, "so why wouldn't it help horses?"

Which may be as good an explanation as any for the logic-defying smash success of Rambling Willie, a lazy, ugly and cheap 8-year-old gelding of bad breeding, ill health and nasty temperament. Fifty per cent of him is owned by Rev. Harris' daughter, Vivian Farrington, of Mokena, Ill., who for years has made sure Willie's legs were rubbed with her father's salve. If the salve doesn't work, why do other stable hands keep stealing it from Willie's stall?

Any week now, barring catastrophe, Willie—he's the one over there wrapped in blankets and looking every inch the old man that he is—will get his legs iced and rubbed with the salve, then drag his battered body to the track, beat a bunch of horses, and surpass Albatross' career winnings of $1,201,470. This will make creaky Willie the highest money-winning pacer in history. Having earned $3,000 by finishing fifth at the Meadowlands the other night, Rambling Willie is only $38,283 short of Albatross, who raced from 1970 through 1972 and is now at stud in Pennsylvania.

In fact, only four other harness horses, all of them trotters, have won more money. And if Willie doesn't suffer a crippling injury—he has a bowed tendon in his right fore that could snap at any step—he might surpass two of those: Fresh Yankee, who became a broodmare in 1972 after winning a career $1,294,252, and Savoir, who is still racing but struggling now, with career earnings of $1,310,000. If Willie makes it that far, he will become the richest North American harness horse of either gait. Seemingly beyond his reach are the career earnings of two French horses: the $1,960,945 won by Bellino II, who is retired, and the $1,660,627 won by the deceased Une De Mai.

"There's not a thing wrong with Willie," says trainer-driver Bob Farrington, Vivian's husband, "except old age and too many miles." Indeed, he has started 147 races and finished first 65 times, winning more of those races in under two minutes (39) than any harness horse in history. He's insured for $125,000 (the premium is $4,375 a year) but the Farringtons know there's no replacing Willie. He was gelded as a youngster, owing to his woeful breeding and hostile behavior, which is why he keeps going to the track. Recently Australian interests made inquiries about buying him as a stud. They might have been disappointed in his performance. "Besides," says Farrington, "I'm in this business to get a nice horse. I have one. So why sell?"

Willie has become a folk hero, especially in Chicago. The other night at Sportsman's Park, horse owner Jay Stone said, "Rambling Willie isn't a horse. He's an ideal." Willie is one of those rare horses that exhibit so many human qualities—albeit many of them bad—that people identify with them. Willie seems to offer redeeming hope, not only at the $2 show window where he has paid off like a government bond since 1975, but to just plain folks whose lives are filled with adversity. When Willie is on the track, it's almost as if he is giving a sermon to the masses:

"Never mind if you're ugly like me. Never mind if you ache in the morning and agonize at night. Never mind if life gets tedious and you get cranky. Just remember, when the starting gate in life swings open at the dawn of each new day, break fast, hit the first turn with authority, ignore the bumping, be stubborn down the backstretch, and as you turn for home, never mind if you have to swing wide, for if you give it your all, you will be first like me. And then you, too, will have the Earth and everything that is in it, my son."

If this sounds a bit evangelical, understand that Willie has that oldtime religion; his owner, Mrs. Farrington, gives 10% of her share of his winnings to her father's church—about $58,000 since 1973. "He races better because I tithe," says Vivian.

Yet, sometimes it seems as if it isn't easy to do good in this world. Harris has a number of letters on Willie's contributions to the church stuck in the cubbyholes of the rolltop in Rushsylvania—not all of them complimentary. A man from Oxford, Ala. wrote: "Could you accept money from a house of prostitution or money from a moonshine operation?" The criticism finally put the church on the defensive. In May, its 12-member board voted unanimously not to talk to outsiders about Willie's relationship with the church anymore and recommended that others among the membership of 120 also hold their tongues.

"Nobody wants to tell our side of this thing," complains church treasurer Francis Fogle.

What is your side?

"I have no comment whatsoever."

Another church official sniffs to a visitor, "You're here because you think Willie supports this entire church. That's not true." Correct. In 1976, the church budget, according to Harris, was about $16,000; Willie only contributed $14,787 of it. But in 1977, his best year on the track, he oversubscribed the budget with a contribution of $19,896. All this has created a facility that is not the normal, hard-scrabble, if-we-just-had-$50-to-fix-the-sink kind of country church. Essentially, Willie put in a new foundation and added a new roof, financed most of the extensive remodeling, including paneling and carpeting, and paid for the new baptistry, the paved parking lot and the billboard out front. Admits Harris, "I can't think of anything we need. We have gone the rounds." Because of Willie, the church now gives 15% of its revenue to missions, up from 10%. Indeed, the church was so flush it decided to hire an assistant minister, though Harris says that neither of two candidates has worked out.

The chief reason for the parishioners' stand is their concern that a racehorse supporting a church somehow taints things. Too, some think it looks as if Willie is giving them a free ride, which, to a large extent, he is. But Harris says he knows of no Biblical prohibition against gambling, although, if asked, he would recommend against it. Harris did see Willie race once and says, "He's not my idea of a racehorse. Really, he should be more slender."

Other than that, C. L. Harris remains unconcerned. "There's someone on television who says, 'God'll getcha for that,' " he says. "Well, I don't believe God'll get us because of Willie."

Rev. Harris settles down on his front porch—after being interrupted by another phone call that he feared would be news of death, but wasn't—to try to further explain, yea, justify things. "I brought Vivian up to tithe," he says. "If she was scrubbing floors, she'd tithe. Besides, it's not really gambling money. Willie gets money whether anybody bets or not. It just so happens there is gambling. But for Willie, it's his salary that's being tithed. I don't know very many people who would turn this money down, do you? Frankly, if the Lord was that narrow, wouldn't any of us make it."

Other churches have asked how to get into this horse business. Phillip Waring, senior minister of the First Church of Christ in Phoenix, wrote Harris, "Good news travels fast." And in Lexington, Ky., Wayne B. Smith, past president of the North American Christian Convention, is not distressed by Willie's collection-plate pace. "If a guy works at a printing press all day that produces Bibles but has a dirty mind, that certainly doesn't make his money any cleaner," he says.

Harris shakes his head. "All this is upsetting, and most of the trouble is from other churches. I just wish they'd run theirs and we'll run ours."

Willie is never, never, ever mentioned in the church and nobody admits to praying for him, for heaven's sake. Oh, Harris does confide that a member once came up to him and whispered, "I'm supposed to tell you Willie won last night." The walls didn't fall down. The suggestion by an outsider that the church have a picnic and bring Willie to West Mansfield (which is about 40 miles northwest of Columbus) drew furious stares. Two blocks away at the Methodist church, Pastor Rozell Sattler says of his members, "I think some of them view that horse connection with disdain and others with jealousy."

For Vivian Farrington, there's no problem. "God says you should tithe and God doesn't lie," she says. Bob Farrington, a harness-driving star in the '60s who has sat behind horses that have won more than $7.7 million in purses, doesn't know how to explain Willie's wondrous success. He says, "I guess it's probably the tithing, Vivian's beliefs, the salve—and a little of my know-how." True. For when all training of a harness horse is left to God, something must inspire the animal to do the right thing when the race starts. Like going in the right direction. Anyway, Bob has pointed out to Viv that he is certain the Lord had in mind tithing on the net, not the gross, but she wants to do it the high-priced way.

West Mansfield is 350 miles southeast of Chicago, so the Farringtons seldom visit the church. Steve Rosmarin, the Farringtons' accountant, who says he just "kind of gets an inspiration" as to when it's time to send off another check for a couple thousand dollars to the church, says, "Either Willie has an awful lot of hidden qualities or prayer does make a difference." Vivian, on the other hand, is more candid about precisely when a check should be sent to the church. "It would be terrible to give Dad a check that bounced," she says.

The Rambling Willie saga began in the summer of 1973 when a stable hand mentioned to Farrington that the colt was coming up for sale. (Farrington subsequently gave the young man a check for $1,000 in gratitude.) Willie hardly was drawing a crowd of potential buyers. As a 2-year-old, he failed to win in four tries and earned only $349; as a 3-year-old, he had won only $562 before being sold. Recalls Farrington. "He looked like a nice horse."

Really, Bob?

"Well, no, not really. But he stood good."

Really, Bob?

"Well, it did look like there was room for improvement."

Why did you buy him?

"I needed a horse."

At last, a criterion that Willie met. A horse. Not much else. After all, Willie's mother, Meadow Belle, was a cripple who failed as a saddle horse because of her rotten disposition and a tendency to teeter on the brink of falling over. Her breeder, Ray Gibson of Monroeville, Ind., bought her from his uncle for $175. Belle's sire was undistinguished Meadow Gold, but at least he was out of a top broodmare, Maggie Counsel, by the celebrated Adios. Willie's father, Rambling Fury, offered little hope either, although his great-grandfather, Billy Direct, was a pacing star of the '30s. Gibson told Farrington, "If you want Willie, bring money, no checks." Explains Gibson, "Never trust horse people." Farrington hustled up the $15,000 (in $100 bills)—which was excessive by any measure, considering the merchandise involved—and muttered as he drove home with Willie, "I probably gave $5,000 too much." Then he told Vivian, "I'll give him to you as a birthday present." It was her first and only horse.

Unable to locate a man with whom he had owned many horses to buy half of Willie, Farrington turned to Paul Seibert of Cincinnati, with whom he had also done business. Told the horse was Rambling Willie, Seibert immediately grumped, "He's a deadhead." But Seibert had recently hit on a $60 double that gave him a couple thou, and he had run $1,000 of that up to $7,900 when a friend helped him with a wildly profitable purchase of pork-belly futures. With the money burning a hole, Seibert agreed to go along with the joke.

In his first venture into the harness-horse business 15 years earlier, Seibert had paid $800 for a mare that had cost the seller just $100. Shortly after Seibert got her, she died. Later on, a horse that had done no good for him was claimed and promptly got four straight wins for the new owners. Seibert, an advertising man, says, "That was a signal I should get out." Willie represented his return to the races, though Seibert insists, "I never thought I'd make money on him."

It looked at first as if Willie was giving signals that everybody should have stayed out on him. He got sick. "All I wanted was one winner's-circle picture," says Vivian, "and I didn't think I was going to get it." In October, he won. Now she has 65 such pictures. In 1974, Willie won almost $100,000. Then he erupted in 1975 to earn $264,405, and again in 1976 to make almost $300,000. But near the end of the year, he bowed a tendon, one of the most dreaded injuries in racing, and it looked as though that was the end. Vivian prayed hard while Seibert simply gloomed that there would be no tomorrow. And Willie got well. "It was a miracle," Vivian insists. He not only got well but also raced soon thereafter and won. Seibert looked over at her as Willie hit the finish on top. "You and your faith," he said. Says Vivian, "If you have enough faith, you can ask for anything and it is yours." After one victory, Seibert got so carried away that when somebody mentioned that the West Mansfield church needed a new sidewalk, he whipped out his checkbook right then and there and wrote a check for $2,000 to cover it.

There are those who insist that Albatross was a greater horse than Willie because he won all his money in only three years of racing, while Willie is now in his seventh. The counter is that Albatross got all the big money offered to 2- and 3-year-olds while Willie got practically none of it and has had to chip away. His biggest payday came last summer at the Meadowlands when he won the Driscoll Series final and earned $93,000.

Through the years, Willie has taken on all the best older horses and put them in the shade. In 1975, Young Quinn showed up in this country from Australia and was thought to be tops; Willie was better. In 1976, everyone pegged Nero; Willie was better. In 1977, the smart money was on Oil Burner; Willie was better. This year, the experts keep thinking Governor Skipper or Whata Baron will rule, but don't count Willie out. For the last three years, Willie—who can race on the front end, battle it out in a crowd, or rush at the end—has been voted Aged Pacer of the Year. Never, however, has he been selected as Horse of the Year, which is just one more example of how we abuse old folks. In 1977, he was third in the balloting behind Green Speed and the Governor.

Willie doesn't train much these days. And when he does, he hates it. Farrington says it's difficult to get him to go any faster than 2:15 in a workout, even if other horses are put on the track to give him competition. Actually, he hates other horses, too. A whip does little to persuade him and prerace warmups bore him silly. He bites, kicks, complains. "He's just ornery," says Farrington. "He don't mean to hurt."

But when the starting gate swings open, Willie knows it's for real and his behavior suddenly turns exemplary. He has never broken stride in a race, has seldom thrown in a really poor performance. Not bad for a horse that didn't have the least idea there was a world beyond Chicago until 1975 when he was already five years old.

Through it all, Vivian Farrington prays, tithes, believes in psychics (but eschews fortune-tellers) and gives Willie honey and vinegar. She is convinced that Willie nods to her when he's going to win and she once admitted to being afraid of another horse before the race. Willie lost. "I think of him as a pet," she says, "not a champion." The Farringtons are building a new home, complete with a paddock out front, that overlooks the rolling Illinois countryside. When Willie's racing days are over, they will put him there—and stare at him. "He has taken care of us," says Bob, "and we'll take care of him. Some people are rich with $10 and others aren't rich with $2 million. Am I rich? Willie has made me comfortable." Says Vivian, "Willie lights up my life."

Last year Willie lit up a lot of lives. He won twice in 1:54⅗ excellent time and his best ever. Other horses tried to avoid going against him and races were hard to fill. When the year was done, he had finished first in 13 races (and been in the money in 28 of 30 starts) and won $397,921—ninth most by a harness horse in one year. Joe McLoone, president of New Jersey's Freehold Raceway, says of Willie, "He has got to have help from above." Bob Farrington isn't sure, but says of his wife's faith, "She does believe and it don't hurt nothin'."

Still, time is inexorable and it seems Willie is waning. Farrington says he'll race him as long as Willie feels good enough and can make at least $300,000 a year, of which expenses eat up $100,000. "All I ever hope," says Farrington, "is that he can race next week." Seibert is more fatalistic. "I figure every race is his last," he says. And Vivian, predictably, thinks Rambling Willie will be racing until the end of time. Back at West Mansfield Church of Christ, Pastor Harris is cavalier. "There was a church here before Willie," he says, "and there will be one after him."

TWO PHOTOSWillie, owner Vivian Farrington and the Rev. Harris, with a jar of his salve—four ounces for $5.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)