Around Detroit's Hazel Park racetrack Bea and Chuck Farber are something of a mystification. They win a lot of races, which isn't by itself all that unusual. The thing about the Farbers is that they do it with a stableful of unclassy horses and training methods that baffle fellow horsemen and astonish some of them. "Their horses are small, shaggy-looking claimers," says veteran Driver Joe O'Brien. "They don't cool them out. They don't even remove the bridles between trips when they train. After a race, the horse jumps into a trailer to go home, and he'll stand there while they stop someplace for a hamburger. Now, I ask you: How can anybody win doing that?"
Nevertheless, the Farbers win. Often. This season Bea could be en route to a half-million-dollar year. Apart from being the top woman driver in the country, during her nine-year career she has driven some 40 sub-two-minute miles and has a lifetime driving percentage of .386, both women's records.
Nine years ago hardly anyone in harness racing even knew the Farbers. Chuck was a struggling trainer-driver and Bea was a legal secretary, a job she left to pursue her lifelong interest in horses. "I bought a standardbred, which I originally intended to turn into a jumper," she says, "but he could trot so fast under a saddle that someone said, 'Why don't you race him?' It gave me ideas." Bea met Chuck when she sold him a pacer. "Our marriage is as much a business convenience as anything else," she says, "and it's worked out."
Indeed it has. At the start of the Farber partnership, Chuck did all the driving, which didn't prevent Bea from handing out advice. "Finally he teased me into getting my license," she says, "and I won the first race I drove." Chuck Farber is a man of few words. "Bea gets more speed from a horse," he says. "She's the better driver, so now she drives everything." But she only drives the Farbers' horses. "Sure, I could make more money driving for other people, too," she says, "but Chuck feels that catch-driving interferes with our work. Of course, in the beginning, the extra money would have helped. But in the beginning, nobody else would have wanted me."
August 6, 1978
In 1970, her first year driving, Bea Farber brought in $1,274 ("Now I get more than that just for appearing in a Battle of the Sexes promotion," she says). Last year she earned almost $400,000. She has been winning more than one-quarter of her starts. "That's why everybody gets so upset with us," she says. "The reason I win so many is that I'm familiar with our horses, and they're all so well-trained."
Well-trained? The Farber standardbreds have to be the ultimate free spirits of horsedom. Some 30 of them, those in training, are kept in a field on their tiny 80-acre farm in Brighton, Mich. They drink from a pond and roll in the dirt. "The ones at home like to wait up by the gate for any of the others that have a race," says Bea. And when the trailer pulls up at 2 a.m., returning from Hazel Park, several horses whinny and greet the returning heroes, who promptly clatter off the trailer and join them in the darkened pasture.
The Farbers' 2-year-olds do not race, thus escaping the pressures put on Grand Circuit horses. "Heck, they eat rabbit pellets and green apples," says one trainer. "Those people don't even have stalls in their barn." True. The Farber barn is for heavy equipment—backhoes, tractors and such—"Chuck's toys," Bea describes them.
The barn also houses a pair of treadmills. "Treadmills are great devices to train horses on," says Bea. "A horse will really fly when he comes off one." They have to fly in the Farber training regimen, because there is no track at the farm. Each morning, Bea Farber loads up five or six horses, hauls them the 35 miles to Hazel Park, drives each animal four miles, then hauls them back home.
All Farber horses wear the same sort of plain aluminum shoes, the blacksmithing being done by Chuck. "He always says, 'Let the feet fit the shoes, they'll get used to them,' " says Bea. "And of course, everybody in Michigan knows the kind of shoes our horses wear; they all pick up their hooves to see if that's where the winning secret is."
Bea Farber does not invest heavily in the usual harness racing frills. "You won't see any of those fancy $275 tack trunks around Farbers'," says one groom. "They might bring a bucket of swamp water and a few towels from home, and maybe a scrub brush to dust a horse with, if he's racing."
All this do-it-yourselfing might seem a rather casual way of handling delicate standardbreds, but the Farbers insist it isn't. "Our colts live in the most natural environment possible," says Chuck. "They're turned out every day. Some other racehorses haven't been out since they were yearlings. And we respect the personality details of the animals." He mentions Quick Candy, a 6-year-old gelding that thinks it's a goat. Candy butts. "Now, if you let a horse get away with a thing like butting, he thinks he's put one over on you, so he'll give you a little more when you race," says Chuck. "On the other hand, if you break a horse of these small quirks, you'll eventually break its spirit."
The Farbers breed all their own horses at a farm near Macon, Ga., and of the 100 head they maintain on a year-round basis, perhaps half a dozen are good ones. Many are the offspring of Quick Harry, an unspectacular pacer that became a prolific sire. Five of Harry's offspring have raced in under two minutes, Quick Command having gone in 1:55[3/5] and Quick Candy in 1:57.
The Farber horses are all pacers except Chuck's trotter, Quick Scamp, which he alone trains and drives. Not long ago he drove against the legendary Billy Haughton, coming in second to Haughton's sixth. Afterward, Haughton said, "That guy doesn't even carry a whip. All he kept saying was, 'Come on, baby! Come on, baby!' He passed me twice. How could he do that without a whip?"
There are 14 sub-two-minute milers in the Farber herd, and an aged mare, Emerald Scar, has won more than $200,000. But most of the horses look like candidates for the glue-works.
"Once, between races, I was looking at one of their horses," says Haughton. "I said, 'Is that a racehorse?' and was told it had just won the last race. It looked as if it didn't even belong in Central Park pulling a carriage." Even Chuck admits, "Our horses really don't have any business doing what they do."
But if the Farbers' horses are noted for winning when they shouldn't, they're even more notorious for not winning after they've been claimed. "Soon as somebody gets one of ours, it mopes, lies down, won't eat," says Bea. Some say the horses tremble violently when taken from the Farbers, as if undergoing withdrawal symptoms. "When a horse leaves us, he loses his freedom," Bea says. "Suddenly he has to live out of a stall. No wonder he sulks." For anyone but the Farbers, the horses tend to perform with the vigor of a crosstown bus during a rainy rush hour. "Ever since Quick Charlie was claimed a while back, he's been dead last every race," Bea says.
The Farber mystique evokes a running commentary by bettors and backstretchers alike. "Nobody will bad-mouth them because nobody can figure out why they win all the time," says John Keener, a groom for the Chris Boring stable. "People don't resent Bea because she's a woman, they resent her because she wins everything. You want to think it's drugs, but their horses test clean. You see how they operate. The pieces just don't fit together."
Those sentiments are heard like a Greek chorus at Hazel Park or Wolverine—wherever Bea Farber drives. "I spend $200,000 to $300,000 to keep my horses in shape, give them the best food," Haughton says, "and still you can't be sure you'll win. These people do everything wrong, all wrong. Yet they continue to win races. It's unbelievable. I don't understand it."
Neither do bettors, but they just bank on an almost sure thing when Farber horses race, and collect frequent if unremarkable bucks. Bea Farber is a crowd pleaser at the Michigan tracks, and because her horses do poorly when they travel, the Farbers infrequently race out of town. "We're most comfortable here in our own backyard," she says. According to Bea, her presence increased the Wolverine handle some $100,000 a night. "People actually come up to me and say, 'Thank you for winning,' " she says. "One couple said they bought all their furniture with money they'd won on me. Another man started a fleet of limousines. That's so nice to know. So when I drive, I should win. I figure that I owe it to people to win."
Her competitive streak developed early on. As a child, she would race the cows on her parents' farm. "They'd always wonder why some cow suddenly went dry," Bea recalls. "And I had a palomino mare I used to drag-race. You know, against the boys' hot rods. We'd win. Of course, they were old cars."
She has suffered the hazards of her sport: a broken pelvis, near loss of an eye, dislocated vertebrae. "It's business," she says, and keeps on driving. "I don't think of myself doing anything great for women's liberation by driving," she adds. "I just do what I'd rather be doing more than anything else in the world. And I want to be known not only as a driver, but also as someone who is all-round good with horses."
Bea Farber is unashamedly affectionate with animals, treating her racehorses as if they were oversized puppies. Recently she planted a big smooch on Emerald Scar, saying, "I've got more people kissing their horses now instead of hitting them." The mare looked a shade embarrassed, but plainly loved the attention. Bea says that fondling and talking to her horses assures them that they are loved and is one of the reasons they do so well at the track. "I just love them, they're all my babies," Bea coos as she cross-ties Emerald Scar. Somehow you can't imagine Billy Haughton or Del Miller behaving that way.
Bea believes she has telepathic powers where horses are concerned and says they can read her mind as easily as she does theirs. It is such talk that leads other horsemen to speculate that she practices witchcraft on her stable. "They say there must be some secret brew our horses drink," says Bea, laughing, "or that we plant tiny computers into a horse and program it to win. That's what people have said."
She effervesces throughout her 18-hour days, paying scant attention to talk. "I believe that time is flat," she says, "so the past means nothing. You can't do anything about what's up ahead. All you've got is right now." And right now, Bea Farber is winning.