Last Thursday evening, minutes before the start of the championship heat of the Meadowlands Pace, Billy Haughton and Joe O'Brien sat side by side on a rumpled yellow sofa in the drivers' lounge, watching TV. Haughton had won one elimination heat, O'Brien the other. The two men sat silently until Haughton suddenly tapped O'Brien on the knee with his whip and asked, "What were those heats worth, $20,000 or $25,000?"
"Bill," said O'Brien very slowly, "they were worth $140,000 each."
With that, Haughton cracked his whip on the floor, threw his head back and laughed. O'Brien had to smile. Here were two Hall of Fame drivers who had come full cycle. All week long O'Brien had been telling people that he once won all three heats in a free-for-all pace and pocketed $12.75. That was in 1935 at Port Eglin, New Brunswick, where purses consisted of a piece of the gate. And now, at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., where the championship heat alone was worth $280,000, he had Flight Director, one of the favorites in harness racing's richest race, a mile pace for 3-year-olds for a purse of $560,000. As Racing Secretary Joe DeFrank had said, "What the heck, it isn't as if we can't afford it."
Ah, money. This year the Meadowlands is paying out a record $20 million in purses. It has a contract with the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association to do so. The figure is based on the track's projected business, and since the night in 1976 that it first opened its glass doors and its sleek glass-and-concrete grandstand, the Meadowlands' attendance and wagering have been unsurpassed among the nation's harness tracks. But while the Meadowlands has big money, the sport's big events—such as the Hambletonian—are booked elsewhere. So last year DeFrank and General Manager Bob Quigley decided to use a part of the $20 million to inaugurate a major race. The idea was that whatever the Meadowlands Pace lacked in tradition, it would more than make up for with its ungodly purse. Last July, in its inaugural, the purse was $425,000. The plan is to raise the amount to $750,000 next year, to $1 million in 1980—and who knows?—by 1990, they may be competing for the New Jersey Turnpike.
So sweet was the pot that owners eagerly entered horses (at a bargain $6,500 a pop) that seemed more suited to pulling a coach-and-four. One was Steves Flying Bret, an also-ran since April. Another was Say Hello, winless all year and hampered by a breathing problem. There were even more outlandish long shots, such as Wizard Almahurst, a loser by 10 lengths or more in four races in a row, and Race To Win, a winner of two races in 12 starts against weaker pacers and a 108-to-1 plunge the last time he had competed against some of the better horses entered at the Meadowlands. Still, Driver Mack Hayman was steadfast in his belief that Race To Win had a chance. "He's got lots of speed," Hayman said, "and with so many horses anything can happen."
In all, 22 horses were entered, including seven of this year's leading money-winners—Armbro Tiger, Abercrombie, Timelys Best Man, Flight Director, No No Yankee; Falcon Almahurst and Brittany Road. DeFrank was forced to split the Pace into two preliminary heats, the first five finishers in each qualifying for the final. DeFrank had hoped for one race for the whole $560,000, and he made up his mind that next year he would set up qualifying races a week before the Pace to ensure just that.
For bettors, the situation was equally aggravating. Heat racing is so rare at American tracks that horses are never trained to perform at their peak twice in a night. Drawn into a tough heat, a driver might opt to conserve his horse's energy by simply qualifying rather than going all out if winning seems unlikely. Also, the good 3-year-old pacers had been beating each other all year long without establishing a clear favorite. Driver Peter Haughton, Billy's son, assessed the field the day before the race and found many people agreeing with him. "There isn't a horse among them that can cut a mile and expect to hang on at the wire," he said. So the bettors were reading past performances skeptically, much in the way a shopper pokes and picks through a bin of bruised tomatoes.
In the first heat the odds-on choice was Courageous Lady, a filly that had paced the year's fastest mile (1:55[2/5]) but was testing colts for the first time. Courageous Lady left from the 5 post, was pushed hard to take the lead at the quarter pole, then backed off slightly as Billy Haughton edged Falcon Almahurst to the front at the half-mile mark. From there Haughton cruised unchallenged the rest of the way to win in 1:54[2/5]. Billy was pleased. The colt had overcome a difficult No. 9 post, took the lead without being extended and was clocked in the fastest time of the year for a 3-year-old pacer. "He had something left," Haughton said, smiling.
Falcon Almahurst was one of the pre-race favorites. Last year he won his first start by 13 lengths in 1:59 flat, quite a feat for a 2-year-old. But a persistent throat infection, plus an injured stifle, had people wondering about his soundness. "He's still green," Haughton said, "and he's not a robust colt. He's sort of like a kid who is always getting the sniffles." The colt was purchased in 1976 by Charlie Hill, operator of Hill Farms in Hilliard, Ohio, for $150,000, at the time the third-highest price ever paid for a standardbred yearling. Charlie Hill, who is 75, isn't usually one to bid when the board is well lit, but when he watched Falcon Almahurst enter the sales ring, he said, "Somebody up there told me to bid."
Hill Farms is a 460-acre plot outside Columbus that thrives on breeding standardbreds. Right now the farm houses five stallions, 54 broodmares and 59 weanlings and yearlings. Hill has two horses in training, including Falcon Almahurst. But in 40 years of owning and racing horses, Hill had yet to be close in a major race.
Up in Section 104 at the Meadowlands, Charlie Hill was wearing a flashy red-blue-green-and-yellow-checked sport coat, buying drinks for a couple of rows of friends and new acquaintances, and saying things like, "I believe in heaven above."
The second heat favorite was No No Yankee, the USTA's Two-Year-Old Pacer of 1977, who had been approaching form slowly. Late in 1977 No No Yankee was syndicated for $2.5 million, but this year he had won only two of 10 starts and the syndicate was growing restless. In No No Yankee, Trainer-Driver Walter Ross, 37, had a colt with the ability to upgrade his career. For years Ross scratched out a living working with mediocre horses on the New England circuit until, in 1975, he had the opportunity to train a well-bred trotter named Yankee Bambino. Ross nursed Bambino to the Hambletonian, finished second by the smallest of noses and then had Bambino's owners pull out and hire another horseman. Ross almost quit. Then along came No No Yankee. "I'm just waiting for him to pop," he said over and over. But three days before the Meadowlands Pace, under pressure from No No Yankee's owners, Ross took himself off the colt and hired Ben Webster to handle the driving.
As the starting gate swung open, No No Yankee broke stride, eased 20 lengths behind the pacesetter and lost any chance of qualifying for the final. Starting in the ninth post, Joe O'Brien shot Flight Director to the lead at the quarter pole, allowed Glen Garnsey, behind Abercrombie, to slip in front of him at the half-mile post and then, late in the stretch, charged back at Abercrombie and nailed him by a neck at the wire in 1:56.
"I don't think I can beat him," O'Brien said bluntly of Falcon Almahurst upon entering the winner's circle. "When I beat him last week I was lucky to be in the lead. Tonight he looks tough and the pace might be too strong for me. Of course, I hope I'm wrong."
For his part, Webster found an interesting excuse, claiming that, just seconds before the race, a photographer had walked across the track, leaving a footprint. "When my horse saw the footprint," Webster said, "he jumped like a reindeer."
In the final, Flight Director had the rail and Falcon Almahurst drew wide again, post No. 8. Pacing at full tilt, Race To Win and Courageous Lady battled for the lead past the quarter pole and part way up the backstretch. Then O'Brien swung out from the rail and sent Flight Director past the two leaders, just as Haughton, fourth on the outside, ranged up on O'Brien and drew alongside. Now O'Brien had two options: let Falcon pass and then try to catch him in the stretch, or let out a notch and hang Haughton on the outside all the way around the turn. O'Brien laid back. Haughton took the lead, slowed the pace around the turn, then opened a two-length gap at the head of the stretch. The crowd of 27,965 roared, and up in Section 104 two rows of spectators around Charlie Hill were pounding the railings and shouting, "Go! Go! Go!"
Flight Director was losing ground, but suddenly Abercrombie zoomed up from sixth place and was driving toward Falcon Almahurst. Haughton, rocking in the sulky and whipping righthanded, brought the horse toward the wire. Abercrombie gained no more as Haughton rolled past the finish in 1:55[1/5].
In Section 104, Hill thrust both arms high in the air and began bouncing on his toes. A wave of spectators swarmed around him. Charlie's son Bob elbowed his way through the crowd, hugged his father and kissed him on the nose. "Like I told Billy last year," Charlie said, rushing down a staircase that led to the finish line, "Don't worry about the colt because even if he don't race at all, he'll make enough money next year."