I'll tell you what this win means to me," said Billy Haughton last Saturday in Du Quoin, Ill., just after he had won a record-tying fourth Hambletonian. But as he flicked his whip at the dirt, the tears that had come to his eyes found their way to his cheeks and he couldn't complete the sentence. Which, of course, completed the sentence.
Haughton, one of harness racing's most eminent drivers, had won in straight heats with a colt named Burgomeister—trained, half-owned and driven last year by his son, Peter, 25, who was killed seven months ago in a car wreck near the Meadowlands track in New Jersey. "Peter just loved this colt," Billy whispered. "He thought he was the best." The tragedy has put deep sorrow in Haughton's laughing eyes. "Everybody tells me it will get better," he said. "It just gets worse."
As a result of the car accident, the sport lost its brightest rising star, a young man who already had won 571 races and $6.4 million in purses; Billy lost not only a son but also his business partner and his buddy. Now Haughton was silent. Nearby, his wife, Dottie, said softly, "This was Peter's day."
It was Peter's Day. The record crowd of 18,000 roared every time Burgomeister got a call. And Billy drove like a man possessed, which he was. Burgomeister had no choice but to win; both Billy and the emotional crowd had willed it so.
September 7, 1980
Indeed, the whole day was a crazy quilt of emotion on a steaming afternoon in southern Illinois. Not only did Billy Haughton do what everyone wanted by winning the sport's most prestigious race with Peter's horse, but another Haughton son, Tommy, 23, won one heat of the Hambo, the youngest driver ever to do so. And after 24 years, this was the very last time the race would be held in Du Quoin. Next year it will move to the Meadowlands. When bugler Kenneth (Pete) Pierson, 67, put his trumpet to his lips for the Hambletonian's last call in Du Quoin (actually it's a recording, but Pierson fakes it admirably), there were tears in his eyes. "This is bad, real bad, awful bad," he said. There was enough crying going on to fill a Sea of Regret.
Until the Haughton blitz, the race itself had generated little interest. That's because this group of 3-year-old trotters was considered only average, at best. Even horsemen, who as a group tend to overpraise their animals, were subdued. Doug Ackerman, driver-trainer of Noble Hustle, stood trackside early one morning and conceded, "This is just an average crop, no superstars, and that includes my horse, I hate to say." Noble Hustle wound up fifth.
Groused one jaded observer, "The only way to make any of these horses go fast is to bathe 'em in gasoline, then set 'em on fire." But in fact the quality of the horses didn't matter so much because nearly everyone had come down with a bad case of nostalgia.
The change in venue from rural Du Quoin to urban Jersey came about primarily because of money. At the Meadowlands the Hambo will be worth $800,000 next year; this year the purse was $293,570, and Du Quoin couldn't promise more than $600,000 for 1980. "Horsemen are whores," said one horseman. "They sleep with the bottom line." There also were members of the governing Hambletonian Society who just didn't care for the inconvenience of having to get to Du Quoin every year. And there were those who didn't like it when the Hayes family, long the gracious custodians of the privately owned Du Quoin State Fair, the setting for the Hambo, sold out last year to Saad Jabr, an Iraqi national. The society's vote to move the race was 12-9, and backers said they were sure it would generate more attention in the media-rich New York area.
Sentiment ran second to logic in making that decision, but sentiment had its day on Saturday. One veteran observer of the sport said, "This is small-town America at its very, very best. They can take the race away from here but they can't take the atmosphere." But if Du Quoin is small-town America at its best, it did little to advance its own cause.
There is no sense in pretending otherwise. Du Quoin, in truth, is a dusty little town of some 7,000 residents whose tomorrows may all be behind it. It is reached by driving to the end of the world, then turning left. The architectural style of the homes is 1940 tacky.
Which makes it lovable to some. Besides, how can you dislike a place where the mayor. Bob Armstrong, wears Oshkosh overalls, smokes a corncob pipe (he bemoans the fact that people with their priorities messed up keep wanting more corn and less cob) and makes $16 a month? "No, no," he corrects. "It's $16 a week. Hellfire, I'm in this for the money." Describing Du Quoin, he says, "We're one of them communities that don't have big events. Don't get me wrong. We change all right, but when we change we remain the same."
Du Quoin has always been a depressed area, with strip mining the key to the economy. The soil is too clayey for good farming. This year, because of heat and drought, there is concern the corn crop may yield only 50 bushels an acre instead of 80 to 100. "If you can make a living in Du Quoin, you'd be a millionaire anywhere else," says Armstrong.
Still, he can't think of one serious community problem. Not even potholes? "Why should that be a problem? We fill 'em." The one problem Du Quoin did have but didn't seem to know it had, was the Hambletonian. "We all assumed," says Armstrong, "that it would be here forever."
That was a serious misjudgment. As Joe Urban, a sales representative who married a Du Quoin girl, says, "This town had one star in its crown and they lost it." So despite great gnashing of teeth as the final Hambo was raced, the fact is the local citizenry had not seriously stirred itself in years to support the event. Attendance of 12,000 or less was routine in stands that seat 18,000. Veteran driver-trainer Delvin Miller, a leading force in moving the race to New Jersey, insists that had a big crowd showed up last year (attendance was 12,242), he would have voted to keep it in Du Quoin.
But the folks of Du Quoin are experts at living with adversity, and if State Representative Ralph Dunn is correct, their way of looking at things is refreshing. "I'd say it was commendable we were able to get the Hambletonian here in the first place and fortunate to keep it as long as we did," he said.
Mayor Armstrong couldn't think of any special civic programs or social events associated with the Hambo. "I might not have been invited to any parties," he said, "but I'd know about them." Upon reflection, he did remember that there is a Hambletonian sign on the outskirts of Du Quoin and that the town stationery reads HOME OF THE HAMBLETONIAN. Du Quoin's leading party giver is Virgie Leach and many people drop by her elegant home during Hambo week. Then again, many drop by her home every week. "People think I'm an idiot," she said, "so they come by to help me."
If there was a lackluster local attitude toward the race ("We don't want to see it go," said a local doctor, "but we're not brokenhearted about it"), it wasn't all the fault of the citizenry. For the fair and the Hambo have always been a Hayes family enterprise. W.R. Hayes, who eventually acquired some 1,500 acres, made big money in the dairy business and as a Coca-Cola distributor. He made the land into a park and invited people to use it for recreation. He put in the track in 1945, and in 1957, several years after his death, his boys got the Hambo to move from Goshen, N.Y., where it had been for 27 years. Dick Grills, a bartender at the fair, said, "We have to be honest. Mr. Hayes brought us the greatest race in the world and we sat on our hands and took it for granted."
But under the direction of W.R. Hayes' grandson, Bill, the huge spread was losing an estimated $250,000 a year. He sold the entire acreage in 1979 and that, coupled with the emotional atmosphere of this last Hambletonian, prompted his wife, Carolyn, to say at midday Saturday, "I'd already cried three times before the national anthem." The playing of the anthem made it four. The Hayeses now live in Aspen.
There was a sense that the populace is feeling some remorse now. But like most remorse, it's too late. One beer drinker down at the St. Nicholas Hotel was saying, "That song is right."
"That one about you don't know what you've got until you lose it."
Across the room, Byron Emrich, 75, said he'd gone to the Hambletonian every year since it came to Du Quoin. "It's a pitiful thing for it to leave," he said. "To see the Hambletonian is the most wonderful thrill in the world. I'm gonna miss it and I'm gonna miss it a lot. I already do."
In the welter of self-examination, any serious talk of the horses in this year's race was drowned out. Oh, sure, there was chatter about Burgomeister and how just right it would be for him to win. But it was only chatter, because nobody knows better than horsemen that reality sets in very quickly on a racetrack.
As for Burgomeister, he was a $16,000 purchase at the Harrisburg yearling sale. Billy Haughton picked him out because "he was a big strong colt that looked like a trotter."
But isn't $16,000 awfully cheap?
"Cheap, sure. That's what I liked the most about him." In fact, Haughton wasn't prepared to go more than another $1,000 to get him—in a day when $100,000 yearlings don't stop shows. Beyond a doubt, Haughton knows his horses; by now Burgomeister has won more than $265,000.
After Haughton spotted the colt as a yearling, he called Marcello Fiorentino, a former New York and Florida restaurateur, to see if he'd like to be Burgomeister's owner. Fiorentino allowed as how he would, but because he knew in advance the feelings of his wife, Ann, would Billy be so kind as to send the invoice to the office? Billy would, except that somehow it went to the Fiorentino home. Marcello got home one evening and found an envelope lying on the kitchen butcher-block counter, catsup poured on it and a knife stuck through it. Ann had made her statement. Ultimately, Peter Haughton—who had declined originally to be a part-owner—begged to be let in on the horse. Today Peter's estate owns 50% and each of the Fiorentinos 25%.
Because there were 19 horses in this year's Hambletonian field, the group was divided into two heats, with the best five in each coming back for a third race. The winner had to take two heats.
It was in the first heat that Tommy Haughton got Final Score, another Haughton-trained colt, with great closing speed but a penchant for breaking, home first in 1:56[3/5]. Says Tommy, "I get advice from my father, like to leave plenty of room so you don't hit no wheels and go down. But he doesn't tell me how to win. He says I'll have to figure it out by myself." Tommy's race strategy was that he had none. In fact, he clocked himself at :59 at the half-mile, and the colt actually had covered the distance in :57[1/5].
In the second division, despite poor racing position for most of the mile, Billy urged Burgomeister home in 1:58. This clearly wasn't a day to be challenging Billy; by day's end he had won four races—although he did in fact lose something, a diamond ring, somewhere out there on the track. Things could have been worse, however. Earlier in the week an observant groom, Pat Troll, had noticed a small crack in a weld on the sulky Burgomeister pulls. A new bike was quickly ordered and it made for a nice safe ride on Saturday.
The decisive third heat was shaping up as a head-to-head Haughton charge for the finish, when Final Score broke stride near the three-quarter-mile post, almost causing Burgomeister to run into him. But Billy Haughton, who didn't become a Hall of Fame driver by correspondence, avoided the trouble, and when he set the colt down for home, it was clear that miracles can happen beyond 34th Street. His time of 1:56[3/5] had Burgy ahead of second-place Devil Hanover by 2¾ lengths. In the final reckoning, Burgomeister was followed by Final Score, Devil Hanover, Nevele Impulse and Noble Hustle. "I hated to see Tom make a break," said Billy, "but I wanted to win so much for Peter." And there were more tears all around.