Suppose you're a harness racing driver, a Hall-of-Famer who's one of the two or three most successful whips the sport has ever seen. Suppose, too, that the sport's grandest race is only a few days off and, though you've won the event a record-equaling four times, you're without a horse to drive. And suppose that you're part owner of a colt given a fair chance of winning, but the horse already has a driver—and that driver is your son. What do you do? And what do you do if on the day entries are required and drivers are named, your son comes up to you and says, "Dad, maybe you better do the driving"?
If you're Billy Haughton, and the horse is Speed Bowl and your son's name is Tommy, what you do is say, "No way. Son, this fella is yours."
Such was the scene last Tuesday morning at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Tommy said O.K., Dad. Four days later, in the most important of all trotting races, the Hambletonian, 25-year-old Tommy Haughton climbed into the sulky and drove Speed Bowl to victory in two straight heats. Few horsemen at the track could have been other than thrilled for the Haughtons, especially for Billy, who has put so much into the sport. "I've raced for $2 million without a care in the world compared to today," he said. "I've had my share of glory and I'm tickled for Tommy."
That Tommy ever got behind a sulky at all is a tribute to Billy—and to Tommy's older brother, Peter. Tommy Haughton grew up loving pigskin, not horseflesh. As a high school senior in Oyster Bay, N.Y. he was an all-county quarterback. Paul Soldner, a family friend and onetime professor of veterinary medicine at Ohio State, even sent films of Tommy to Woody Hayes. Soldner says Hayes told him, "The kid's terrific, but there just isn't enough of him." So the 5'10", 155-pound Haughton enrolled at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) State, where he knew he could play. In the summer, looking for a job, Tommy went to work for the Haughton stable, but as a groom. That was in 1977.
August 15, 1982
By then Peter Haughton had already begun to emerge as one of the brightest young driving and training stars in harness racing. And Peter and Billy had become inseparable, not only as father and son but also as friends, as two men who respected each other's skills and enjoyed each other's company. When Peter was killed in an automobile accident in January 1980, Billy took it hard. He still tears up at the mention of Peter. Before the tragedy, horses were a hobby for Tommy. After it, he dedicated himself entirely to the sport. "I think of my brother a lot, especially on days like today," Tommy said after winning the Hambletonian. "I asked him to give me a little help."
After 24 years in the state fair setting of Du Quoin, Ill., this was the second year that the Hambletonian was raced at the Meadowlands, an ultramodern track located just a few furlongs from New York City. The backdrop is glass and steel now instead of prize mules and carny barkers, and horsemen and fans are still debating whether the move was a wise one. It was made to gain additional exposure for the event. Still, the inaugural race in New Jersey attracted only 20,677 spectators. Last Saturday, under bright sunny skies—a vast improvement over last year's rain—attendance increased to only 23,153. Echoing the sentiments of many, groom Odell Short said, "At Du Quoin the Hambletonian was special. Here it's just another race."
To be fair, the Meadowlands is trying. Again the track hired an advertising agency to saturate the area with word of the race in newspapers and on TV. The track also scheduled a leg of the U.S. Pacing Championship on the Hambletonian card. That meant an appearance by Genghis Khan, who in June had paced a world record for aged horses, 1:52⅘ and is easily the sport's biggest draw. (He won the race in a sizzling 1:53.) "We did everything right," said Allen Gutterman, the track PR. director. "We'll just keep on doing it and wait for the fans."
At least the horsemen at the Meadowlands are benefiting. This year the Hambletonian purse was a record $875,000, though the race would draw entries if it had no purse at all. As Billy Haughton said after he had won the $300,000 Oliver Wendell Holmes Pace behind McKinzie Almahurst on Thursday night, "This one's for the money. But the Hambletonian is for pride."
As an owner of Pony Stable—along with Soldner, Max Hempt, Bowman Brown and Dale and Floyd Miller—Haughton began thinking of the 1982 Hambletonian almost two years ago when, at the Standardbred Horse Sale in Harrisburg, Pa., the group paid $58,000 for a skinny yearling colt named Sebastian Hanover. He was renamed Speed Bowl after his sire, Super Bowl, the 1972 Hambletonian winner. "We had about $60,000 to spend and there were several horses that we liked better, but they all went by us on price," Billy says. "Speed Bowl was the last one left."
For a while it seemed they would have been lucky if Speed Bowl had gone by them, too. Slow to get into gear, Speed Bowl usually finds himself far back in the pack, and though he can brush—turn on a burst of speed—he has usually done so too late. In seven 1982 starts before the Hambletonian, the colt had won only one race. A few months ago, standardbred syndicators Morty Finder and Lou Guida worked up a deal to package Speed Bowl. But a vet took one look at the colt's gait and declared him unsound. The deal fell through. Still, Speed Bowl had a tremendous finishing kick. Last year at Du Quoin, against top 2-year-olds in the two-heat Hayes Trot, Speed Bowl came on from 11th place and again from 15th to win. This year he started to show Hambo form at the Founders Cup at Vernon Downs four weeks ago, when he finished a fast-closing second in each of his two heats, missing both times by only a neck. By then, Billy was sure he didn't fit the horse. Each time he had driven Speed Bowl, the colt balked and broke. But Tommy had done an excellent job of keeping the colt trotting. In six races with Tommy driving, Speed Bowl never went off gait. "Whatever it is I do wrong," Billy said, "Tommy doesn't do it."
To win the Hambletonian a colt must finish first in two one-mile heats. This year there were 22 entries, split into two 11-horse divisions. The first was won by Jazz Cosmos in 1:57⅗ an upset made possible in part because Delvin Miller's speedy colt Arndon, the odds-on favorite, broke after turning home on the lead. In the second division, Speed Bowl was up against Mystic Park, a colt that had won 10 of 13 races this year. Like Arndon, Mystic Park went right to the lead and, like Arndon, he broke stride. Speed Bowl, a distant 10th at the half, came sizzling down the lane to win the heat by 5¾ lengths in a snappy 1:56[4/5].
The top five finishers from each division returned for a third heat, with both Jazz Cosmos and Speed Bowl in a position to wrap it all up. A win by any other horse would have brought a fourth mile, contested by the three heat winners. Mickey McNichol, Jazz Cosmos' driver, got into his sulky and said to his colt, "C'mon, boy. Let's not make this a long afternoon."
It wasn't. Jazz Cosmos shot out on the lead and, surprisingly, Haughton hustled Speed Bowl up behind him. With McNichol cutting extremely fast fractions, the colts stayed that way until midway down the stretch. There, Haughton tipped Speed Bowl to the outside to challenge the leader. For an instant Speed Bowl bobbled, almost going off stride. But the colt collected himself quickly. Haughton leaned back in the sulky and blew past Jazz Cosmos with ease, winning by a neck in 1:57 flat.
The Haughton victory spoiled the day for those horsemen who had come to the track hoping for other outcomes. One was that 69-year-old Miller—Mr. Harness Racing—would win the second Hambletonian of his long career. Miller was sure Arndon had come up to the Hambletonian perfectly fit, and after the colt came apart in his heat, he was grim. Frank O'Mara, Mystic Park's 50-year-old driver, also felt he had failed despite having his best horse ever. "We'll go back to work in the morning," O'Mara said, "but it won't be quite the same."
Most dejected of all, perhaps, was McNichol, to whom a win in the Hambletonian would have been the crowning chapter of a Horatio Alger story. McNichol, 33, was a kid from the Bronx who made it from groom to meet-leading driver all on his own. After Jazz Cosmos won his heat, McNichol's hands were trembling. "This just proves you don't have to be from the farm to be a good horseman," he said proudly. In the finale, McNichol and Jazz Cosmos had the lead with no more than 20 jumps to go. "I heard Tommy coming," he said afterward. "I knew his horse could outstep me. Close as the finish was, there was nothing I could do." Then, trying hard to sound casual, he added, "But, hey, as Delvin says, 'Second money isn't bad.' "
In the winner's circle, several spectators were shouting at Tommy, begging him to hand over his whip, as often happens after a race. But Tommy turned his back to them, slid the whip under his colors and jogged off. A step behind him was Billy Haughton, wearing a smile you'd never forget.