Willie had a bunch of records, and then somebody wrote a book about him, and he went on the road (21 cities, 12,000 miles) to promote it. He signed a lot of autographs along the way and collected the keys to several cities. Publishers talked paperback contracts. Producers talked movie deals.
We're talking Willie Nelson here, right? Wrong. We're talking Rambling Willie, a 13-year-old standardbred gelding—in other words, no stock options—who, on Aug. 8 at Sportsman's Park in Chicago, became the richest harness horse in North American history, breaking Niatross' earnings record of $2,019,213 by $5. True, Niatross earned his money in only two years (1979-80), but he raced for much bigger purses than Willie has ever seen.
In April, when Willie was still more than $6,000 short of the record, the Meadowlands tried to lure him from Illinois to New Jersey with promises of megabucks, but his trainer and driver, Bob Farrington, said, "I raced him here most of the time, so it's only right that he breaks the record here." A man of his word, Farrington brought Willie to Sportsman's Park in mid-July—after a three-month layoff because of a bruised foot—and aimed the pacer at the money record. One qualifier and four races later, Willie hit it.
Trouble was, the folks at Sportsman's Park had figured that Willie would break the record on Aug. 1. The track geared up for harness history by promising everyone in the audience a spot in or around the winner's circle and a copy of the winner's circle photo. Look, Ma, that's me in the 40th row. More than 10,000 fans showed up, but, unfortunately, Willie didn't cooperate, finishing fourth. The fans were furious. They booed the winner, Mighty Speed, and his driver, Sterling Buch. "It was my third victory of the day," Buch said, "and you'd think I'd just lost with the favorite. Things got so bad out there that I thought I was gonna get shot. Those fans were really mad. I swear that if I had heard a loud bang, I would have hit the ground, pronto."
August 28, 1983
A week later, in the fourth race at Sportsman's Park, Willie finally came through. He finished second, by inches, but his purse of $2,050 was just enough to break the money record and earn a winner's circle photo. About 2,000 cheering fans, some carrying placards that read LIFE BEGINS AT 13, rushed onto the track, screaming "I want to touch the horse!" The miracle is that no one was hurt, not even by Willie, who doesn't like to be crowded. But he's game. He endured the half-hour picture-taking session with the same stoicism he has displayed while racing year after year after year.
It's a wonder he's not named Rambling Wreck. His sire, Rambling Fury, was a nobody. His dam, Meadow Belle, was a foul-tempered cripple. He never has been much to look at, and when Farrington, then a six-time national driving champion, forked over $15,000 in cash for him as a 3-year-old, he figured he'd paid $5,000 too much. After all, Willie had earned only $349 as a 2-year-old. Still, Farrington saw something there. Not much, but something. "I needed a horse," he says.
Farrington promptly gave his wife, Vivian, half ownership in Willie as a birthday present. The other half was bought by Paul Seibert of Cincinnati, an old friend and long-time racetracker. By the end of Willie's 3-year-old season, he had picked up $9,524. It was only the beginning. His earnings went up and up, and the records came down. At six he won two legs of the Summer Free For All Series at Yonkers Raceway in New York (setting a world record of 2:29[2/5] for 1¼ miles in one of the legs), and he was overall winner of the U.S. Pacing Championships. At seven he won the $186,000 Driscoll Series Final at the Meadowlands, the General Mad Anthony (setting his fastest lifetime mark of 1:54[3/5] for the mile) at Brandywine and was named Aged Pacer of the Year for the third consecutive time. He also won the most money he would earn in one year, $397,921. At eight he began to show his age and his earnings dipped to $294,450. In 1979, however, he won $243,420 to become the richest North American harness horse of all time, with $1,367,637. But Niatross later made that figure obsolete.
In the spring of Willie's 11th year, his book came out. It's called Rambling Willie: The Horse God Loved, by Donald Evans and Philip Pikelny. The God part comes from Vivian Farrington, whose father, 92-year-old Rev. C.L. Harris of Rushsylvania, Ohio, brought his children up to believe. And to tithe. For years, 10% of Vivian's share of Willie's earnings went to the Church of Christ in West Mansfield, Ohio, where her father preached. Willie's winnings paid for a new foundation for the church and paved the parking lot.
"Tithing works," says Vivian. "It really works. One time a driver came up to me at the track and asked me what I did for Willie to make him so good. I said, 'Tithing,' and he said, 'Is that all?' "
It certainly seems to have worked for the Farringtons. One day in October 1979, Vivian had a premonition. "When Bob left the house that morning," she says, "something kept telling me to warn him to be careful. But I didn't tell him. Bob doesn't believe in that stuff." That afternoon Farrington broke his back in a training accident, and the doctors feared he'd never walk again. Three weeks later, he walked out of the hospital. "I attribute everything to tithing," says Vivian.
Willie's had his share of injuries, too, bowing three times in his left foreleg and once in his right, but he always came back. Farrington says, "People ask me, 'When are you going to retire that horse?' I tell them he's doing what he wants to do. If you were stuck out on a farm, wouldn't you like to jump in a truck and go to town once a week?"
Willie is definitely the traveling type. He visited 21 cities and 20 racetracks on his book tour, accompanied by Joe Campbell, his lanky, amiable groom. The tour started in March 1981 and lasted until early September. Willie made appearances at Macy's in New York, various shopping malls and the National Bookseller Convention in Atlanta; he was even a guest on TV talk shows, although he did little talking.
As for the autographs Willie provided, Campbell says, "I'd lift his foot, put it on the ink pad and then onto the book. But Willie would autograph just so many books. We'd do maybe a dozen, then he'd get tired. When Willie gets aggravated, he can be really mean." Willie wasn't the only one who got aggravated. When the horse stubbornly refused to lift his hoof one more time in Saratoga, a few of his fans got hostile. Says Campbell, "They felt because they went to the expense of buying the book that Willie should autograph it." Campbell finally solved the problem by taking one of Willie's shoes and hand-stamping the books himself.
At Hollywood Park on Oct. 21, 1981, disaster struck. Campbell had just finished jogging Willie when he noticed that he didn't seem right. Soon it was obvious that he was in great pain. The veterinarian diagnosed a twisted intestine and Willie immediately had surgery. "Only 50 percent of horses with a twisted gut survive," says Campbell. Rambling Willie was one of the lucky 50%, and he not only survived, he thrived. On Dec. 26, 1982 the seemingly indestructible Willie became the modern era's winningest racehorse when he scored his 120th victory at Maywood Park, Ill.
The feats go on. Last Wednesday night Willie stood in his stall at the Meadow-lands while Campbell got him ready for the sixth race, The Rambling Willie Tribute Invitational, a mile pace with a purse of $20,000. Willie has gray around his muzzle, his legs look as if somebody had dropped a few doorknobs down them, and he has a chronic sinus condition. Campbell applied Traileze to the horse's nose for the sinus problem, rubbed Grandpa's Salve, a concoction created by Vivian Farrington's father, on his aged legs, hitched up the sulky—and Willie was ready for his 301st race.
Naturally, he won, finishing a neck in front of 9-year-old Alpha Lobell in 1:58 for his 78th two-minute mile—another record—and his 127th career victory. In the winner's circle, Willie was given a cake decorated with a horse and sulky and a driver in the Farrington colors. He licked it tentatively.
Harness-racing rules allow a horse to race through his 14th year, but Vivian said after Willie's win in the Willie, "We're getting ready to retire him. It's getting hard to find a race for him, and we won't put him in claiming races. We don't want to cheapen him." When Rambling Willie does hang up his harness, he'll be shipped to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, which is a kind of living museum for great geldings of all breeds. Forego is there.
But the movie. What about the movie, Vivian? "When the producer came to the racetrack to talk to us about it," she says, "I said my prayers. I thought, if God wants me to make this movie, I'll dream about a horse when I go to bed tonight." That night Vivian dreamed about a field full of horses.