Saturday night had become Sunday morning, but Johnny Chapman still was seated at a table near the back of the Turf Club at Florida's Pompano Park. For more than an hour harness racing's premier drivers had been stopping by to shake his hand and clink their champagne glasses against his. "Years from now," Chapman said, "I'll probably look back on this night and think how lucky I was to beat these guys. But right now all I'm seeing is a man named Clint Hodgins. Clint is 65 years old, but he's still my hero. He took me to the first motion-picture show I ever saw. I don't remember what it was but it was in Toronto and I was five years old."
At the age of 44, after a quarter century as a harness-racing driver, John Chapman has never won a Hambletonian or a Little Brown Jug. But ask anyone around a trotting track who Chapman is and the answer comes back quickly: maybe the finest catch driver of all time. Last week Chapman added something new to his woefully unpublicized record by beating the finest horsemen in the land in the Florida Drivers' Championship, an event that may do more to nurture the difficult growth of standard-bred racing in the South than anything yet tried.
Over the years any number of gimmicks have been used to bring out the human qualities of harness drivers. International driving championships have been held; the Dancer family has competed against the Filion family; Ms.'s have raced against Ms.'s to see which Ms. was good at a mile. But Pompano's event was something different.
Eight drivers were invited to race for the championship. Glen Garnsey, trainer-driver for Castleton Farm, looked over the list and called it "the Who's Who of Whosedom." When their names are mentioned—Billy Haughton, Delvin Miller, Stanley Dancer, Clint Hodgins, George Sholty, Del Insko, Herve Filion, Chapman—lights brighten in the Hall of Fame of the Trotter at Goshen, N.Y. Collectively, the eight represented more than $87 million in purses earned, 22,000 races won and some 50 victories in the 10 top trotting and pacing races in the land. And, ah, the horses they have driven: Proximity, Adios Butler, Bye Bye Byrd, Lusty Song, Nevele Pride, Super Bowl, Albatross, Belle Action, Dottie's Pick, Race Time, Direct Rhythm, to name but a few.
The eight arrived at Pompano last Friday night to race not for large personal rewards but to pluck some tourist dollars for the sport. In South Florida harness racing has to battle thoroughbred racing, dog racing, jai alai, night clubs, football and exhibition baseball, not to mention fish, sand and sun. So far the struggle has been all uphill.
First through the paddock gate was Filion, who last year won a record 605 races while jumping from track to track as nimbly as a squirrel moves from limb to limb. In 1949 Hodgins led the nation with 128 winners, in 1954 Haughton brought home 153. As recently as 1960 Insko won a championship with 156, but in 1961 Robert Farrington kicked the number over 200 for the first time and then drove it up to an "amazing" 312 three seasons later. No driver topped that until 1968, when Filion won 407. He had 486 in 1970,543 in 1971. In 1972, to win those 605 races, Filion accepted 2,665 mounts—an average of more than seven drives for every day of the year.
"I don't want to win all the races," Filion said at Pompano, "only the ones I'm in. A lot of people asked me if I got tired last year. All I can say is that a man does not get tired when he is doing something he loves. This year I would like to become the first driver ever to win $2.5 million in purses." In 1972 he was close, with $2,473,265.
As Filion spoke, Del Miller entered the locker room. "Herve," Miller said, "this is be-kind-to-old-folks week. Just give some of us oldtimers a chance."
"No pity," said Filion. "Just keep at it. You'll make a success of yourself someday in this game."
"Herve," Miller asked, "how are your mathematics?"