A block up from the stoplight in Rushsylvania, Ohio, the Rev. C. L. Harris, 85, is holding forth on a variety of subjects as he relaxes at home alongside his rolltop desk, the one he bought for $5 in 1926 and which people have been trying to slicker him out of in recent years. He's talking about how he retired from the ministry 15 years ago "because I was tired of people calling me up to tell me somebody was dead." But retirement stopped neither death nor phone calls, so two weeks later, figuring he might as well get paid for dealing with grief, Harris took on another preaching job at nearby West Mansfield Church of Christ.
But most of all, he's talking of a miracle salve he makes and sells—four ounces for $5—which its users swear by. Among the ingredients are red cedar oil, sassafras oil, linseed oil, beeswax and resin. Harris' disciples say it works wonders on poison ivy, arthritis, warts, corns, beestings, burns, ulcers, ingrown toenails, shortness of breath, bad breath, high blood pressure, impetigo and the heartbreak of psoriasis. "My children all knew it did them good," says Harris, "so why wouldn't it help horses?"
Which may be as good an explanation as any for the logic-defying smash success of Rambling Willie, a lazy, ugly and cheap 8-year-old gelding of bad breeding, ill health and nasty temperament. Fifty per cent of him is owned by Rev. Harris' daughter, Vivian Farrington, of Mokena, Ill., who for years has made sure Willie's legs were rubbed with her father's salve. If the salve doesn't work, why do other stable hands keep stealing it from Willie's stall?
Any week now, barring catastrophe, Willie—he's the one over there wrapped in blankets and looking every inch the old man that he is—will get his legs iced and rubbed with the salve, then drag his battered body to the track, beat a bunch of horses, and surpass Albatross' career winnings of $1,201,470. This will make creaky Willie the highest money-winning pacer in history. Having earned $3,000 by finishing fifth at the Meadowlands the other night, Rambling Willie is only $38,283 short of Albatross, who raced from 1970 through 1972 and is now at stud in Pennsylvania.
In fact, only four other harness horses, all of them trotters, have won more money. And if Willie doesn't suffer a crippling injury—he has a bowed tendon in his right fore that could snap at any step—he might surpass two of those: Fresh Yankee, who became a broodmare in 1972 after winning a career $1,294,252, and Savoir, who is still racing but struggling now, with career earnings of $1,310,000. If Willie makes it that far, he will become the richest North American harness horse of either gait. Seemingly beyond his reach are the career earnings of two French horses: the $1,960,945 won by Bellino II, who is retired, and the $1,660,627 won by the deceased Une De Mai.
"There's not a thing wrong with Willie," says trainer-driver Bob Farrington, Vivian's husband, "except old age and too many miles." Indeed, he has started 147 races and finished first 65 times, winning more of those races in under two minutes (39) than any harness horse in history. He's insured for $125,000 (the premium is $4,375 a year) but the Farringtons know there's no replacing Willie. He was gelded as a youngster, owing to his woeful breeding and hostile behavior, which is why he keeps going to the track. Recently Australian interests made inquiries about buying him as a stud. They might have been disappointed in his performance. "Besides," says Farrington, "I'm in this business to get a nice horse. I have one. So why sell?"
Willie has become a folk hero, especially in Chicago. The other night at Sportsman's Park, horse owner Jay Stone said, "Rambling Willie isn't a horse. He's an ideal." Willie is one of those rare horses that exhibit so many human qualities—albeit many of them bad—that people identify with them. Willie seems to offer redeeming hope, not only at the $2 show window where he has paid off like a government bond since 1975, but to just plain folks whose lives are filled with adversity. When Willie is on the track, it's almost as if he is giving a sermon to the masses:
"Never mind if you're ugly like me. Never mind if you ache in the morning and agonize at night. Never mind if life gets tedious and you get cranky. Just remember, when the starting gate in life swings open at the dawn of each new day, break fast, hit the first turn with authority, ignore the bumping, be stubborn down the backstretch, and as you turn for home, never mind if you have to swing wide, for if you give it your all, you will be first like me. And then you, too, will have the Earth and everything that is in it, my son."
If this sounds a bit evangelical, understand that Willie has that oldtime religion; his owner, Mrs. Farrington, gives 10% of her share of his winnings to her father's church—about $58,000 since 1973. "He races better because I tithe," says Vivian.
Yet, sometimes it seems as if it isn't easy to do good in this world. Harris has a number of letters on Willie's contributions to the church stuck in the cubbyholes of the rolltop in Rushsylvania—not all of them complimentary. A man from Oxford, Ala. wrote: "Could you accept money from a house of prostitution or money from a moonshine operation?" The criticism finally put the church on the defensive. In May, its 12-member board voted unanimously not to talk to outsiders about Willie's relationship with the church anymore and recommended that others among the membership of 120 also hold their tongues.