Around Detroit's Hazel Park racetrack Bea and Chuck Farber are something of a mystification. They win a lot of races, which isn't by itself all that unusual. The thing about the Farbers is that they do it with a stableful of unclassy horses and training methods that baffle fellow horsemen and astonish some of them. "Their horses are small, shaggy-looking claimers," says veteran Driver Joe O'Brien. "They don't cool them out. They don't even remove the bridles between trips when they train. After a race, the horse jumps into a trailer to go home, and he'll stand there while they stop someplace for a hamburger. Now, I ask you: How can anybody win doing that?"
Nevertheless, the Farbers win. Often. This season Bea could be en route to a half-million-dollar year. Apart from being the top woman driver in the country, during her nine-year career she has driven some 40 sub-two-minute miles and has a lifetime driving percentage of .386, both women's records.
Nine years ago hardly anyone in harness racing even knew the Farbers. Chuck was a struggling trainer-driver and Bea was a legal secretary, a job she left to pursue her lifelong interest in horses. "I bought a standardbred, which I originally intended to turn into a jumper," she says, "but he could trot so fast under a saddle that someone said, 'Why don't you race him?' It gave me ideas." Bea met Chuck when she sold him a pacer. "Our marriage is as much a business convenience as anything else," she says, "and it's worked out."
Indeed it has. At the start of the Farber partnership, Chuck did all the driving, which didn't prevent Bea from handing out advice. "Finally he teased me into getting my license," she says, "and I won the first race I drove." Chuck Farber is a man of few words. "Bea gets more speed from a horse," he says. "She's the better driver, so now she drives everything." But she only drives the Farbers' horses. "Sure, I could make more money driving for other people, too," she says, "but Chuck feels that catch-driving interferes with our work. Of course, in the beginning, the extra money would have helped. But in the beginning, nobody else would have wanted me."
In 1970, her first year driving, Bea Farber brought in $1,274 ("Now I get more than that just for appearing in a Battle of the Sexes promotion," she says). Last year she earned almost $400,000. She has been winning more than one-quarter of her starts. "That's why everybody gets so upset with us," she says. "The reason I win so many is that I'm familiar with our horses, and they're all so well-trained."
Well-trained? The Farber standardbreds have to be the ultimate free spirits of horsedom. Some 30 of them, those in training, are kept in a field on their tiny 80-acre farm in Brighton, Mich. They drink from a pond and roll in the dirt. "The ones at home like to wait up by the gate for any of the others that have a race," says Bea. And when the trailer pulls up at 2 a.m., returning from Hazel Park, several horses whinny and greet the returning heroes, who promptly clatter off the trailer and join them in the darkened pasture.
The Farbers' 2-year-olds do not race, thus escaping the pressures put on Grand Circuit horses. "Heck, they eat rabbit pellets and green apples," says one trainer. "Those people don't even have stalls in their barn." True. The Farber barn is for heavy equipment—backhoes, tractors and such—"Chuck's toys," Bea describes them.
The barn also houses a pair of treadmills. "Treadmills are great devices to train horses on," says Bea. "A horse will really fly when he comes off one." They have to fly in the Farber training regimen, because there is no track at the farm. Each morning, Bea Farber loads up five or six horses, hauls them the 35 miles to Hazel Park, drives each animal four miles, then hauls them back home.
All Farber horses wear the same sort of plain aluminum shoes, the blacksmithing being done by Chuck. "He always says, 'Let the feet fit the shoes, they'll get used to them,' " says Bea. "And of course, everybody in Michigan knows the kind of shoes our horses wear; they all pick up their hooves to see if that's where the winning secret is."
Bea Farber does not invest heavily in the usual harness racing frills. "You won't see any of those fancy $275 tack trunks around Farbers'," says one groom. "They might bring a bucket of swamp water and a few towels from home, and maybe a scrub brush to dust a horse with, if he's racing."