Up in Section 104 at the Meadowlands, Charlie Hill was wearing a flashy red-blue-green-and-yellow-checked sport coat, buying drinks for a couple of rows of friends and new acquaintances, and saying things like, "I believe in heaven above."
The second heat favorite was No No Yankee, the USTA's Two-Year-Old Pacer of 1977, who had been approaching form slowly. Late in 1977 No No Yankee was syndicated for $2.5 million, but this year he had won only two of 10 starts and the syndicate was growing restless. In No No Yankee, Trainer-Driver Walter Ross, 37, had a colt with the ability to upgrade his career. For years Ross scratched out a living working with mediocre horses on the New England circuit until, in 1975, he had the opportunity to train a well-bred trotter named Yankee Bambino. Ross nursed Bambino to the Hambletonian, finished second by the smallest of noses and then had Bambino's owners pull out and hire another horseman. Ross almost quit. Then along came No No Yankee. "I'm just waiting for him to pop," he said over and over. But three days before the Meadowlands Pace, under pressure from No No Yankee's owners, Ross took himself off the colt and hired Ben Webster to handle the driving.
As the starting gate swung open, No No Yankee broke stride, eased 20 lengths behind the pacesetter and lost any chance of qualifying for the final. Starting in the ninth post, Joe O'Brien shot Flight Director to the lead at the quarter pole, allowed Glen Garnsey, behind Abercrombie, to slip in front of him at the half-mile post and then, late in the stretch, charged back at Abercrombie and nailed him by a neck at the wire in 1:56.
"I don't think I can beat him," O'Brien said bluntly of Falcon Almahurst upon entering the winner's circle. "When I beat him last week I was lucky to be in the lead. Tonight he looks tough and the pace might be too strong for me. Of course, I hope I'm wrong."
For his part, Webster found an interesting excuse, claiming that, just seconds before the race, a photographer had walked across the track, leaving a footprint. "When my horse saw the footprint," Webster said, "he jumped like a reindeer."
In the final, Flight Director had the rail and Falcon Almahurst drew wide again, post No. 8. Pacing at full tilt, Race To Win and Courageous Lady battled for the lead past the quarter pole and part way up the backstretch. Then O'Brien swung out from the rail and sent Flight Director past the two leaders, just as Haughton, fourth on the outside, ranged up on O'Brien and drew alongside. Now O'Brien had two options: let Falcon pass and then try to catch him in the stretch, or let out a notch and hang Haughton on the outside all the way around the turn. O'Brien laid back. Haughton took the lead, slowed the pace around the turn, then opened a two-length gap at the head of the stretch. The crowd of 27,965 roared, and up in Section 104 two rows of spectators around Charlie Hill were pounding the railings and shouting, "Go! Go! Go!"
Flight Director was losing ground, but suddenly Abercrombie zoomed up from sixth place and was driving toward Falcon Almahurst. Haughton, rocking in the sulky and whipping righthanded, brought the horse toward the wire. Abercrombie gained no more as Haughton rolled past the finish in 1:55[1/5].
In Section 104, Hill thrust both arms high in the air and began bouncing on his toes. A wave of spectators swarmed around him. Charlie's son Bob elbowed his way through the crowd, hugged his father and kissed him on the nose. "Like I told Billy last year," Charlie said, rushing down a staircase that led to the finish line, "Don't worry about the colt because even if he don't race at all, he'll make enough money next year."