Last Thursday evening, minutes before the start of the championship heat of the Meadowlands Pace, Billy Haughton and Joe O'Brien sat side by side on a rumpled yellow sofa in the drivers' lounge, watching TV. Haughton had won one elimination heat, O'Brien the other. The two men sat silently until Haughton suddenly tapped O'Brien on the knee with his whip and asked, "What were those heats worth, $20,000 or $25,000?"
"Bill," said O'Brien very slowly, "they were worth $140,000 each."
With that, Haughton cracked his whip on the floor, threw his head back and laughed. O'Brien had to smile. Here were two Hall of Fame drivers who had come full cycle. All week long O'Brien had been telling people that he once won all three heats in a free-for-all pace and pocketed $12.75. That was in 1935 at Port Eglin, New Brunswick, where purses consisted of a piece of the gate. And now, at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., where the championship heat alone was worth $280,000, he had Flight Director, one of the favorites in harness racing's richest race, a mile pace for 3-year-olds for a purse of $560,000. As Racing Secretary Joe DeFrank had said, "What the heck, it isn't as if we can't afford it."
Ah, money. This year the Meadowlands is paying out a record $20 million in purses. It has a contract with the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association to do so. The figure is based on the track's projected business, and since the night in 1976 that it first opened its glass doors and its sleek glass-and-concrete grandstand, the Meadowlands' attendance and wagering have been unsurpassed among the nation's harness tracks. But while the Meadowlands has big money, the sport's big events—such as the Hambletonian—are booked elsewhere. So last year DeFrank and General Manager Bob Quigley decided to use a part of the $20 million to inaugurate a major race. The idea was that whatever the Meadowlands Pace lacked in tradition, it would more than make up for with its ungodly purse. Last July, in its inaugural, the purse was $425,000. The plan is to raise the amount to $750,000 next year, to $1 million in 1980—and who knows?—by 1990, they may be competing for the New Jersey Turnpike.
So sweet was the pot that owners eagerly entered horses (at a bargain $6,500 a pop) that seemed more suited to pulling a coach-and-four. One was Steves Flying Bret, an also-ran since April. Another was Say Hello, winless all year and hampered by a breathing problem. There were even more outlandish long shots, such as Wizard Almahurst, a loser by 10 lengths or more in four races in a row, and Race To Win, a winner of two races in 12 starts against weaker pacers and a 108-to-1 plunge the last time he had competed against some of the better horses entered at the Meadowlands. Still, Driver Mack Hayman was steadfast in his belief that Race To Win had a chance. "He's got lots of speed," Hayman said, "and with so many horses anything can happen."
In all, 22 horses were entered, including seven of this year's leading money-winners—Armbro Tiger, Abercrombie, Timelys Best Man, Flight Director, No No Yankee; Falcon Almahurst and Brittany Road. DeFrank was forced to split the Pace into two preliminary heats, the first five finishers in each qualifying for the final. DeFrank had hoped for one race for the whole $560,000, and he made up his mind that next year he would set up qualifying races a week before the Pace to ensure just that.
For bettors, the situation was equally aggravating. Heat racing is so rare at American tracks that horses are never trained to perform at their peak twice in a night. Drawn into a tough heat, a driver might opt to conserve his horse's energy by simply qualifying rather than going all out if winning seems unlikely. Also, the good 3-year-old pacers had been beating each other all year long without establishing a clear favorite. Driver Peter Haughton, Billy's son, assessed the field the day before the race and found many people agreeing with him. "There isn't a horse among them that can cut a mile and expect to hang on at the wire," he said. So the bettors were reading past performances skeptically, much in the way a shopper pokes and picks through a bin of bruised tomatoes.
In the first heat the odds-on choice was Courageous Lady, a filly that had paced the year's fastest mile (1:55[2/5]) but was testing colts for the first time. Courageous Lady left from the 5 post, was pushed hard to take the lead at the quarter pole, then backed off slightly as Billy Haughton edged Falcon Almahurst to the front at the half-mile mark. From there Haughton cruised unchallenged the rest of the way to win in 1:54[2/5]. Billy was pleased. The colt had overcome a difficult No. 9 post, took the lead without being extended and was clocked in the fastest time of the year for a 3-year-old pacer. "He had something left," Haughton said, smiling.
Falcon Almahurst was one of the pre-race favorites. Last year he won his first start by 13 lengths in 1:59 flat, quite a feat for a 2-year-old. But a persistent throat infection, plus an injured stifle, had people wondering about his soundness. "He's still green," Haughton said, "and he's not a robust colt. He's sort of like a kid who is always getting the sniffles." The colt was purchased in 1976 by Charlie Hill, operator of Hill Farms in Hilliard, Ohio, for $150,000, at the time the third-highest price ever paid for a standardbred yearling. Charlie Hill, who is 75, isn't usually one to bid when the board is well lit, but when he watched Falcon Almahurst enter the sales ring, he said, "Somebody up there told me to bid."
Hill Farms is a 460-acre plot outside Columbus that thrives on breeding standardbreds. Right now the farm houses five stallions, 54 broodmares and 59 weanlings and yearlings. Hill has two horses in training, including Falcon Almahurst. But in 40 years of owning and racing horses, Hill had yet to be close in a major race.