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Because it's the home of the Hambletonian, harness racing's most important event, the quaintly rural Du Quoin (Ill.) State Fair receives far more attention than it would otherwise get. Since it was established in 1923, the fair has been a quixotic venture. After all, it's not the Illinois State Fair, nor is it even the Perry County Fair. It's just sort of a one-man show launched by W. R. (Grandpa) Hayes as a labor of love—and as something to do with the bundle of cash he made selling Coca-Cola and dairy products. Ever since, the fair and its 1,500-acre site have been nurtured—and financed—by one Hayes or another.
Last week, on the eve of the 54th Hambletonian, William R. Hayes II, 41, the latest of four family members to serve as president of the fair, was sitting in the grandstand, surveying his kingdom. "Do you realize," he said, "that for every day of my adult life, I have awakened in the morning with less money than I had when I went to sleep?"
This was his way of explaining why he recently had sold the entire operation and, within a few days, would pack up and move to Aspen, Colo. Nobody particularly wants to talk about the numbers, but it has been reported that the sale price approached $3 million, and that last year Hayes lost $600,000 on the operation. Small wonder, when one considers that it cost $10,000 a month just to keep the grass mowed.
Hayes sold off the family soft drink bottling business in 1969. He even liquidated his racing stable, save for one colt. These actions and others were designed to provide money to support the 11-day fair, its recreational facilities and the Hambletonian, which has been held at Du Quoin since 1957. "It's hard to act rich," says Hayes, "when you're not rich."
Hayes grew up in this gorgeous countryside, he loves it, he went barefoot through it, but he can no longer afford it. Some observers think at 30 Hayes was too young when responsibility for the fair was suddenly thrust upon him as the result of deaths in the family. Whatever the reasons for Hayes' need to sell, many harness-racing folk have been waiting for an excuse to get the Hambo out of Du Quoin and, they hope, into the big time. This may be the moment.
Besides, there are those in the business, especially some members of the 21-member Hambletonian Society that governs the race, who weren't thrilled that Hayes sold out to 49-year-old Saad Jabr, the son of a former Iraqi government official. Naturally, all of them deny any bigotry and puff up in rage when it is suggested. Says Hayes, "Everybody comes from somewhere. That's what America is." For his part, Jabr, who has 21 businesses, ranging from banks to airlines, in England, the Middle East and the U.S., says he detects no animosity. And, he says, harness people should be happy he made the purchase, "because every Arab has a love of horses."
Jabr went to school at Southern Illinois in Carbondale, and he has a home there as well as residences in Beirut and in London. He spends only a couple of months a year in this country. However, he already has his people at work on a multi-million-dollar plan for developing the fairgrounds. He also says he will spend as much as $2.5 million over the next five years to purchase a stable of standardbreds. But don't all these business ventures drive Jabr crazy? "Oh, no," he jokes. "You see, I don't know what is happening in any of them."
As soon as the sale of the fair was announced, the wheels were set in motion to switch the Hambo elsewhere. And last week, three tracks made presentations to the Society.
The first one was Du Quoin, which doesn't intend to let the Hambletonian be taken away without a struggle. The Governor of Illinois, Jim Thompson, showed up to lend authority to the fair's offer to put up a $600,000 purse starting in 1981. It was $300,000 this year, and as recently as 1974 the race was worth only $160,150. Knowing that even 600 grand might be too little, Thompson said, "I think the Hambletonian is more than money. It's tradition and a country fair. We're not a concrete and glass emporium."
Enter the Meadowlands, New Jersey's concrete and glass emporium. Its representatives showed up with Governor Brendan Byrne in tow. It offered $800,000 for the race starting in 1981, plus big media attention.