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Willie had a bunch of records, and then somebody wrote a book about him, and he went on the road (21 cities, 12,000 miles) to promote it. He signed a lot of autographs along the way and collected the keys to several cities. Publishers talked paperback contracts. Producers talked movie deals.
We're talking Willie Nelson here, right? Wrong. We're talking Rambling Willie, a 13-year-old standardbred gelding—in other words, no stock options—who, on Aug. 8 at Sportsman's Park in Chicago, became the richest harness horse in North American history, breaking Niatross' earnings record of $2,019,213 by $5. True, Niatross earned his money in only two years (1979-80), but he raced for much bigger purses than Willie has ever seen.
In April, when Willie was still more than $6,000 short of the record, the Meadowlands tried to lure him from Illinois to New Jersey with promises of megabucks, but his trainer and driver, Bob Farrington, said, "I raced him here most of the time, so it's only right that he breaks the record here." A man of his word, Farrington brought Willie to Sportsman's Park in mid-July—after a three-month layoff because of a bruised foot—and aimed the pacer at the money record. One qualifier and four races later, Willie hit it.
Trouble was, the folks at Sportsman's Park had figured that Willie would break the record on Aug. 1. The track geared up for harness history by promising everyone in the audience a spot in or around the winner's circle and a copy of the winner's circle photo. Look, Ma, that's me in the 40th row. More than 10,000 fans showed up, but, unfortunately, Willie didn't cooperate, finishing fourth. The fans were furious. They booed the winner, Mighty Speed, and his driver, Sterling Buch. "It was my third victory of the day," Buch said, "and you'd think I'd just lost with the favorite. Things got so bad out there that I thought I was gonna get shot. Those fans were really mad. I swear that if I had heard a loud bang, I would have hit the ground, pronto."
A week later, in the fourth race at Sportsman's Park, Willie finally came through. He finished second, by inches, but his purse of $2,050 was just enough to break the money record and earn a winner's circle photo. About 2,000 cheering fans, some carrying placards that read LIFE BEGINS AT 13, rushed onto the track, screaming "I want to touch the horse!" The miracle is that no one was hurt, not even by Willie, who doesn't like to be crowded. But he's game. He endured the half-hour picture-taking session with the same stoicism he has displayed while racing year after year after year.
It's a wonder he's not named Rambling Wreck. His sire, Rambling Fury, was a nobody. His dam, Meadow Belle, was a foul-tempered cripple. He never has been much to look at, and when Farrington, then a six-time national driving champion, forked over $15,000 in cash for him as a 3-year-old, he figured he'd paid $5,000 too much. After all, Willie had earned only $349 as a 2-year-old. Still, Farrington saw something there. Not much, but something. "I needed a horse," he says.
Farrington promptly gave his wife, Vivian, half ownership in Willie as a birthday present. The other half was bought by Paul Seibert of Cincinnati, an old friend and long-time racetracker. By the end of Willie's 3-year-old season, he had picked up $9,524. It was only the beginning. His earnings went up and up, and the records came down. At six he won two legs of the Summer Free For All Series at Yonkers Raceway in New York (setting a world record of 2:29[2/5] for 1� miles in one of the legs), and he was overall winner of the U.S. Pacing Championships. At seven he won the $186,000 Driscoll Series Final at the Meadowlands, the General Mad Anthony (setting his fastest lifetime mark of 1:54[3/5] for the mile) at Brandywine and was named Aged Pacer of the Year for the third consecutive time. He also won the most money he would earn in one year, $397,921. At eight he began to show his age and his earnings dipped to $294,450. In 1979, however, he won $243,420 to become the richest North American harness horse of all time, with $1,367,637. But Niatross later made that figure obsolete.
In the spring of Willie's 11th year, his book came out. It's called Rambling Willie: The Horse God Loved, by Donald Evans and Philip Pikelny. The God part comes from Vivian Farrington, whose father, 92-year-old Rev. C.L. Harris of Rushsylvania, Ohio, brought his children up to believe. And to tithe. For years, 10% of Vivian's share of Willie's earnings went to the Church of Christ in West Mansfield, Ohio, where her father preached. Willie's winnings paid for a new foundation for the church and paved the parking lot.
"Tithing works," says Vivian. "It really works. One time a driver came up to me at the track and asked me what I did for Willie to make him so good. I said, 'Tithing,' and he said, 'Is that all?' "
It certainly seems to have worked for the Farringtons. One day in October 1979, Vivian had a premonition. "When Bob left the house that morning," she says, "something kept telling me to warn him to be careful. But I didn't tell him. Bob doesn't believe in that stuff." That afternoon Farrington broke his back in a training accident, and the doctors feared he'd never walk again. Three weeks later, he walked out of the hospital. "I attribute everything to tithing," says Vivian.