I'll tell you what this win means to me," said Billy Haughton last Saturday in Du Quoin, Ill., just after he had won a record-tying fourth Hambletonian. But as he flicked his whip at the dirt, the tears that had come to his eyes found their way to his cheeks and he couldn't complete the sentence. Which, of course, completed the sentence.
Haughton, one of harness racing's most eminent drivers, had won in straight heats with a colt named Burgomeister—trained, half-owned and driven last year by his son, Peter, 25, who was killed seven months ago in a car wreck near the Meadowlands track in New Jersey. "Peter just loved this colt," Billy whispered. "He thought he was the best." The tragedy has put deep sorrow in Haughton's laughing eyes. "Everybody tells me it will get better," he said. "It just gets worse."
As a result of the car accident, the sport lost its brightest rising star, a young man who already had won 571 races and $6.4 million in purses; Billy lost not only a son but also his business partner and his buddy. Now Haughton was silent. Nearby, his wife, Dottie, said softly, "This was Peter's day."
It was Peter's Day. The record crowd of 18,000 roared every time Burgomeister got a call. And Billy drove like a man possessed, which he was. Burgomeister had no choice but to win; both Billy and the emotional crowd had willed it so.
Indeed, the whole day was a crazy quilt of emotion on a steaming afternoon in southern Illinois. Not only did Billy Haughton do what everyone wanted by winning the sport's most prestigious race with Peter's horse, but another Haughton son, Tommy, 23, won one heat of the Hambo, the youngest driver ever to do so. And after 24 years, this was the very last time the race would be held in Du Quoin. Next year it will move to the Meadowlands. When bugler Kenneth (Pete) Pierson, 67, put his trumpet to his lips for the Hambletonian's last call in Du Quoin (actually it's a recording, but Pierson fakes it admirably), there were tears in his eyes. "This is bad, real bad, awful bad," he said. There was enough crying going on to fill a Sea of Regret.
Until the Haughton blitz, the race itself had generated little interest. That's because this group of 3-year-old trotters was considered only average, at best. Even horsemen, who as a group tend to overpraise their animals, were subdued. Doug Ackerman, driver-trainer of Noble Hustle, stood trackside early one morning and conceded, "This is just an average crop, no superstars, and that includes my horse, I hate to say." Noble Hustle wound up fifth.
Groused one jaded observer, "The only way to make any of these horses go fast is to bathe 'em in gasoline, then set 'em on fire." But in fact the quality of the horses didn't matter so much because nearly everyone had come down with a bad case of nostalgia.
The change in venue from rural Du Quoin to urban Jersey came about primarily because of money. At the Meadowlands the Hambo will be worth $800,000 next year; this year the purse was $293,570, and Du Quoin couldn't promise more than $600,000 for 1980. "Horsemen are whores," said one horseman. "They sleep with the bottom line." There also were members of the governing Hambletonian Society who just didn't care for the inconvenience of having to get to Du Quoin every year. And there were those who didn't like it when the Hayes family, long the gracious custodians of the privately owned Du Quoin State Fair, the setting for the Hambo, sold out last year to Saad Jabr, an Iraqi national. The society's vote to move the race was 12-9, and backers said they were sure it would generate more attention in the media-rich New York area.
Sentiment ran second to logic in making that decision, but sentiment had its day on Saturday. One veteran observer of the sport said, "This is small-town America at its very, very best. They can take the race away from here but they can't take the atmosphere." But if Du Quoin is small-town America at its best, it did little to advance its own cause.
There is no sense in pretending otherwise. Du Quoin, in truth, is a dusty little town of some 7,000 residents whose tomorrows may all be behind it. It is reached by driving to the end of the world, then turning left. The architectural style of the homes is 1940 tacky.