At the Meadowlands in New Jersey on Tuesday, the track was holding the post position draw for Friday night’s $1-million Meadowlands Pace.
Many of harness racing’s leading trainers, drivers and officials were on hand, but the session was anything but festive. “It was more like a wake,” one of them said.
Hours before, it had been learned that Bill Haughton, one of the sport’s greatest drivers, had died at 62 of head injuries he suffered in a spill at Yonkers Raceway July 5.
Haughton, who had remained critical in a Valhalla, N.Y., hospital after an accident in which he was thrown backward, his protective helmet split by the impact of the fall, won more than $40 million and 4,910 races. Six times--in consecutive years, starting in 1953--Haughton led the country in victories and 12 times he was No. 1 in purses, including eight straight years starting in 1952.
Going into this year, only two drivers--Herve Filion and Carmine Abbatiello--had accumulated more purse money than Haughton.
“Billy could have hit $80 million if he hadn’t been such a nice guy and given away drives on so many top horses,” Delvin Miller said Tuesday. Miller, like Haughton, is a member of the sport’s Hall of Fame and was among those who paid tribute to the dead driver at the Meadowlands.
Miller, who turned 73 on the day Haughton was injured, has driven more than 2,400 winners and still occasionally gets into the sulky. Miller and Haughton met at Saratoga Raceway, in Upstate New York, before World War II.
“He was a budding young kid then,” Miller said. “I watched him grow through the years. He meant as much to harness racing as Arnold Palmer did to golf or Babe Ruth did to baseball. He was the best all-around horseman in the history of the sport.”
Haughton’s oldest son, Peter Delvin Haughton, was named after Miller. Peter Haughton, at 25, died in an automobile accident after a night of driving at the Meadowlands in 1980. Peter Haughton had already won 41 stakes races and $6 million in purses.
Tommy Haughton, another of Bill’s sons, could have been the regular driver on Niatross, the greatest horse Bill ever saw. In his only two years of competition, 1984-85, Niatross won 35 of 38 races and earned $3.2 million.
Bill Haughton, who trained Niatross, drove the pacer early in his 2-year-old season. “I’m a split second slower than I used to be,” Haughton said, offering the horse to his son. Tommy, however, favored another horse and Niatross went to Bill O’Donnell, who was in the sulky for 29 of the colt’s wins.
“If O’Donnell hadn’t been available, I probably would have driven Niatross myself,” Bill Haughton said.
Born in Gloversville, N.Y., Haughton was known for his easy-going manner, but as a youngster getting introduced to the sport at fairgrounds around his home state, he was anything but even tempered.
One day, after losing a race, Haughton stormed off the track and began throwing things in the tack room.
Billy Muckle, a veteran horseman, interrupted him. “Before you start doing things you’ll be sorry for, I want you to remember how much the horse and the equipment are worth and how much your life is worth,” Muckle told him. “But most of all, I want you to remember that other days are coming.”
Haughton had many “other days,” the first big one being his win with Chris Spencer, a 12-1 longshot, in the Golden West Trot at Hollywood Park in 1949. To celebrate, he danced the night away with actress June Allyson and others at the Coconut Grove.
Haughton played as hard as he competed. “I remember when he were driving together out in California,” Miller said. “There weren’t many places on the Sunset Strip that we missed.”
But Bob Benoit, former publicist at Hollywood Park, also remembers that Haughton never forgot his family. “Part of the time he was out here, Tommy Haughton was a high school quarterback back east,” Benoit said. “Billy would be on the phone a couple of times a week, asking him how he was doing.”
In a sport that has had more than its share of race-rigging scandals, Haughton was unapproachable. Sometimes, he was too honest to be believed.
At a yearling sale in Harrisburg, Pa., Haughton and Miller both fancied a certain filly. “If you like her so much I won’t bid on her,” Haughton told Miller.
A little later, John Froehlich, a wealthy potato farmer from Long Island, asked Haughton if he’d do the bidding for him on the same filly.
“I can’t,” Haughton said. “I’ve already promised Del that I’d stay away from her.”
Miller bought the filly, whose name would become Delmonica Hanover, for $4,500. Froehlich got another horse in the same sale, named Spartan Hanover, but it cost him $90,000.
After the sale, Miller offered Haughton a half-interest in Delmonica Hanover. “I can’t accept that because I already told Froehlich that I couldn’t help him get her,” Haughton said.
A few years later, Miller’s Delmonica Hanover won the International Trot at Roosevelt Raceway in New York. Beaten by a nose that night was none other than Spartan Hanover. But Bill Haughton had kept his word with everybody.
The race that drew a crowd to the Meadowlands for lunch Tuesday, the Meadowlands Pace, was won by Haughton with Falcon Almahurst in 1978, the second year it was held. Haughton won the Messenger Stakes seven times, the Little Brown Jug five times, and the Hambletonian four times, the last time in 1980, when he was 56, with Burgomeister. That compares with Bill Shoemaker’s victory this year, at age 54, with Ferdinand in the Kentucky Derby.
“Billy was from the same mold as Shoemaker,” Richard Shapiro said Tuesday. “He had tremendous class.”
Shapiro and his family used to operate harness racing at Hollywood Park.
Shapiro will never forget a Hambletonian that Haughton didn’t win, before the race was moved to the Meadowlands from DuQuoin, Ill.
“Billy’s horse that year was Gil Hanover,” Shapiro said. “I got a license to drive horses later, but I didn’t have one yet and I was just a kid. Billy let me jog his horse a couple of days before the race. I couldn’t believe that he would let me handle such an expensive horse before such a big race, but that was the kind of guy he was.”
Haughton’s Hambletonian win with Burgomeister was a bittersweet affair, coming, as it did, just a few months after Peter Haughton, who co-owned and developed Burgomeister, had been killed.
Bill Haughton had dedicated Burgomeister’s season to his late son. “I just wish Peter would have been here,” Haughton said after the Hambletonian.
On July 26, the Meadowlands will race the Haughton Memorial for the sixth time. But that’s a race dedicated to Peter Haughton. Now the Meadowlands will have to plan a race honoring Bill Haughton as well. A lot of tracks around the country will want to follow suit.
Survivors include Haughton’s wife, Dorothy; three sons, William Jr., Tommy and Robert; and a daughter, Holly Ann. The family lives in the Jericho, N.Y., area.
Funeral services are scheduled for Friday morning at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Brookville, N.Y. Burial will follow at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y.